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The Japanese Practice of Forest Bathing Is a Way to Get Back to Nature

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Naugatuck State Forest in Ansonia

It might not be glamping, but eight of Connecticut’s state parks and forests have rustic cabins for rent that will put you right in the middle of some of the state’s most beautiful natural settings. 

Perspective is the spring from which human experience flows: change your perspective, and your mind changes with it. When NASA first sent astronauts far enough away to look back on the Earth as a whole globe, they began to experience what was later called the “overview effect.” There was no map with differently colored countries, bordered by lines — just land, water and sky. They returned to the world feeling like they were part of something bigger than themselves, connected to the world in a way they hadn’t felt before.

Urban life, or even the familiar ruts of our usual commutes and errands, can make it seem as though what we regularly experience is all there is to the world. It gets boring, yes, but it can also feel oppressive, like nothing changes. Forest bathing, a translation of the Japanese phrase “shinrin-yoku,” is a way to open up our personal worlds into something larger, even for those of us who’ll never ride a rocket.

The idea is simple: just go out into nature. Anyone who has lived under the sterile glow of street lamps and looks up on a dark highway to suddenly see a sky full of stars can tell you the impact is immediate and profound. The immensity of the world beyond our concerns can help make our lives seem more manageable, which melts stress, and improves our sense of everyday wellbeing.

Researchers from Europe, Asia and the U.S. have shown that proximity to green spaces improves quality of life equivalent to a large raise in income, while lowering the harmful effects of stress. Doctors at Chiba University in Japan found that walking through forests versus city streets lowered the stress hormone cortisol by 16 percent. Researchers studying forest bathing at the University of Michigan wrote, “Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost.” Our brains can become run down by the modern world, fatigued by constant input. Nature, we’re finding, helps clear our minds.

Again, it’s easy: no workout or special clothing needed. This is especially true in Connecticut, where we have ready access to parks, state forests, and living watersheds minutes away from practically everywhere people live. Just pick a spot, and go.

Forest bathing means immersing yourself in your surroundings. Put your phone on silent and put it out of reach. Fresh air, green light filtering through the leaves, the sounds and smell of running water all naturally attract our attention, and draw our focus away from the mental irritants which constantly tug at our sleeves in the digitally connected world. Forest bathing is a sensory experience, but it’s also about disconnecting from the parts of life which tell us everything needs to be done right now, and everything is an emergency.

Humans have a natural inclination to be outside. We sit at picnic tables on our lunch breaks, head to beaches and lakes on vacation, and covet restaurant seats on decks and rooftops. Indulging this desire for just a few hours can leave a sense of calm that lasts for days once we return to our regularly scheduled programming back home. Out there in the trees, life is still happening without you, and that helps keep things in perspective.

Forest bathing can happen anywhere. To get started, a map of all the state forests in Connecticut can be found at ct.gov/deep under “Outdoor Recreation.”

Some people find it easier to start with a guided experience, and the Mayflower Resort & Spa in Washington offers a meditative two-hour experience for single walkers or groups of up to seven starting at $140. aubergeresorts.com/mayflower

This article appeared in the May 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale here. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.