I read an article in the Washington Post this week about a new health trend called “forest bathing.” The article is talking about an ancient Japanese practice called Shinrin-Yoku. From what I can tell “forest bathing” and “Shinrin-Yoku” are just fancy, hipster names for “taking a walk in the woods.” The article claims this is different from hiking because a hike requires a destination. And it is different from walking on a nature trail because those require you to read signs. And walking in the city would not result in the same health benefits since cities are stressful. Experts in the field of Shinrin-Yoku claim it provides the same results as yoga or meditation.
People often think I’m crazy for enjoying a good hike. (I’m just going to call it hiking. I don’t do “forest bathing.”) But I agree with the concept of nature as therapy. Even if my body is physically exhausted from elevation change or distance, I feel relaxed in the woods. Hiking is about slowing down both physically and mentally, being forced to breathe deeply, forced to think about something other than the stresses of work and life at home. Hiking is still much better than, say, a day laying out by the pool with a frozen daiquiri in my hand (those days are great too) because hiking still provides a challenge. The day at the pool provides no stimulation and I find that at the end of that day I am even more stressed than I was before the relaxation because I feel like I didn’t accomplish anything. The day at the pool also leaves me sitting, stuck with my own thoughts. I’ll tend to reflect on the negative items that cause my stress instead of creating a new, positive memory. Hiking gives me that positive memory while providing opportunities for growth and education.
There are other activities that accomplish the same objective for me: canoeing or kayaking, horseback riding, snorkeling, car camping, traveling to a new destination. Notice almost my entire list involves the outdoors.
There’s a place in California that charges $30 for a three-and-a-half hour guided “forest therapy” walk. They move slowly. According to their website, they go a maximum of ¾ of a mile during that duration. That sounds like a great option for people who have money and are afraid to venture into the outdoors alone, but I recommend something else. Don’t be afraid to lace up some hiking boots and go on an adventure. Taking a “hike” doesn’t’ have to be something epic. You don’t have to traverse the entire AT or the PCT. In fact, ¾ of a mile is sometimes just the right distance. Better yet, don’t set a distance. Get out there and see how you feel. Maybe you’ll feel refreshed after ¾ of a mile. Maybe you’ll want to keep moving until it gets dark. I’m no expert, but I think many people in the hiking community would agree that “hiking” can mean many things. It can mean Shinrin-Yoku or “forest bathing” or it can mean bagging as many +10k-foot peeks as possible in one trip. Regardless, if it makes you feel healthier and happier, do it.
Though, perhaps at the end of your “forest bathing” adventure you may be ready for a real bath.