On a sunny Saturday morning in the William Goodrich (W.G.) Jones State Forest north of Houston, visitors who’ve left their phones behind walk at a slow pace as they listen to the call of a red-cockaded woodpecker and feast their eyes on the forest’s multiple shades of green.
They’ve come to engage in the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoko, or forest bathing. Also known as forest therapy, forest bathing is a slow, sensory-based walk through nature. At W.G. Jones, a guide leads walkers past longleaf and loblolly pine, cedar trees, and smatterings of wildflowers, inviting them to take in sights, smells, sounds, and sensations—a fragrant flower, the crunch of gravel under sneakers, the roughness of tree bark.
The concept of forest bathing became popular in Japan in the 1980s as research showed that overworked employees who spent time meandering through forests experienced lower heart rates, blood pressure, and stress hormones.
Dr. Qing Li, the world’s foremost expert in forest medicine, says never before have people been so separated from nature. The average American spends 90% of their time indoors. But even short periods of time in nature can boost mood and enhance wellness, he says. Over the years, much research has confirmed forest bathing’s mental and physical health benefits, including better sleep and concentration, less anxiety, and a stronger immune system, Li adds.