Happiness Grows on Trees

Could a simple stroll through the woods give you a new lease on life? Wellness editor Tessa Yannone gives it a try.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan

I stood in the middle of the forest, eyes closed, palms facing up toward the sky, my cheeks warmed by the sun. The weight of my body felt heavy as it settled into my boots. Standing firmly on the soft ground, I could hear the drone of distant cars on the highway battling with the birds singing overhead. I was completely content, which felt unfamiliar to me. I was forest bathing.

Although the term might conjure up images of hippies bathing in sylvan natural springs with woodland creatures, it is actually taken from a Japanese practice called Shinrin-yoku, translated literally to “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Primarily developed during the 1980s, the seemingly simple activity of communing with nature offers benefits including boosted immunity, improved memory, and decreased depression, anxiety, and stress, according to multiple studies. Now more than ever, it seems, we’re all looking to unplug from our devices and reconnect with nature: In 2015, there was only one Certified Forest Therapy Guide (yes, that’s really a thing) in New England; today there are 25. As an avid hiker who recently made the transition to city life from rural Indiana, I was longing to get outside again. If a walk through the woods could help me feel more at ease, I figured, why not head for the hills?

Forest bathing, explains guide Nadine Mazzola, founder of New England Nature and Forest Therapy Consulting, doesn’t necessarily require woods; any green space with enough room for a slow stroll will do. When I joined her and three other women for my first wooded cleansing, we drove just 15 minutes from the city to the Middlesex Fells Reservation. Unlike a hike, there is no set destination, and as we made our way through the foliage, Mazzola invited us to really investigate the forest: to examine a tree, and to observe the stream the trail paralleled. It forced me to slow way down and look around, something I rarely do on my daily commute. I touched leaves and the cold water. At one point, I even lay down like a darn hippie, on the pine needles covering the ground. Before I knew it, three hours had passed, and we were invited back to reality by the sounds of Mazzola’s flute—which she used throughout the walk to assemble us after we had roamed.

The walk concluded with a tea ceremony on a picnic blanket to thank the forest for everything it gives us. Mazzola urged us to take in the aroma of the white-pine-and-eastern-hemlock brew she’d steeped during our long walk. It was earthy and the strong scent of pine danced in my nostrils. As we made our way back to our cars, I didn’t feel completely transformed, but I was reminded that I should return to the forest frequently. We may not be able to avoid the bustle of daily life, but every now and then it pays to get out of the city for a few short hours and return to our roots.

Starting at $20 for a group walk, nenft.com. To find a Certified Forest Therapy Guide, go to natureandforesttherapy.org.