If you’re looking to go off grid and completely unplugged by 2020, relax — according to an article on environmental health research, spending just 20 minutes in a park or green space makes you happier and healthier. Some doctors are even prescribing it to patients to help lower blood pressure and anxiety.
The city of Boulder is known for embracing the art of mellowing out and achieving a meditative state of mind, so we looked to the Flatirons for tips on how to feel better outdoors. The answer? Forest bathing.
Inspired by a Japanese nature therapy practice called shinrin-yoku, the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks recreation center is now hosting free forest bathing excursions. And no, it doesn’t consist of dipping into a remote hot tub deep in the woods.
David Ford, recreation coordinator for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, describes the art of forest bathing as immersing yourself in the atmosphere of the forest for the purpose of cleansing and healing.
“The Japanese description of it is a lot more romantic and descriptive than the words we have in English for it,” Ford said.
Ford’s discovery of forest bathing started after he spent a lot of time outdoors recovering from reverse culture shock after returning home from his time in the Pearce Corps in Paraguay. Ford’s time abroad taught him about nature therapy, a technique he used to relax when he came back to the States.
“For two years, I lived in Paraguay and I lived close to a medicine woman. We would go out for walks and she would show me the medicinal plants and how they used the forest as medicine. A lot of my conversations with her taught me this wasn’t just the plants of the forest that could heal, but the forest itself,” Ford said.
“She would take women to certain waterfalls and parts of the stream to help with menstrual cycles, pregnancy or conception. It started to open my mind up to a lot of cultures where people incorporate many of the healing aspects of the forest.”
Ford said after he began reading articles and learning more about the Japanese practice, he knew he wanted to incorporate forest bathing into the park programs offered for Boulder. Ford’s excursions were designed using material by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs and he says they are a strong introductory course to people who have no meditation experience.
Ford compares forest bathing to a slow, mindful walk where he teaches groups how to listen to the sounds and take in the sights and smells of nature while they lower their heart rates and slow their breathing. Ford also focuses on ensuring his groups form social bonds with one another through team building activities and social interactions since he believes togetherness is an important component of understanding humanity’s place in nature.
Each forest bathing excursion is free to local Boulder residents and outside visitors, but Ford only takes five to 30 people per hike to keep the groups more intimate. He recommends participants dress for the weather like they would for a hike and encourages layering clothes since a slower heart rate means you’re likely to get chilly quicker. You can also bring water or a hot cup of tea (the Japanese way of course).
As for the hikes themselves, you shouldn’t prepare to travel long distances.
“We don’t travel more than a quarter mile, half a mile max, and a lot of that is to just get to the forested area and then we do a slow walk,” Ford said.
The location of the hike is always somewhere in the parks of Boulder, but Ford changes it up frequently to reduce impact. Most of his hikes are slightly off trail and in the ponderosa pine forests.
According to Ford, the proximity to pine trees is essential to practicing true forest bathing for a number of reasons.
“I use the ponderosa pine forests mainly because of the tree spacing. There you have just enough area where you see a view, but at the same time, the tree density is close enough to where it’s a little bit more of a warm environment,” he said. “A theory behind a lot of that is Wilson’s Theory of Biophilia. His theory suggests that certain tree densities promote relaxation or stress to the human body.”
Other benefits of the trees include the essential oils and relaxing natural chemicals that they emit into the air — especially in the summertime. Ford says the fresh air and earthy smells give you the same rejuvenated feeling you get after a long hike. And you don’t have to work hard for it.
“I was always a recreation guide where I was leading these bigger A to B type of hikes and when I discovered this and started to get into it, I started to realize that relaxing feeling I always got coming out of trips — the forest bathing experience allowed me to have that feeling faster,” he said. “Everybody deserves to have that feeling after a hike where the world just makes a little more sense and we feel welcome in it.”
Ford believes forest bathing is beneficial for everyone even if they don’t typically spend time outdoors or know much about meditation. He says participants in his program seem to better understand nature when they’ve finished a hike.
“People really start to understand what the birdcall means,” he said. “Our species used to interact with the forest constantly. Tracking animals and being in tune with the natural environment around us is what our brains are meant to experience a majority of the day.”
For Ford and his fellow forest bathers, appreciating nature is all about the little things.
“It’s when you see the small things that we walk over all the time on a hike. That’s when you can really slow down and connect with what’s under your feet. That’s when that deep connection starts to happen and you can feel it in your body. It helps us to experience emotion and start opening ourselves up. In our busy lives, that’s really what we need.”
For more information about the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks and available nature hikes and programs, visit their website or call 303-441-3388. To register, create an online account. Forest bathing excursions run from June through September.
All photography by Lauren Magin.
Correction: the article was updated to clarify the forest bathing hikes offered by the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks are not certified by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides & Programs but rather designed using the organization’s published works for inspiration and technique approach.