Keep your rubber ducky in the tub at home, this is a completely different type of bath. Forest bathing is a practice for health and wellness, like therapy within the outdoors. “Shinrin-yoku,” or forest bathing, became popular in Japan in the 1980s as a way to combat the tech boom burnout as well as a way to promote the protection of the nation’s forests.    

Have you ever taken a walk in nature and just felt an indescribable peacefulness? That is the idea behind forest therapies, a more meditative connection with nature where you aren’t trying to do any strenuous hiking. The goal is to slow down and truly experience the outdoors.

For retired psychologist and Pittsburgh resident, Dr. Doug Jones, it was the connection and service to people and nature that led him from his office into forest therapy guiding. 

“The approach to forest therapy is relational. It’s not just for the health benefits, but a way of mending and tending our relationships,” Dr. Jones explains. “By developing and growing our relationships with nature, it helps to grow our relationships with ourselves and others.”

The connection and service to people and nature are what attracted Dr. Doug Jones to forest bathing. Photo courtesy of Doug Jones.

How does it work?

While the concept is simple, it’s a little more than just walking through the trees. While it’s not a sudsy affair, it’s about soaking up nature and focusing on the environment around. Being conscious about your surroundings is a sensory experience as you immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, surfaces and smells of nature. 

According to Jones, you don’t need a great vista or arduous hike as a reward.

“Walking through the trees you have the opportunity to find the smaller details in nature’s inspiring beauty … and it may not be conventionally beautiful. You could find a dying tree, but become aware of how it’s a home for a woodpecker, a respite for insects and a host for moss.” 

For Jones, forest bathing “helps to promote a sense of wonder in the everydayness of the woods that are all around us.” These are places that we may bike, walk or drive by every day that we can now see in a different light.   

Not only does forest bathing provide a reprieve from day-to-day stress, and a chance to turn off and tune in, the activity is proven to be good for physical health and mental wellness. The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs states that health benefits attributed to forest bathing include “boosted immune system function, improved cardiovascular and respiratory health, attention restoration and reduction in stress and depression.” 

Even just a few short hours will help with stress relief and relaxation. Want to feel like you’ve received a $10,000 raise without extra work at the office? Researchers in Toronto found that even the presence of just 10 trees in a neighborhood could replicate the level of happiness of a household income increase. Imagine what an hour in the woods can do.

Photo by Scott Goldsmith Photography.

Who can participate?

When asked about tips for first-time forest bathers, Jones responded, “just come as you are, it’s as simple as that”. 

And that is the simplistic charm of forest bathing — it is accessible and for everyone. It’s not a hiking workout, so you don’t need extreme fitness to get involved. For guided walks with Jones, he remarked that in about 2 to 2 ½ hours, you may only walk a half of a mile. This also isn’t a naturalist walk so you don’t need to feel intimidated by not knowing species of flora or fauna.  

This type of mental wellness is a gentle exercise for all. Comfortable clothes and a positive outlook are all you need to be able to participate. Rain or shine, it is an activity for all seasons, so it is easy to incorporate into an existing workout routine.  

Photo by Scott Goldsmith Photography.

Where can I go? 

Pittsburgh Botanical Garden offers forest bathing sessions with a certified forest therapy guide. Join Jones as he guides participants on a peaceful wooded journey. Don’t forget that members receive discounts on these types of events. Continue the Japanese-inspired experience afterward by visiting the Asian Woodland section of the botanical garden to see the Lotus Pond and be transported to Japan. 

The special thing about visiting the Botanical Garden this way, according to Jones, is that “you may have been to the gardens a dozen other times, but you’ll get to experience it in a completely new way you may never have seen before.”     

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy partners with the 10.27 Healing Partnership for a multi-week course where for 90 minutes, participants meet and ease their way through Frick Park. Gardenalia is a team of outdoor experts specializing in gardening, landscape design and the eco-arts. These horticulture masters are also available for a two-hour introductory course to nature’s panacea. Pittsburgh Forest Bathing is an additional resource for seeking out local forest therapy. They host events throughout the year within the city limits as well as within a short drive of Pittsburgh. Sara Feley is a nature-based therapist who is leading a series of outdoor meditation walks in November with Venture Outdoors called Finding Calm Within.

While these are some fabulous resources that can get Pittsburghers participating in the practice, the truth is that forest bathing can really be done anywhere. Jones says that Walker Park in Edgeworth Borough is his favorite place in the city for forest bathing, but adds that really, “anywhere that humans and nature intersect is an okay place for forest bathing”. 

If you’re familiar with Mellon Park in Shadyside, “It’s an open space with several large trees but Fifth Avenue runs through it,” Jones explains. “We’ve had very successful walks there, so it’s a fantastic reminder that you don’t always need to go deeper into the woods. You can even go to a city park with traffic rushing by.” 

Take advantage of all the peaceful parks or green spaces in the area, get out and explore.  

This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.