The art of forest ‘bathing’ comes to WNC

TREE MEDICINE: Lisa Garcia "bathes" in Pisgah National Forest. Photo by Alex Garcia

Last year David Kendall, who lives near Max Patch in Pisgah National Forest, found himself on a balcony in a Tokyo high-rise. “It was night, and you could see all the lights out [in the city], and there were these huge circles, big patches of black where there was no light,” he says.  Kendall learned that these dark areas were the sacred forests surrounding Shinto shrines and that, according to his Japanese host, “They’d always been there; the city grows around them.”

Kendall tells the story to epitomize the culture that created the practice of shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing or forest therapy — a practice for which he is trained as a guide.

Forest bathing entails walking in forests or other natural areas but differs from a typical hike in that it focuses on being in the woods “in a very intentional and aware manner,” says Kendall, a certified nature and forest therapy guide as well as  owner of Kana’Ti Lodge near Max Patch.

“It’s important to know we are not training therapists; we’re training guides. We say that the forest itself is the therapist,” says Amos Clifford, founder and director of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, a California-based organization. Clifford led a guide- training course held at Kendall’s lodge last year. “As guides, we open the doors that allow the forces [of nature] to come in in a healing way,” says Clifford.

“Nature therapy is probably as old as human beings; it just hasn’t been called that,” says Kendall, with a laugh. Bringing it into the 21st century, the Japanese began researching the health benefits of shinrin-yoku, “measuring just about anything you could in the body,” he notes.

Research shows that people who engage in forest bathing experience decreased blood pressure, cortisol levels and stress, as well as increased natural killer cells, which boost the immune system, says Lisa M. Garcia, a McDowell County  resident and guide who attended a shinrin-yoku class in California.

Lisa Garcia3 Alex Garcia
GET YOUR NATURE ZEN ON: Forest bathing is a way to get centered and be present, says Lisa Garcia, owner of a campground in McDowell County. Photo by Alex Garcia

“It’s all about stepping back, slowing down, and we call it shaking off the road dust,” she says.

“Road dust” is all the things going on in a person’s life — taking care of children, work, grocery shopping, checking email and voicemail, says Garcia, who left the corporate world nine years ago for a more nature-centric life of owning and operating the Yogi Bear Jellystone campground in Marion with her husband. Forest bathing “is an opportunity to shake off all that stuff, allow yourself to get very still, allow yourself to get centered, allow yourself to simply be present. One of the ways that we do that is by using nature, using the forest as that centering point,” says Garcia.

“It’s different from hiking … because you could maybe walk a mile in two hours when participating in forest therapy or forest bathing,” she says.

Moreover, the benefits of forest bathing go beyond the practice of being present, says Garcia. She explains that trees, especially conifers, release chemicals called phytoncides, which protect plants from disease and invasive insects and when inhaled by humans increase the body’s ability to fight diseases. “We’re breathing this in as we’re walking in the woods; deep breathing is a really essential element [of forest bathing],” says Garcia.

Mark Ellison, head and founder of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine’s North American Chapter, first heard about forest bathing seven years ago while working on his dissertation about nature’s impact on humans. As a hiking and nature enthusiast, he says, “I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been experiencing, but I didn’t have words to explain it.'”

The Cullowhee resident is using his hiking research blog to set up an online community focused on learning and experiential activity in nature and aims to hold a conference to bring different academic disciplines together around the topic of how nature impacts humans.

Spending time in nature also correlates with improved mental health and increased productivity, says Ellison, who holds a doctorate in adult education and human resource development from North Carolina State University. “Nature therapy helps you to think more clearly and boosts creativity and brain function,” he says (foresttherapy).

“There’s a great deal of research showing the physiological, emotional, psychological, cognitive benefits of forest bathing,” says Clifford. “What the convergence of data seems to be saying is that [forest bathing] is a general tonic for the nervous system, and the nervous system is incredibly involved in the body’s capacity to stay well and get well when we’re sick,” he says.

