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What is forest bathing?

Posted 3:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022

UWL student Paige Coleman sits on a wooden structure that students in a recreation management course added for quiet time and meditation among the pines on the Hickory Trail. This designated area for forest therapy is less than 1 mile into the woods on the Hixon Forest trail.

Learn about forest bathing and its benefits

UW-La Crosse Assistant Professor Namyun Kil, a certified forest therapy guide, answers common questions about the practice of forest bathing, also frequently referred to as forest therapy, nature therapy or, in Japanese, shinrin-yoku. 

What is forest bathing?  

Forest bathing is the practice of immersing oneself outdoors while using multiple senses such as sight and touch to reconnect. The idea that originated in Japan in the 1980s. ‘Shinrin-yoku’ means forest bathing.  

Forest bathing involves slow, mindful sensory connection activities that typically occur for about two hours within a mile or less of walking, but it can occur in as little as 10-15 minutes or longer term such as days or weeks.  

Where do you do forest bathing?

A forest isn’t the only place to do forest bathing. A park, yard, botanical garden or other natural area also works.

Forest bathing, also called forest therapy, can occur on land-based locations such as hiking and biking areas, as well as water-based areas for canoeing, kayaking, or fishing. Spaces range from primitive wilderness to urban settings such as urban forests or parks. It typically occurs in natural areas that are relatively easily accessible to individuals. Examples of outdoor areas for forest bathing include: 

  • Forests
  • Parks
  • Yards with a plant(s)
  • Botanical gardens (arboretum)
  • Along a creek, pond or river
  • Deserts

Can you do forest bathing indoors?  

Yes, people can engage in the nature immersion experience indoors such as inside a home or hospital room as long as nature elements exist, or an individual can observe nature outdoors through a window. This is called indirect or vicarious nature immersion experiences (indoor ecotherapy). 

What is the difference between forest bathing and forest therapy? 

Members of the public join UWL Visiting Scholar Won Sop Shin for forest therapy in 2019 in Hixon Forest in La Crosse.

Forest bathing, forest therapy and nature therapy, are all ways of connecting with nature, oneself and other individuals. Nature therapy is more encompassing simply because its name, ‘nature’ includes forested environments. Forest therapy has more healing oriented purposes than forest bathing because forest therapy is more targeted at curing specific health issues among individuals, which can be typically structured by a guide, similar to the role of a therapist. Thus, forest therapy is more purpose driven than forest bathing, although both are intended to improve health and well-being. 

How do you forest bathe?  

While forest bathing you are encouraged to focus on your sense one at a time such as touching a fallen leaf to feel the rough texture.

There are many ways to start and end forest bathing. The most common ways are: 

  • Silence your phone
  • Respect nature
  • Walk slowly and mindfully
  • Focus on your multiple senses — one at a time
  • Wonder around natural environments
  • Notice what’s in motion
  • Have a conversation with more than the human world
  • Find a safe and comfortable spot that draws your attention
  • Sit or stand still at that spot or lean on a tree
  • Invite a sense of solitude
  • Notice and welcome any being around you or far away
  • Listen to your heart in the present moment
  • Notice what it is saying
  • Have a tea or water at the end of your walk (use your senses) 
  • Take time for self-reflection or group reflection on your overall journey through the forest or nature.  

Why is forest bathing good for your health?

UW-La Crosse student Emily Simmerman records the blood pressure and pulse of Jimmy Bryan, 9, of Warrens, before a nature and forest therapy walk in July 2019. Photo by Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune.

There are several factors that may contribute to the improved health and well-being of individuals who engage in forest bathing. They include more natural or forested environments, particularly where people can find certain plants (e.g., white pine trees, cedar wood, cypress), water features, and other unique natural elements that draw attention and help restore energy. More importantly, forest bathing helps individuals slow down their life by moving away from a hectic daily life and engaging in slow, mindful sensory connection with nature. 

Can forest bathing lower blood pressure? 

Yes, several research findings report that forest bathing can lower blood pressure

Also, UWL Assistant Professor Namyun Kil found significantly reduced levels of blood pressure among children and adolescents in a UWL study co-led by an undergraduate research student in the UWL Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship Program. 

Does forest bathing work in winter? 

Snow covered trees on the bluffs near the UW-La Crosse campus. Forest bathing can happen in any season.

Yes. Forest bathing can be done in any season. Although the weather changes, the ideas remain consistent, taking a slow mindful walk and noticing anything around you while listening to your heart and emotions in the present moment. In the winter, the cold season brings new sights to take in like snow on a tree branch or animal tracks. Read these tips for forest bathing across different seasons. 

