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‘Forest bathing’ renews the spirit



How a Japanese antidote for stress relief can engage our senses

By Nancy Hall-Berens | Presbyterians Today

When the unit next door to ours was being renovated, we could hear all sorts of pounding, drilling and demolition. One day when it felt like a giant dentist drill inside my head, I headed out to a public garden for a little peace and quiet. On the drive there, I heard a piece on public radio about forest bathing or, as it is sometimes called, forest therapy.

Forest bathing began in Japan in the 1980s as a response to a spike in stress-related illnesses due to overwork. Nature trails were created for respite. But forest bathing isn’t just a walk in the park. Forest bathing often relies on trained guides, who set a deliberately slow pace and invite people to experience the pleasures of nature through all of their senses. The practice has been growing globally, especially as the pandemic has made being outdoors more enticing. In the United States, the number of forest bathing clubs has also been on the rise.

When I finally arrived at the garden, I decided to explore the forest bathing I had just learned about on the radio. With the idea of being there to “soak” in nature, I found a secluded bench under a tree. I could hear all sorts of sounds, so I decided to decipher exactly what I was hearing. I divided the sounds into human and nature — from babies to bumblebees and from cars to crickets. I was beginning to experience the outdoor space with all of my senses. I was enjoying the sight of the trees. I was hearing a myriad of human and natural sounds mingling together. I was smelling the flowers that were so sweet I could taste them. I could feel the warmth of the sun touching my skin. Eventually, I could feel the wooden bench slats I sat upon getting harder!

I began thinking a better term for forest bathing might be “soul bathing” — a cleansing of the mind and spirit by being immersed in the natural world. Naturalist John Muir once wrote, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” I’ve known this quotation since high school and only now realize that I have been practicing forest bathing without knowing it was a thing.

While I was seeking quiet that day, I instead began intentionally listening to the sounds around me rather than trying to block them out. I began wondering, “How well do we really hear everything going on around us?”

Sometimes in life we need to stop what we are doing, what we are thinking and what we are saying, and listen. I imagine that this world would be a better place if we paid more attention to what others were saying. We can practice by slowing down, listening to the natural world and doing a little forest bathing, forest therapy or, what I like to call this spiritual practice, soul bathing. For when we do, maybe, just maybe, we will learn to listen better to one another as well.

Nancy Hall-Berens is the director of Congregational Life, Singles and Women’s Ministries at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Put into practice

  • Forest bathing is not restricted to being in a forest. It can be in your own backyard, at the beach, watching the sun set over a lake or even sitting atop a mesa as Nancy Hall-Berens experienced while at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Find a spot outside where you can sit without interruptions and listen to what’s around you.
  • Make time in your week to walk in nature. Stop along the way for a “bath” to steep yourself in nature. This is something Hall-Berens and her husband started doing during the pandemic.
  • Empty yourself of what is weighing on you and soak in the beauty of God’s Creation with all five senses. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste?
  • Breathe deeply. Say a prayer. Give thanks to God for this beautiful world.
  • The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy is a great place to learn more. Log on and start learning at

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