Will Ashevilleans gain as much health benefit from a walk along the French Broad River Park in Asheville as a walk through Pisgah National Forest? No, says Ellison. “Spending time on a city greenway where you can hear the interstate is beneficial, but the quality of the natural environment is going to directly impact the amount of benefit you are going to get from it. If you go to a setting where there is very limited human activity, no sound, don’t see buildings, it’s all natural, [where] you are kind of escaping from everyday life — that kind of setting can offer a lot more benefit, especially psychologically, than being on a greenway where you can still hear interstate, planes overhead and people talking,” he says.

This is because forest bathing engages all the senses, says Garcia. For example, when engaging sight in the forest, you might “look for movement along the forest trail; you may see the leaves going back and forth, maybe [they appear to be] waving at you,” she says, “or look at a pond and see the water shimmering and the ripples going out. With the sensation of touch, you may notice your feet on the path and hear sound of gravel, sand, and leaves, or feel wind caressing your cheeks, hear the birdsong, acorns dropping, squirrels scampering around and the wind rustling.”

Kendall believes the time is right for the nature and health connection to gain wider appeal. “In the broader culture there is so much disconnection, from person to person, and a disconnection certainly from nature,” he says. “I think it starts with the senses. The more dense urban situation you live in, the more bombarded your system is with all kinds of smells, bright lights, noise. … It’s kind of a sensory overload. I think people are having a kind of intuitive reaction to that; the human body didn’t evolve to be highly tolerant to that kind of thing. I think people are seeking some sort of relief from that,” he says.

All three guides have ambitious plans for expanding their forest therapy activities. In 2017, Garcia will be opening INDIGO Nature Retreat in Old Fort. Located on the edge of Pisgah National Forest, the INDIGO center (which stands for “immersion in nature designed to inspire growth”) will offer classes in meditation, yoga, forest bathing walks and art, all with the backdrop of connecting with nature, says Garcia. In addition, she will be leading a forest bathing walk hosted by the Marion YMCA on Wednesday, Nov. 30.

In April, Ellison plans to offer a class on forest therapy that focuses on the health benefits of spending time in nature, which will include experiential hikes. He will also continue to build the Society of Nature and Forest Medicine’s North American Chapter.

Kendall plans to host courses at his lodge that focus on nature and health, including another course for nature therapy guides led by Clifford’s Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides.

“We see ourselves as a gateway, a kind of portal,” says Kendall. “We’re next to Max Patch, and that is a pretty special place. People can walk right out of here through the meadows up into Max Patch,” he says. Kendall also runs an educational farm at the lodge. “This is a new mission for us, helping people to enjoy the walk on a much broader, deeper level,” he says.

“It’s really exciting to see all the different directions that this is coming from,” says Kendall, referring to the myriad academic disciplines that are examining the impact of nature on health, as well as practices like forest bathing that are surfacing to implement those findings.  He sees North Carolina as a verifiable playground of opportunity to provide “guided awareness to people who don’t have it available.

“In North Carolina, any mountain, inn or lodge can provide these types of [experiences] and really enrich the experience of the visitor. … It’s very exciting to watch it evolve.”


WHAT: Forest Bathing Walk led by Lisa M. Garcia
WHEN: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 10 a.m.
WHERE: South Mountain State Park, Connelly Springs
TO REGISTER: YMCA in Marion, 659-9622

David Kendall

Lisa M. Garcia

Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

Shinrin Yoku

Amos Clifford, Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides



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36 thoughts on “The art of forest ‘bathing’ comes to WNC

  1. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    Things that have been obvious to innumerable human beings for eons are now some new-found craze for people who have spent their lives in urban/suburban bee hives pursuing materialistic ends.

