Forest Bathing: What? Why?

Mar 20, 2019

Forest bathing is an English interpretation of the Japanese term shinrin-yoku and it is the idea that spending time in nature in an alert but relaxed manner has healing and rejuvenating benefits. But why, in a state where many Vermonters already feel connected to the natural landscape around them, would someone pay to go on a forest bathing excursion with a forest therapy guide? Vermont Edition went to find out.

WHO: We went with certified nature and forest therapy guide Duncan Murdoch, who leads forest bathing walks with his company Nature Connection Guide.

WHERE: Host Jane Lindholm met up with Murdoch at Rock Point in the Arms Forest in Burlington, where there are a series of interconnected trails with easy terrain.

WHAT: A forest bathing walk is not like walking the dog or trying to get exercise. It's more of a saunter, Murdoch says.

"It's to pick up on a lot of the subtleties we miss when, literally, we're moving fast," he says. "The walks are about two hours long and they involve immersing yourself in the environment through the senses. So it's different than, say, like a naturalist walk...It's a bit of a mindfulness practice; it's a bit of a meditation in a way.

"So I offer a series of invitations for people to experience their natural environment through one of the traditional five senses or a combination. So, for example, I do an invitation called 'What's in motion?'" Murdoch says at first participants might think nothing is moving on a still day, but as they slow their mind and pay attention to their surroundings they'll start to notice the subtle motion of leaves and branches, or insects and animals.

Other "invitations" ask people to lean in to a sound they're hearing that gives them pleasure, like a gentle breeze rustling the treetops or a woodpecker knocking on a dead tree stump.

WHY: Vermont is a place with lots of natural spaces and a population that values time in the woods. So why would anyone pay a guide like Murdoch to take them into the woods? Isn't this the commodification of nature?

Murdoch, who grew up in Shelburne, is sympathetic to the skepticism of his interviewer.

"I'm a Vermonter. I don't like paying for parking; I don't like paying for anything," he laughs. He started working as a nature and forest therapy guide when he lived in New York City. "And I thought, 'Man, these people could use it.'" He says nature drew him back to coming home and he wondered if the practice and business would translate.

"There are studies that show that the effects of forest bathing and being out in the forest can last up to a few weeks. But on these walks, less on a scientific level, anecdotally, people carry this practice with them." Murdoch says doing this with a guide helps people start a habit of forest bathing that they can integrate into their lives. Many Vermonters profess to love nature but spend very little time in it, and making a conscious choice to pay a guide, he says, can help people stick to the practice.

HOW: Forest bathing walks are becoming increasingly popular. Murdoch charges $25 per person for group walks and has a schedule on his website where he can also be hired for couple or private walks.

MORE: Listen to the full interview above!