By Paula Musto
Nineteenth-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau extolled the virtues of walking in the woods to commune with nature. Today, amid pandemic burnout, urban dwellers are discovering forest bathing as a way to slow down, relax and connect deeply with the natural world.
Forest bathing, or as the Japanese call it, shinrin-yoku, is the act of absorbing the essence of the forest while leisurely strolling among its trees. While a brisk walk in the outdoors has long been a prescription for better health, forest bathing is not a hike or a trek.
“It’s more of a sacred sauntering,” says Dr. Mattie Decker, a certified forest therapy guide who leads sessions in a secluded, wooded preserve in Bat Cave, not far from Chimney Rock. “It’s about reconnecting with nature by quieting the mind and awakening the senses. For many, the impact can be transformative.”
The practice gained popularity in Japan in the 1980s when the tech boom kept people indoors for long hours, resulting in mental and physical concerns. Today, forest bathing is not only a well-regarded wellness regime for stressed-out workers in Japan but has adherents around the world, including in WNC.
Decker was introduced to forest bathing when a friend in Finland told her about the practice that reflects the Finnish cultural emphasis on slowing down and embracing the natural world. While teaching at Morehead State University in Kentucky, Decker traveled to Norway where she became a certified guide.
“The forest is the therapist,” Decker says. “The guide opens the doors—our senses that allow nature to enter through the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. We literally take the forest into our bodies.”
Recently Nina Veteto, a busy Asheville mother of two, joined Decker for what she calls an eye-opening experience and antidote to post-COVID weariness. “After being cooped up at home for months, it was time to get outside and explore,” Veteto says.
For her, that meant the Transfiguration Preserve, 350 acres of heavily forested land managed by Conserving Carolina where Decker leads excursions. Veteto says that while she was prepared to be inspired, she didn’t quite know what to expect beyond a walk in the woods. Soon, however, she learned that forest therapy guides are not guides in the traditional sense. “We were invited to shut our eyes and focus on our senses,” Veteto says. “As we walked, Dr. Decker invited me to run my fingers on rough tree bark and along patches of slippery moss on the creek beds. She asked me to recount childhood memories. Do I remember a special place in nature? A memorable tree? Could I imagine my feet as roots? Could I sense the wildlife around us? Encouraged to breathe in the charged ionic air, I was suddenly overcome with emotion.”
The stirring of emotions is part of the process. “People let go of long-held grief,” Decker says. “Some experience profound joy. It’s a gift from the forest.”
Adherents of the practice say forest bathing has proven health benefits. Trees release chemicals called phytoncides that protect them from disease. According to Decker, when absorbed by humans, phytoncides help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and sleeplessness, along with boosting immune systems, lowering blood pressure and enhancing mental acuity.
With the right mindset, you can forest-bathe almost anywhere. A patio with tall potted plants or a tree-lined parking lot can work as well as a forest. Leave your phone and camera behind, and let your body be the guide. Wander aimlessly, listening to singing birds and rustling leaves. Stop to lie on the ground and note different shades of green overhead as the sun filters through the canopy. Taking deep breaths, you will taste the freshness of the air and natural aromatherapy of the forest.
To experience shinrin-yoku for yourself, contact Mattie Decker at firstname.lastname@example.org or book a walk with Asheville Wellness Tours, 828.407.0711.