It may sound like a hangover from the hippie era but forest bathing is being used to treat everything from stress and insomnia to depression. Anne Fullerton tries tree-hugging in the middle of New York City.
I’ve never really felt north. That’s the first thing to cross my mind when Oskar, a softly spoken Swede, instructs me to close my eyes and turn towards the direction that my body believes to be correct. “No responses are wrong,” he enthuses (but I do a quick mental calculation just to be safe). After we’ve experienced each point of our internal biological compass, we’ll whisper our worries to a small rock and set off across New York’s Central Park to caress the grass, study the shadows and taste the air – all at a snail’s pace. We haven’t ingested any mind-altering substances but we are trying to change our consciousness, “greening out” in the most wholesome way possible.
Oskar and Nicole, my guides from Treebath, describe forest bathing as “a guided, loosely meditative sensory experience through the woods”. At first it sounds a little silly – and looks it, too, based on the reaction of an elderly man eyeing us from a nearby park bench. But scientific evidence that the practice has a marked impact on health is nothing to giggle at. One study found that just 40 minutes of forest bathing lowered the stress hormone cortisol, while another revealed that a single day of forest bathing raised the number and functional activity of cancer-fighting proteins found in participants’ blood for an entire week. Shinrin-yoku, meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”, has been a cornerstone of the Japanese healthcare system since 1982 (there are currently 62 government-designated therapeutic woods in Japan).
New York's Central Park is a green haven amid the concrete jungle
“Trees give off phytoncides, a substance released by the plant’s immune system to fight off disease, bugs and germs,” explains Nicole. “When humans breathe those in, they have a similar effect on us in terms of boosting cancer-fighting white blood cells.” That much-imitated pine and cedar scent is phytoncides in action. Add the soothing influence of being outdoors and the meditative nature of forest bathing, which prioritises mindfulness over miles per minute, and you have a recipe for a turbocharged Zen-like experience.
Treebath runs classes for adults and children in parks across Manhattan and Brooklyn, with a typical adult session lasting about two hours. (There’s also a 75-minute express option – it’s New York, after all.) One of the world’s biggest concrete jungles is an unexpected place for forest bathing to flourish but the hurried pace and urban environment are precisely why Oskar and Nicole chose to set up here – the need is greatest in places where people don’t naturally get to spend time outdoors.
Which brings me back to the rocks. After focusing on each of the five senses, we’re invited to share our observations with the group, moving around the circle in a process referred to as “council”. One by one, we take turns holding the Speaking Rock. I feel rising panic as the stone makes its way from a petite blonde with impressive yoga arms towards me. “I, uh... noticed how many different kinds of grass there are. And how bumpy the ground is,” I offer. Oskar and Nicole smile encouragingly but it’s hard not to feel self-conscious saying something so inane out loud – however, that’s exactly the point.
Trees give off phytoncides, a substance released by the plant’s immune system to fight off disease, bugs and germs.
“To have this opportunity to say what you noticed openly and without any judgement is a way to validate your own experience,” says Nicole. The couple say kids tend to be much more comfortable with the sharing element. “Children already operate, for the most part, in this liminal creative space; for them, it’s second nature,” adds Nicole. “For adults, it’s more a case of returning to that ability to look, feel and notice without judgement, to go back to that simple place of sensory perception.”
Each of us is handed our own rock and instructed to whisper our worries to it – a kind of symbolic talisman for our everyday concerns. “I’m worried I won’t be able to think of any good observations,” I say, rubbing the stone between thumb and forefinger. We make our way to the Ramble, a winding maze of paths in the wooded area of Central Park, stopping to observe whatever interests us on our psychic journey. At first it’s a struggle to keep the mandatory slow pace but around the five- minute mark I start to get into the swing of things – or out of them, as the case may be. “Hmm, what a crunchy leaf,” I think, crushing foliage underfoot. “What a pretty caterpillar.” Then I stumble on meditative manna in the form of a small squirrel frantically investigating some fallen leaves. It feels like cheating. I mean, squirrels are objectively delightful.
After a gratefulness mantra, we cast the worry stones into a creek, watch the ripples disappear and settle into a secluded spot among the rocks to drink mint tea, eat wild raspberries and reflect upon the experience. I ask Oskar and Nicole about the state of forest bathing in the Western world. “I think it’s at the same point that meditation was 30 years ago,” says Oskar. Both have scientifically backed benefits, both originated in the East and, in both cases, Western cultures were slow to catch on. “Spending mindful time outdoors is not really a new trend, though; it’s more like something we used to have that we lost,” adds Oskar. “Today, people are slaves to the screen; this is the indoor generation.”
He has a point. In an age of constant connectivity, perhaps we’ve lost touch with one of the most important relationships we have. Forest bathing speaks less to a desire for New-Age treatments and more to a hankering for something ancient, essential and deeply human. I, for one, look forward to the day I visit a doctor and am prescribed a long walk in the woods.