Everywhere you turn these days there are articles, podcasts and advertisements about forest bathing. It is the biggest nature trend since the invention of backpacks. Oddly enough, forest bathing is not what it might appear to be. It is the result of a direct translation from the Japanese phrase “shinrin-yoku.” It is not a chance to get naked in the forest. Simply put, it encourages you to spend time in nature by slowing down and using all your senses, like smell, touch and sight. Forest bathing is a walk in the woods, not a hike.
Many of us already interact with nature the way forest bathers do. Maybe you pause for a few quiet minutes under your favorite cherry tree on your daily walk to the Metro. Or perhaps you sit and soak in all that surrounds you from a bench in Lincoln Park. Melanie Choukas-Bradley, one of DC’s first certified forest bather guides, says to think of it as “putting your life in airplane mode, slowing things down, and observing what is around you in nature.”
Certified Walking Guides
Choukas-Bradley is one of 20 people in the DC metro area who are or soon will be certified to be a guide by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (ANFT). The association was founded by Amos Clifford, a student of Buddhist philosophy, and is located in Santa Rosa, California. It is a global nonprofit devoted to promoting the benefits of nature and health. ANFT has certified guides around the world. Clifford and many of those the association has certified began their careers as wilderness guides. ANFT hopes to have 1,000 certified forest therapy guides in the United States within the next two years.
To become a guide requires one week of intense instruction followed by a six-month practicum that includes prescribed activities and work with a mentor. Most of the classes listed on the ANFT website are full for the next nine months with waiting lists. The cost of the instruction varies depending on location and instructor, but the one class still open in 2019 is in California and costs $3,700 plus room, board and air travel. The association is clear that it is certifying guides and not mental health therapists.
Choukas-Bradley says that the walks incorporate many of the same elements as yoga, tai chi and meditation. She describes the process as a “full sensory immersion in the beauty and wonder in nature.”
A Natural-born Leader
Choukas-Bradley was born to be the perfect natural advocate for forest bathing. She grew up enjoying four seasons of nature’s wonders in Vermont, surrounded by maple trees, lakes and woodland wildflowers. She has spent her life and career as a naturalist and has written books about Washington-area ecosystems, Rock Creek and Sugar Loaf Mountain, where she raised her family. She also authored a book on Washington’s trees. She learned about forest bathing in a 2014 article in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine.
Choukas-Bradley’s smile and welcoming wave when she spots you immediately draw you in. There is nothing New Age about her. It’s her quiet reserve that draws you in. Her voice seems at one with the environment, and you can easily imagine birds and other wildlife responding to it. She says she usually begins her forest bathing walks by encouraging folks to stand still and to observe what is moving around them. “Maybe there is wind blowing in the bush or a tree that you are standing next to; or there is a feather in the ground under the tree,” she says. “Just by stopping and looking, you are beginning to leave your chaotic world behind.”
Ideally, a forest walk lasts for 40 minutes or more, but Choukas-Bradley says it’s also good to just take 10 minutes during your lunch hour to get outside. Her walks quickly sell out, and this spring she has been busy providing sessions for the Audubon Naturalist Society, Casey Trees, the US Botanic Garden, US National Arboretum, Smithsonian Associates and Rock Creek Conservancy, just to name a few.
Some of the sessions are geared to families or children. “I really like to encourage the kids just to explore on their own, and I love what they find,” she says. She encourages participants to share their experiences at the end of the walk, although that is entirely voluntary. Often she uses a “talking stick” to be passed around the circle, and that seems to encourage comments. Choukas-Bradley muses that it is a perfect example of nature giving back to us in its own unique way.
If you want to learn more or sign up for a forest bathing walk, check the website, https://melaniechoukas-bradley.com, or go online to read Bill Matuszeski’s Hill Rag article, “Forest Bathing Along the Anacostia,” to get tips on places to go. https://hillrag.com/2017/11/14/forest-bathing-along-anacostia/. Also check out Choukas-Bradley’s book, The Joy of Forest Bathing—Reconnect with Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life, available locally at Politics and Prose or online.
Rindy O’Brien is a long-time environmental advocate and forest bather. For information contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.