Of all the wellness trends emerging out there, forest bathing has the most ambiguous name. It evokes thoughts of wilderness, magic, and primal existence. “Bathing?” I wondered. “In the forest? Is there nudity involved?” Instead, fully clothed, I stand in the belly of the city, right in Alamo Square Park. The wildest creatures around me are urban toddlers. And yet, here I am amongst the Painted Ladies and curious tourists, about to forest bathe.
Guided by Julia Plevin, the founder of San Francisco’s own Forest Bathing Club and writer of a soon-to-be-published book on the topic, seven other people and I will soon embark on a hour and a half-long journey, never leaving the park but perhaps traveling deep into our core beings? My inner cynic snarks, but we’ll see.
Forest bathing is also known as shirin-yoku, meaning “luxuriating in the forest” in Japanese. Prioritizing mindfulness way before it became a buzzword, the Japanese pioneered the practice of forest bathing in the ’80s, establishing exercises that utilized the senses to connect with nature. Riding the trend wave of all things mindful, the U.S. is starting to embrace the practice decades later and California, with its lush woodlands, seems like a natural welcoming committee. Try forest bathing in Chicago at this time of year, and you’ll be slapped in the face by a snowy branch. But in San Francisco, on a mild, sunny November Sunday, the idea seems perfectly reasonable.
My forest bathing buddies speak fluent wellness, embodying the type of people you might meet at Rainbow Grocery, at a yoga class, or rummaging through the racks at Outdoor Voices — aware, clean-eating folks who work at accelerators and go to Bali on a whim. As we gather before the activity and share our expectations and goals for the session, phrases like “holding space,” “‘healing,” and “home within us” effortlessly fly into the air. One bather says that at this “season of his life” he yearns to be “rooted.” Me? I’m here for an article, I share, unexpectedly adding that I want to “quiet the noise in my mind.” That’s the thing about wellness: it’s embedded in us, and you never know when it might show itself.
After sharing our goals and introducing ourselves, we are ready to become one with nature. Julia, a petite blond with reassuring features and a nomadic outfit (a poncho, hat, and a weaved basket she carries on her back) leads us to a shady spot. Upon stopping, Julia instructs us to close our eyes and stand quietly for a moment, taking in everything around us. Phones were left behind. Fragrant eucalyptus branches, on the other hand, were handed out — perhaps to keep our fingers occupied or perhaps to calm our nasal passages. We stand in a circle with our eyes closed, and it suddenly feels luxurious; the sounds are lively and deep, the sun rays are warm, the absurdity of the situation to the outsider, unimportant. More sharing ensues, as participants happily report heightened senses, vivid sensations, and a deeper sense of being — and they’re not wrong. Seriously, try sitting at an urban park with your eyes closed — your sarcasm will melt away faster than matcha soft serve.
The next activity is another fun surprise: a silent walk through Alamo Square while noticing, per Julia’s prompt, “what’s in motion?” Perhaps the deep woods would have made for a different experience, but here, finding motion and, consequently, beauty, isn’t hard. Between strolling couples, dog walkers, swinging children, and trees moving in the wind, there’s no shortage of action, and in the process I notice how gorgeous Alamo Square is — how pretty its 360-degree views are. After years of stopping here to meet a friend or taking a visitor to see the Painted Ladies, studiously looking around has never been a top priority.
By the end of the walk, Julia asks us to “offer” our eucalyptus branch to a tree that seems willing to receive it. That won’t be the last time we’re asked to communicate with nature, but first, after looking and listening, we are invited to pair up and surprise each other with a “gift” from the forest. As one partner sits in the sun with their eyes closed, the other has to find an object and place it in their palms. My partner, a laid-back girl from Palm Springs, brings me a flower and its softness catches me off guard. I bring her a smooth branch, almost like a bone, and we all talk about why our gifts are perfect. My partner says the branch is perfect because of its minimalism, while someone praises a gift of freshly picked mushrooms wrapped in a string of grass.
Before a closing circle with clementines, tea from a thermos, and gratitude cards, we’re prompted to do one more thing — find a tree that speaks to us and ask it a question. “This is ridiculous,” I hear myself thinking. But then, just like listening with your eyes closed or having a delicate flower placed in your hand, it’s also very simple, once you turn the cynical voice off. I look around and find myself drawn to a medium, irregular tree with a multitude of leaves and branches. I don’t ask it anything, but the tree’s chaotic, disheveled look somehow reassures me that not everything has to be controlled, labeled, pre-packaged. The tree itself is kind of ridiculous looking, but also undeniably there, present in the moment and defying clichés. Wellness lingo can be mockable, but it speaks to real issues. And leaving your phone at home and spending time in nature, doing unexpected things and opening your senses? That’s something tangible you can properly enjoy. No one got naked, and nothing primal seemingly took place, but to me, standing still and being aware in Alamo Square Park on a Sunday afternoon was completely wild.
Ready to embark on your own meditative practice? Find forest bathing sessions near you.