Susan Karle, a certified forest guide, boils water on a camp stove in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. She’s just led seven friends in a forest immersion walk, in the Japanese tradition of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing). Not a naturalist hike or fitness outing, forest bathing is an intentionally guided ramble designed to help participants absorb nature through all five senses. To enliven our taste buds, Karle is finishing the walk with a simple ceremony of fragrant tea.
Over the past two hours, we’ve touched, felt, smelled, and observed the forest in silent wonder, far beyond the observation that would accompany a regular hike. Starting along Sonoma Creek, where Karle invited us to find an object to hold our worries for the day, I chose a cool, smooth stone and lent it the anxiety I’m feeling about my elderly parents’ decline. At Karle’s cue, I let the rock and my cares fall back to the water.
From there we continued along the trail, moving at a crawl to match the forest’s timeless pace: touching the rugged bark of Douglas firs, appreciating bird song, feeling the soothing shade of the oak woods, and sensing the peace of having a true distance from traffic, cellphone reception and internet connection. I wandered both with others and alone, submerged in a meditative state, forgetting not only my worry stone but also the care I gave it.
Shinrin-yoku got its name in 1982 from Japan’s Secretary of Forestry Agency, who wanted the public to take up the age-old practice of rambling in the woods for health. In the three decades since, studies conducted at institutions such as the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and Stanford University School of Medicine have demonstrated just how healthy forest bathing is: time in nature restores health through 21 known pathways, including enhanced production of anti-cancer cells, increased beneficial skin and gut microorganisms, reduced stress hormone, and boosted manufacture of anti-obesity and anti-diabetes enzyme.
In 2015, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concluded that the many healing effects of shinrin-yoku, operating together, boost the immune system. The practitioner experiences the effects as a cumulative and profound sense of well-being. Just two days spent relaxing in nature enhances health for up to a week, whereas time spent in built environments does not.
Karle, also a longtime licensed marriage and family therapist, began her own shinrin-yoku with the simple act of daily sits under a big oak tree in her garden at home. “Nature was important to me growing up, and I turned to it again to support my work with victims of trauma and abuse. With the seriousness of those issues, I needed something to sustain my energy,” she said.
Seeing the benefits of nature immersion herself, she recommended it for others.
“One of my clients had a huge trauma background, involving the death of a family member. With the devastating isolation she felt, and the crushing depression, she thought she’d be in counseling for years. Using shinrin-yoku, being in nature with a trusted group, she reconnected to a sense of hope and goodness that she’d lost. After less than a year of therapy, she said that she was healed. And I agreed.”
In the many approaches to psychotherapy practice, Karle says, experts agree that it’s the relationship that heals. “For example, the relationship with a therapist is an important element of healing,” Karle pointed out. “When I go into the woods, I know I have a co-therapist.”