My mother used to order me ad nauseam to go outside and play.
“It's good for you,” she’d say. Turns out, she was right, in more ways than she knew. While her hope was for me to deplete my energy supply in a rousing game of freeze tag, it’s now known that even non-cardiovascular outdoor activity has important health benefits.
This non-cardio experience is called forest bathing and it boosts the immune system and reduces stress. It has been in practice in Japan for over 30 years and is now gaining some serious traction in the United States. It seems we are a stressed out nation with a high blood pressure problem.
In a nutshell, forest bathing is a slow walk in the woods that melds mindfulness and nature to improve health. It’s practiced in a small group under the guidance of a certified forest therapy guide. It’s not a hike or an ecological interpretive walk. It’s a meander on a nature trail with a set of simple tasks that help immerse you in your surroundings and stay present.
In 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program with the goal of connecting people with nature in the simplest way possible - go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. It was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging.
It seems as though we humans are not connecting enough with nature and struggle with being peaceful, untethered from our devices. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have been documenting its effects and found it lowers blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.
Forest Bathing Comes to the ADKs
I purposefully did not google forest bathing before I tried it for myself. As it were, I took the name on its face and wore my bathing suit. It ends up that I interpreted it too literally as there is no actual bathing involved, or removal of clothing.
I met certified Forest Therapy guide Helene Gibbens and a handful of other women who'd come along for the adventure at the Paul Smith's College Visitors Interpretive Center, which includes 25 beautiful miles of trails that weave through woodland and marshland, by ponds, brooks, and bogs. I arrived in comfy clothes over my bathing suit and old sneakers, armed with bug spray. Helene and business partner Suzanne Weirich are the first and only guides in the region to offer it.
It was 70 degrees with a slight breeze - highly suitable weather for the task at hand. For the next two hours, our guide helped us tune in to the smells, textures, tastes, and sights of the forest through a series of simple tasks. Helene, in her soothing voice, asked us first close our eyes and listen intently and to make a 360-degree circle to better take in the sounds and smells. When I opened my eyes, the forest seemed greener than before and the birds’ singing somehow louder and prettier.
Then we walked slowly at our own pace and were tasked with noting everything that was moving. I noticed the ferns swaying slightly, the ant crossing my path, the maple leaves fluttering. The next activity was to close our eyes and let a partner lead you slowly through the woods until they ask you to open your eyes. Take in every facet of your view, was the task. And so it went - several more activities, or invitations as Helene called them, as we passed bogs with mountain views, a babbling brook, and through forest filled with the sweet smell of pine.
In full disclosure, I cannot meditate and I struggle being mindful. I’ve tried videos and read books on the subject. But my brain is trained to constantly shift from one task to the next, while mulling about how I could have better handled a work situation, or think about what I want for dinner, and that I ate too much for lunch. Should I up the amount I am placing in my retirement account? It’s exhausting.
However, this forest bathing experience worked. I was admittedly skeptical it would, since I am already an avid nature lover and hiker. What else could I glean from the woods? But after two and a half hours, I left the trail feeling calm and centered, a novel and welcomed state of mind. At the end of the experience, Helene asked all of us newbies what we are taking away from it. I think we all agreed a sense of peace and calm, a greater appreciation of nature, and even a sense of camraderie with our fellow forest bathers.
Adirondack Forest Bathing is offered every Friday and Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m and costs $50 per person. Participants can book online. Helene offers a similar experience called Riverwalking that combines mindfulness with ecology, all while wading in the beautiful Ausable River.
The VIC is about 10 miles outside the village of Saranac Lake in a region that offers wonderful kayaking with outstanding mountain views. It's an area people have turned to for 100 years as a curative place as the mountain air was thought to cure or ease tuberculolsis. If you are looking for a weekend here, check out the lodging options and create a restful and restorative mini getaway.