  2. Kevin Spencer

    Thank goodness for people like this. Being just simple, uneducated mountain folk we would have never realized the benefits of being aware of our natural surroundings. Who knows how I survived up here for 51 years without registering for “forest therapy” and entering a “portal” before my walks in the woods.

  3. boatrocker

    Huh, a walk in the woods to unwind- who would have ever thought that was beneficial?
    Thank goodness we have those ‘guides’ to remind us of that.

    I just hope those guides aren’t charging money for that, as there is a sucker born every minute.

    • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

      Nay! Nay! They would never charge for such selfless service to humanity! Mortgage be damned!

  4. Brian Rudd

    Make sure before you jump through that “portal” into the forest you swing by REI or Mast General Store and stock up on overpriced clothes and equipment. You gotta look sharp out there.

  5. The Real World

    LOL, chuckle, chuckle….. ’tis amusing. Welcome to Asheville.

    Doesn’t mention above what the fee for the guide is on that walk tomorrow. But, get this: for a 7 day training to become one of these guides cost a mere $3210 (you have to dig to find it). Hello!! I assume that includes accommodations and soup to nuts everyday. Gee, so pricey lately to take a walk in the woods and hug some trees.

    • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

      A sucker’s born every minute. So sayeth someone.

      • The Real World

        Now don’t go getting all triggery. We have enough of those saps these days.

        That article is hilarious! Go F the earth, people!

    • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

      ” I assume that includes accommodations and soup to nuts everyday.”

      Sorry Charlie!

      Tuition for all Guide Training and Certification Programs is $3210 USD. This includes the training and mentored practicum. It does not include travel, lodging, ground transportation, or meals.

      • boatrocker

        So a ‘degree’ from said organization to lead walks in the woods is just as worthless as one
        from Trump University or say the Church of Scientology it appears.

      • The Real World

        Good grief! Didn’t take the time to “unearth” the details.

        Here’s a quote for that program: “it’s for people with more money than sense”.

        • boatrocker

          More money than sense- where have I heard that before?
          Whiny watered down faux lefties?
          A POTUS to be?
          Wall St.?

  6. Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

    I find it supremely ironic that a certain someone traveled to Tokyo to discover the sublime epiphany of forest bathing while he was immersed in its radioactive contamination. A US nuclear engineer took random samples around Tokyo, and after testing them found they were all above the level considered to be hazardous nuclear waste in the US, courtesy of Fukushima.

    • Snowflake (Social Justice Worrier)

      I wonder if these courses teach them how to pee in the woods?

  7. Kurt in the woods

    Beware city slickers, if you get lost there’s a beast in them there woods. Some have long hair, bushy beards or even dreadlocks. They wear wore out flannel shirts, Carhartt britches and actually wear their Chaco’s in the woods not just to Wicked Weed. The female beast is sometimes more hairy than the male! She might even have a newborn beast swaddled against her breast, but don’t be scared, that’s called a “LOCAL” and their friendly. They actually know what their doing in the woods because they’re students of Thoreau and Muir (These are not professors at UNCA). They’ll be glad to point you in the direction of the nearest restaurant, brewery or art gallery cause we all know that’s why you really came to the mountains. Daddy wants to drink beer and momma wants a new purse.

    • boatrocker

      I find it hilarious for reading all the comments that both the REI/Mast General Store fashion and the worn out flannel shirts are mocked.
      So I can’t look like a North Face dweeb, but I also can’t dress in old clothes that I don’t mind getting dirty?

      As I subscribe to neither of these schools of fashion or thought, what praytell should I wear when taking my four legged friend for a walk in the woods
      and hopefully avoiding the woo woo Namaste types who insist on blocking a trail (as pictured above) in order to play the ‘more spiritual than thou’ game in the woods?

      I tried the clown outfit, but people kept screaming at me to go away.

      Your post sound a bit like Snowflakes- hmmmm a coinki-dink or not?
      Do you troll for inane articles about eco freaks and therapy puppies too?

