When Kelly Bruce takes people out for a walk in the forest, she speaks slowly and clearly, in an almost hypnotic fashion. She invites participants to close their eyes and take in the smells and textures of the woods. They listen for animal sounds, taste the difference in the forest air, feel the wood of a log or the dirt on the ground.
This isn’t just an average hike. Bruce practices forest bathing, an originally Japanese exercise intended to cleanse the mind and provide an outlet from the stresses of modern life. And she is a professional, certified as a forest therapy guide by the Association of Nature and Forest Guides.
Once upon a time, Bruce worked as a journalist, but she’s more comfortable now helping people reconnect with nature — something she says is often lost in the constant hum of big cities, corporate office jobs and long commutes. She owns her own company, Natural Wanders, and also guides with Asheville Wellness Tours.
Bruce spoke with Xpress about her approach to the work and what people can expect from a bath in the forest.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is forest bathing different from a traditional nature walk?
We don’t identify plants or birds — in fact, the idea is to quiet our analytic brains. We start by awakening our senses one by one, then go on a slow wander through the forest to explore what’s in motion. There’s also a standard sequence of invitations, optional activities that provide an opportunity for enhanced nature connection. Lastly, I host a tea ceremony as a way of celebrating the end of the experience. I forage a plant from the area, often white pine, blackberry leaves, dandelion or something else I know is safe and abundant in the area we’re walking.
It’s a time to pause and reflect on the gifts we’ve received from nature, drink them in and allow these gifts to come alive within. This is a beautifully restorative practice, and the more you do it, the more deeply you can connect and drop in.
How did you get into this work?
In 2016, I was working in Colorado at an adaptive sports program. I’d have people from the Colorado School for the Blind, and we’d end up snowshoeing through the woods together. I wanted them to understand where they were, to fully immerse all their senses, and since they couldn’t see, I’d kind of narrate: have them smell the pines, touch the bark of the trees, listen for the birds. It was a really great experience.
I somehow learned about forest bathing, I think through a magazine, and I started Googling. I did a one-week training followed by a six-month practicum with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. The ANFT model of forest bathing is much more than a walk in the woods. It’s about remembering our relationships with the world, ourselves, each other and nature.
What role do you play in the experience?
As a guide, it’s important to make a differentiation between a therapist and a guide: The forest is the therapist, and a guide is just opening the door. We’re creating a deeper connection with ourselves and with our community, to the other people who come on these walks.
People have some really beautiful moments on these. We listen from the heart; we speak from the heart. It’s an opportunity to be witnessed, to be fully heard.
What’s the most difficult part about doing this?
I think sometimes it might be the elements. I always want to make sure everyone is very comfortable. We do a good job helping people prepare for our mountain weather by dressing in layers and getting rain gear.
It’s really quite lovely to play in the rain, to be quite honest. A big part of this practice is awakening our sense of wonder and awe. As children, we have that so innately, but as we become adults, we have responsibilities and we’re adulting. We kind of lose that sense. So to see adults play in the rain or lie on the ground and look at the leaves of a tree, it’s lovely.
What do people usually take away from forest bathing?
They report feeling stress relief, feeling less anxious. This is a way of letting go, giving ourselves permission to immerse ourselves in a forest atmosphere, which science proves is very healthy. It helps to lower our blood pressure and our heart rate.
One of the coolest things is that trees emit phytoncides. When humans breathe in these volatile organic compounds, they increase our natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that helps fight illness and boost immunity. In a pandemic, it’s a really lovely, natural way to improve your health.
And people will never look at nature quite the same. It deepens their attention; they’re noticing things they never noticed before. I call it like a superhero sense.
For me, it looks like noticing wildflowers, finding joy in seeing little mushrooms along the trail, hearing the birds. But I find it carries on through their daily lives, which is a lovely thing to share with friends and loved ones.
What’s something you’d like to try on your tours that you haven’t done yet?
I’m also a paddler and an equestrian, so I would love to offer forest bathing and nature therapy via stand-up paddleboard, canoe, kayak or horseback. I enjoy helping people deepen their appreciation for this amazing planet by any means: land, water or with the help of some horsepower!