Forest Bathing: A Dose of Nature

Kelly Nicholson  |   Thursday Sep. 1st, 2022

I woke up this morning in a shady, creekside campground south of Red Lodge, and finally realized why I’ve been feeling down the last few weeks: I’ve been spending too much time inside. The summer heat has made me lethargic; my packed schedule has made adventure planning complicated, and I’m a little tired of doing everything alone. A night in the woods was exactly what I needed to snap out of my early-August funk.

As I drink a mug of coffee at the provided picnic table, listening for black bear movement and watching squirrels investigate the tires on my old station wagon, I can’t help but take deep breaths full of sap-tinged air, and smile. I drove out here on a whim yesterday. I had gone a bit stir-crazy during my isolation with the virus-that-shall-not-be-named, and desperately needed to get out of town, so I consulted my trusty Montana atlas and started driving. As I turned onto Highway 78 in Columbus, I was thrilled to see that the Beartooth Mountains weren’t obscured by wildfire smoke, and I joyfully coasted through the foothills under their lazy gaze.

​Having emptied my cup of that life-affirming magic bean juice, I stood and stretched my arms toward the branches overhead. That felt good, so I bent to touch my toes. That felt even better. I spent the next ten minutes or so moving my body, noticing my muscles lengthen and relax. Most days I get caught up in shuffling from one place to another and don’t make the time to stretch; I vowed to do better just as a hummingbird rushed by. I often joke that I am hummingbird in human form, so the significance of the visit was not lost on me.

​Stretching is just one method of relaxation: yoga, meditation, breathwork, and journaling are also proven ways to lower stress levels and lighten life’s sometimes-heavy load. I have tried all of them, but sometimes it’s everything I can do to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. And sticking to a regular practice? Yeah, right. You might as well ask that hummingbird to just sit still and let flowers fall onto its long, narrow beak. It’s against my nature, and an immense struggle.

​While I lack the ability to routinely sit still, I am not without effective means of relaxation, restoration, and rejuvenation. Sitting at that picnic table in the Custer National Forest with dragonflies and butterflies dancing around me in the morning light, I was absolutely transfixed, and I was able to let my mind wander with minimal fidgeting or external distractions.

​To those in the know, this sounds a lot like “forest bathing,” or shinrin-yoku, the Japanese practice of intentionally absorbing the forest’s atmosphere through one’s senses. Forest bathing is simply spending unstructured time in nature away from technology; you can forest bathe wherever there are trees. Spending time outside has clear physical and psychological benefits for everyone, and there is a growing body of research showing that people who spend time in nature have lower levels of stress and anxiety, and an increased ability to pay attention. In children, unstructured free time in natural environments is critical to development, promoting creativity, imagination, and empowerment. Nature is a powerful in many ways!

If you’re feeling out of sorts right now, here are some beginner-friendly forest bathing steps:

-Find a safe, comfortable location with a dense stand of trees
-Turn off electronic devices; better yet, leave them behind
-Engage your senses: listen, look, feel, smell
-Walk slowly and stop often

​I’m writing this piece from the public library in Red Lodge, and when I’m done, I’m heading back into the woods. That beautiful little creek I camped next to last night will be an amazing place to beat the heat and enjoy some snacks. I can picture the creek’s moss-covered stones in my mind, bathed in cool, clear mountain water, and I think I’ll join them.

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