Suggestions for Forest Bathing by Season  

Spring 

  • Be prepared for mud and/or rain
  • Take extra time to notice the new growth in the trees, grass, and plants
  • Listen for newly flowing water as ice melts
  • Keep your ears open for birds migrating north and frog calls 

Summer 

  • Be prepared with water, sunscreen or other supplies
  • Enjoy the shade provided by the forest’s canopy
  • Take deep breaths and notice the different scents of the forest 
  • Look out for insects and animals in the forest
  • Try going barefoot on land/in the water or kayaking/canoeing 
  • Lie on your back and look at the sky in the day or night 

Autumn 

  • Make sure to dress appropriately for the weather
  • Take extra time to notice the colors of the changing leaves 
  • Breathe deeply to inhale the earthy smells of autumn 
  • Enjoy fall fruits and drinks such as pumpkin, apple, or plum 
  • Listen for migrating animals like geese 

Winter 

  • Make sure to dress in warm clothing
  • Find a quiet spot to observe the winter landscape and trees – notice coniferous trees that stay green even in the cold
  • Use your senses to interact with winter plants and dried leaves 
  • Be on the lookout for animal tracks in the snow or mud
  • Keep your ears open for winter birds chirping
  • Enjoy a hot beverage during or after you forest bathe 

-Suggestions from a literature review conducted by UWL student Alyssa Doughty and UWL Assistant Professor Namyun Kil. 

What are the effects of forest bathing?  

Won Sop Shin, a professor at Chungbuk National University in Korea, visited campus in 2019 and led a public forest therapy walk in Hixon Forest.

Forest bathing improves health and well-being at the physiological, emotional, cognitive, social and spiritual levels. 

Benefits include: 

  • Strengthens immune system
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Reduces the levels of depression, anxiety, and stress (fatigue)
  • Restores energy levels
  • Increases attention span and thinking skills
  • Increases a sense of connection with nature (note that humans have evolved through nature and have inherent preferences for being with nature.)
  • Learn to rely on the natural areas for human, inherent needs.
  • Develop and maintain a sense of identity
  • Develop and strengthen bonds with others
  • Improved sense of community.
  • An increase in environmental stewardship or pro-environmental behavior – more support to protect natural resources and more learning about nature. 

Read Kil’s peer-reviewed journal article related to the benefits.   

Kil is now exploring how forest bathing may be more beneficial for the health and well-being of college students than hiking (a research paper is in progress). 

What is a forest bathing guide? 

UWL Assistant Professor Namyun Kil is a forest therapy guide.

Forest therapy guides are human resources that assist individuals with/out special needs in (re) connecting with nature, themselves and others. It is good to have a (certified) forest therapy guide because a guide helps you regularly engage in forest bathing, similar to the benefits of regular attendance in yoga sessions led by a yoga teacher or instructor. The forest is the therapist. A guide opens the doors to the forest. Some cultures may need more guidance for engaging in certain nature immersion experiences.  

Who invented forest bathing? 

Forest bathing or therapy originated in Japan in 1980s. Dr. Qing Li in Japan is considered the founder of forest therapy in Japan. The Korean government adapted forest therapy in early 2000. Dr. Won Sop Shin, a professor of Chungbuk National University in Korea; Former Korea Forest Service Minister; Former Visiting Scholar and Artist of Color at UWL, is a founder of forest therapy programs in Korea and has contributed to designating more than 80 forests as forest therapy areas and establishing a National Center for Forest Therapy in Korea.  

Amos Clifford is the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs in the U.S. as a private organization that has continued to promote nature and forest therapy programs by providing training worldwide leading to a nature and forest therapy certificate. The U.S. Forest Service has recently considered adding forest therapy programs and trails. We will eventually have more forest therapy programs and amenities accessible to our proximate and distant La Crosse community residents to assist the health and well-being of individuals and more-than-human world. 

Forest bathing in Wisconsin?  

Trees in Hixon Forest.

Wisconsin has many rich natural and cultural areas, including Driftless Areas where forest bathing could occur. Now designated forest bathing areas are located on the Hixon Forest trail in La Crosse. Typically, areas suitable for forest bathing provide relatively easy access and are wheelchair accessible, safe places, have a lack of urban features and sounds; an abundance of diverse native wildlife, water features, scenic features, places to sit and gather on a trail, and a lack of other human encounters for solitude. See Kil’s recent article related to some suggestions for place-attached forest therapy participants.  

In addition, Wisconsin has four seasons that offer opportunities for various (adapted) nature immersion experiences, whether engaging in walking, hiking, birdwatching, mountain biking or climbing, canoeing, freshwater fishing, fly-fishing or ice fishing, or other activities. 

Forest bathing with your dog? 

Yes, you can do forest bathing with a dog or cat. One of Kil’s nature and forest therapy mentors Nadine Mazzola wrote a book, “Forest Bathing with Your Dog.” Mazzola provides some suggestions for forest bathing with a dog. They include believing in your dog’s talent to read your body language (e.g., silent cues or signals), noticing the way your dog uses his or her senses (e.g., sniffing), accepting the way your dog may invite you to a specific sensory zone, enjoy your dog’s natural pauses for any being that draws his/her attention, and noticing what your dog is sharing with you. Safety is important, so you may need a leash. Try a smell walk with your dog, which may require your patience but should be rewarding.  

Forest bathing with your cat can be a unique challenge if you do forest bathing with your cat outside. As you do forest bathing with your cat, take cues from your cat, notice what they are inviting you to notice. If your cat wanders through a garden, follow your cat, do what they do, pay attention and use all of your senses. If you do forest bathing with your cat indoors, welcome the sun or cool breeze coming in through a window, watch the plants and animals outside, watch any being in motion (e.g., leaves and snowflakes falling or dancing), follow if your cat sniffs a scent (be playful; be in his/her shoes), enjoy the present moment with your cat, and invite your cat to a treat time at the end of forest bathing with your cat. 


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