      • Kurt in the woods

        Good try boatrocker. I’m way out of your league so keep it civil.

    • boatrocker

      You mean when I find something hilarious and comment, that is anger in your world? Interesting.
      Meditation? Please.

      • Peter Robbins

        You can read about the health benefits of mindfulness mediation on the NIH webpage. In my world, science trumps prejudice. Mindless prejudice included.

        • Peter Robbins

          Opps. That should be “meditation.” Apparently it doesn’t help with typing skills.

          • boatrocker

            Yes, because for only living once, unless there is concrete proof otherwise, I want to waste my time closing my eyes and shutting the world out.

            Sorry, I’d rather do good deeds for others.

          • The Real World

            Ya but, Peter……mindful mediation is a big thumbs-up too! So, you got it covered.

          • boatrocker

            Sounds like you and The Real World (copyright 1992 MTV productions) can get your fairy tale on together.
            Closing the eyes, making the world go away.
            Not to far off from a shrieking toddler screaming “la la la I can’t Heeeeeeear you!”

            I’m so glad I brought the phrase ‘shrieking toddler’ to this website.

          • Peter Robbins

            Oh, well. Sorry to bother you, boatrocker. Some people say they benefit from science-backed stress-reduction techniques. I thought I detected some evidence that you also might profit from a calmer state of mind, but I see now that I was just fooling myself.

          • Peter Robbins

            Oh, wait. There is one more thing. The reason I took an interest in this thread is that I have been listening lately to an audio course called “The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being.” You can find it online. It is taught by Professor Ronald D. Siegel, a clinical psychologist at someplace called Harvard Medical School. He has a lecture on children and adolescents, so he might enjoy hearing your toddler theory. Do continue your discussion with him. I’m sure he’d love your insights. In return, he might even explain to you what mindfulness meditation actually is. Although you might not be able to learn much with your hands over your ears.

          • The Real World

            Yes, you are likely wasting your time with that person. Pharmaceuticals are probably more in order as potential remedy.

            No, he was taunting me by droppng my phrase “shrieking toddlers” which I’ve used numerous times on this website. It’s my label for the hysterical types who devolve into emotional meltdowns at the mere assertion of anything their prophets have told them is bad, bad, bad. Facts and reason are their nemesis so they aren’t utilized….only how it feels. Here is a PERFECT example, pls watch (less than 2 min):

            I am particularly embarrassed for Chelsea Handler. A middle-aged adult whining and sniveling like a kindergartener. We have a country chock-full of these adult-age, childish dimwits. It’s a problem.

            Otherwise, I like your mindfulness journey and think it would rate a very good, and timely, Letter to the Editor. If you are so inclined.

  8. The forest bathing research confirms what people know experientially, that spending time in nature helps one feel good on many levels. The research pinpoints specific ways that forests and nature are beneficial to people’s health. Some people think that is pretty cool and hence the topic seemed like it would be of interest to folks in Asheville. Moreover, to my knowledge no one had researched the health benefits of being in nature in a meditative way (as opposed to hiking, walking) until the forest bathing research although many people throughout history have been doing and appreciating it.

    • Peter Robbins

      The audio course I’ve been listening to discusses the differences between walking through the woods mindfully and walking through the woods with ordinary perception. If there weren’t science to back this stuff up, I too would have said it was nonsense. But there is and it ain’t. Good article.

      • boatrocker

        ‘Ordinary perception’ by most is called ‘reality’. Mindfulness is merely a smug new agey term to denote ‘more spiritual than thou’.
        Anyone can claim to do something with mindfulness, but nobody has to believe them.

        And how dare us inferior hikers/backpackers intrude on ‘your’ forest bathing experience?
        My favorite thing to do when seeing another in the woods is say
        ‘Hi, how’s it going?’. I hope I’m not messing with your chi doing that.

        • Peter Robbins

          You’ve finishing reading all that scientific literature already? Man, you’re something.

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