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Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Forest bathing and why it’s so hard—and so good—to slow down. 

It was World Mental Health Day this weekend, and our team celebrated by slowing down a little, heading outside, and taking inventory of ourselves and how we’re feeling. Like most people, we typically rush through life, and that includes much of our time outdoors too—skiing, trail running, biking, paddling, backpacking … all the stuff we like is centered on forward movement, often at delightfully brisk speeds. On top of that, we typically have our phones along. Often, with music in headphones or friends filling the time with conversation.

Our time outside is fun and good exercise, but it’s almost never quiet. And it’s almost always goal-oriented. Hike to a lake, climb a route, hit your Strava PR on a bike loop.

This weekend, realizing that our hurried, overstimulated, goal-saturated lifestyles don’t necessarily help our mental health, we revisited the idea of “forest bathing”. It’s become a trendy term in recent years, and to be honest, it was one we rolled our eyes at a bit. Because we didn’t really know what it meant.

But, it turns out, forest bathing is just the ticket to soothe our stress-addled minds and unravel the hairballs of anxiety clogging our brains.

Photo by David Bruyndonckx on Unsplash

What is forest bathing really? 

At first, we figured it just meant time outside. Which we get a lot of!

Upon closer inspection, forest bathing is a Japanese practice, shinrin-yoku. And what it really means is to take time in the woods to be quiet, connect with nature, and pursue zero goals other than being present. Which means you don’t take your phone or music with you, you don’t pass the time talking to anyone, you don’t even walk to a particular destination.

You kinda just go into the forest and stroll and sit. Do some deep breathing. Really look at the trees, look at the sky, look at the dirt. Check out just how intricate all the things are that you don’t typically notice amid the blur of your after-work bike ride—the texture of an aspen’s bark, the way its leaves flutter and shimmer in the light like a school of fish, the dirt around its roots, crawling with little critters and knit together with mushroom mycelium.

You can notice all that, take it in, and … catch yourself reaching for your phone to snap a nice Insta story pic.

Hiking without your phone (for our generation anyway) is oddly hard. Unsettlingly hard. You’ll reach for it about 27 times, only to remember you intentionally left it.

Then you’ll sit down on a rock, take a deep breath, notice the beautiful colors of the granite beneath you ... and start thinking about your grocery list. Another bump in the meditative road! Get back to present.

Relaxing is harder than it sounds.

What happens when you forest bathe?

Just by hanging out in nature, paying attention to your forest instead of your phone, you lower your blood pressure, lower your heart rate, and lower your stress hormone levels. Not only does your body appreciate these physiological changes, but your mind gets a nice boost too. It can help you feel less anxious, less depressed, and even less angry.

It doesn’t have to be World Mental Health Day for you to give it a try. 

Whatever else we’re dealing with in our lives, we figure it’s always a good time to feel less stressed out and anxious. And you don’t need a full-fledged forest to do it … whatever natural environment is nearby can do the trick. Just make sure you’re focusing on the cool sensory details of your surroundings, taking some time to breathe, and sitting or strolling with no destination in mind.

Next time you can go back to your regularly scheduled heart-rate-redlining, friend-filled outdoor activities. But your heart might be a little healthier going into it than they were before.

Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.


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