Rub-a-dub-shrub: My plunge into the well-being world of forest bathing
Take a bath. In the woods. With your clothes on
I walked with the slow, methodical purpose of someone searching for something.
Looking high and low, my task was to take in the nature around me while being left alone by the outside world.
I was taking a bath. In the forest. With my clothes on.
It all started in Japan ...
In Japanese, it's called a "shinrin-yoku," which literally translates to "forest bath."
We invite you to try shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Forest bathing is also known as "forest therapy" and describes the rejuvenating and restorative benefits of time spent in nature. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/forestbathing?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#forestbathing</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/nature?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#nature</a><br>Photo: Tyler Quinn <a href="https://t.co/AzqhdXCH2q">pic.twitter.com/AzqhdXCH2q</a>—@PDXJapaneseGdn
According to experts, the term was coined in the early 1980s by a branch of the Japanese government as a way to encourage the protection of the country's forests and to urge people to go enjoy them.
It really took off.
You can find tourism sites in Japan offering forest bathers a chance to "wash" away the cares of urban life in the mountains just outside of Tokyo.
You can head to Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens for a sniff of its oaks.
And you can now go for a stroll in the St. John's area with Tina White.
Like me, you'll keep your clothes on.
"It's kind of like a nature meditation which will really guide us through all of our senses and kind of wake them up and tune into the environment around us," White said.
She's one of about 50 guides in Canada trained through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.
The group says it has more than 500 guides across the globe.
Welcome to forest bathing
On Tuesday, I joined White and about 14 people for a bath at Memorial University's Botanical Garden.
Though I spent the last 3½ years in Japan, it was my first metaphoric dip in the woods.
We were asked to turn off our phones so we could get down with nature and give the trees our undivided attention.
White brought us through a series of short walks where we would be asked to take in our surroundings in different ways, whether walking backwards or imagining a bird's or a bug's perception of things.
We also got to lie back on mats and take everything in for a spell. With the exception of a few mosquitos — who have gone on to better places — it was relaxing.
After each task, we were invited to share a thought or word about what we felt.
Some lone wandering <a href="https://twitter.com/SCGeopoetics?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@SCGeopoetics</a> conference - sometimes you just need some quiet space alone <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/shinrinyoku?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#shinrinyoku</a> <a href="https://t.co/vcDHJZA4z2">pic.twitter.com/vcDHJZA4z2</a>—@abonnieday
At the end of the session we sat with a cup of tea from herbs that White foraged herself. This time, the tea of choice was fireweed.
In settings like these, there's always the possibility of Portlandia-type scenes that could turn enjoyment into farce, but the tone was right with our group and it seemed like everyone got something out of it.
A great way to start the day
New nature bather Susan Haskell said she thought it was a lovely way to start the day.
"It's a great experience for people to help ensure good mental health and wellness," she said.
Haskell's point makes sense. Spending time immersed in nature can make you feel great. The extent of actual medical benefit, however, is still a matter of some debate.
While the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs lists a curated section of research and journalism done on the health benefits of forest bathing, a 2017 study review said the evidence to date is insufficient.
That said, something doesn't need to cure cancer or lower blood pressure to be of benefit. Just turning off the digital firehose for a few hours to drink in some sweet forest air felt great.
"Many people said they spend time in nature, but this was different somehow. And it was partly the guided experience and partly just a different angle, a different viewpoint," said Erika Merschrod after her forest bath.
And that's one of my main takeaways from this. Sure, you can take a walk in the woods, but having someone guide the experience gives you a different perspective. It's kind of like yoga: you can do it by yourself or you can also go to a class where someone helps you focus.
"So when we have these little activities, it really takes you out of your mind and into your body and into your senses and into nature," said White.
"It's about somebody kind of directing you a little or facilitating so that you can really drop in. You don't have to think about, 'What time is it, do I have to be somewhere?'"
Is forest bathing for everybody? Probably not.
Are there people out there who could use someone to tell them to turn their smartphones off and have a gawk at some trees? You bet.