Are you familiar with the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing? Devotees of forest bathing are popping up all over the world and discovering the many benefits of immersing yourself in nature.
Developed in the 1980s in Japan, shinrin-yoku is based on ancient traditions going back thousands of years. Now the scientific and medical communities are advocating forest bathing as a preventative way to help stressed out, indoor workers reduce blood pressure, improve concentration and memory, decrease cortisol levels (stress hormones) and boost the immune system.
While having nothing to do with actual bathing or water, the idea of shinrin-yoku is to be immersed in nature to absorb the beauty, awaken the five senses (hear, see, taste, touch and smell) and connect to the natural world. Proponents believe even 20 minutes of walking along wooded paths, caressing tree bark, gazing up at the sky through tree branches, sniffing pinecones, hearing the crunch of leaves and twigs underfoot, and touching the damp moss can work wonders on your physical and emotional sense of well-being.
One study noted that Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors. Probably sitting down and staring at an electronic device. To really benefit from a session of forest bathing, plan to spend up to three hours slowly walking through the woods, observing the colors and patterns of the plants, shrubs and leaves, listening to the bird song, feeling the wind on your skin, and breathing the air deeply.
Westchester has so many parks, reservoir areas, and nature trails for forest bathing excursions. Even finding a pocket park or a bench under a tree on your lunch hour has its benefits, as long as you are not also staring down at your phone. Reach up to touch the tree leaves with your fingertips, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of birds, squirrels and bees. Take off your shoes and wriggle your toes in the grass. Slowly breathe in and breathe out. Feel more relaxed?
I enjoy hiking and walking. When I lived in Manhattan in the early 1980s, my friend, Ellen and I joined the Appalachian Mountain Club. Hikes to upstate New York or Rockland County or New Jersey were offered for all activity levels on most weekends. Ellen and I would meet early on Saturday morning at the Port Authority bus terminal where the other sleepy hikers were already lined up to take an 8 a.m. bus.
The AMC hike leader informed us of the hike’s attractions (waterfalls, views, rugged rocky terrain, etc.) before we adjusted our backpacks and headed out on the trail. The first time that someone yelled, “Separation!” our group stopped. A few men walked off to the left into the trees and a couple of women walked off to the right into the woods. I had no idea what was going on. I soon learned that “Separation!” meant bathroom break for people who needed to find a large tree to hide behind before getting back on the trail.
For most of the hike, we walked in single file or two by two. If the terrain was challenging or the day was very hot and humid, talking ceased. We concentrated on putting one hiking boot in front of the other and keeping our eyes peeled for deer, streams or beautiful views. I enjoyed all of these AMC hikes. I especially remember hiking in Harriman State Park and climbing up to walk in between a narrow rock formation called “the lemon squeezer.”
Another hike was in Ward Pound Ridge Reservation. We took Metro North up to Katonah and car-pooled with other hikers to get to the trail. Toward the end of the day, our hiking leader got lost and our group of hot, tired, cranky hikers literally became immersed in nature walking in circles around a marshy patch of skunk cabbage. Since moving to Northern Westchester in 1987, I have hiked at Pound Ridge Reservation numerous times and never got lost on the trails.
Treat yourself to some forest bathing this summer!
Kim Kovach enjoys walking and hiking in nature as well as looking out at the trees and greenery while writing her columns each week. kimkovachwrites.com