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The True Story of a Reluctant Forest Bather

Forest bathing sounds like a fad, but this twist on hiking provided just the mental reset one writer needed.

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At 5:30 p.m. in early March, I sit shivering on a dock at Sawhill Ponds, a wildlife preserve northeast of Boulder, waiting for the other members of my group to arrive. Even the trees are still recovering from winter’s onslaught. David Ford, our floppy-haired, mellow-voiced guide, has warned us to wear layers as the temperature will likely drop about 20 more degrees by 6 p.m., when our full-moon forest bathing session is scheduled to begin.

No, we’re not loofah-ing among the pine trees. Forest bathing, or “shinrin-yoku” in Japanese, is another name for mindful hiking—immersing yourself in nature with the explicit intent to calm your overactive brain. The premise is that a simple shift in how you interact with your surroundings can be as cathartic as yoga or a meditation session (which is why Ford recently ramped up the free forest bathing hikes he leads from once a month to once a week).

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Or, at least, that’s the Kool-Aid version. The more skeptical perspective: Forest bathing is another trendy pursuit that will eventually go the way of the Cupid Shuffle—especially in Colorado, where we’re already well-versed in the serenity that comes with trading our air-conditioned cubicles for aspen groves. How, I wondered, is forest bathing any different?

Ford has an answer. “When I include [a mindful] intent with these hikes,” says the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks recreation coordinator, “I find it increases the experience and reduces the amount of time it takes to receive those transcendent moments in nature.” This is a bit eye-roll–inducing, especially since science hasn’t caught up with Ford’s assertion yet. Several studies have shown that spending time in the forest has positive effects on everything from your blood pressure to your immune system health. Whether the purpose you take into your tree-ensconced walks matters or not? That is still up for debate.

I’m determined to see for myself, and so are the 30 other people who have shown up for our nippy March jaunt. We’re all a little wary; quips about swimsuits and only-in-Boulder-isms fly. But we follow Ford down the flat, 1.5-mile trail that loops around the peaceful wetland area. He stops about 10 minutes in and tells us to partner up: one person leading, the other trying to listen, feel, and smell the surrounding stimuli with eyes closed. My partner is a man from Michigan, my home state, and I feel a sense of camaraderie as we run our hands over the gnarled bark of an ancient tree. Crouching in its branches sends me back to my tree-climbing days as a rambunctious five-year-old, when I pretended I was Pocahontas asking Grandmother Willow for guidance. I settle deeper into the grooves of my memory.

Then Ford mimics the call of a coyote, the signal for us to gather together again, and the flashback fades. Farther down the trail, we seat ourselves on a grassy bank overlooking a pond, with a prime view of the luminous moon. Three packs of real coyotes trade mournful mating calls, yipping away in stereo. I breathe through my nose as directed. Despite the chill, a delicious warmth spreads through my crossed legs and into my abdomen. It’s like the coyotes—or perhaps my lunar friend—have given me their energy. I’ve never been able to reach a meditative state before, but this is easily the closest I’ve come.

As we head back to the parking lot, my euphoria vanishes. Right now, I’d take the sustained heat of my SUV over temporary Zen. But I file the experience away as a tool for future use. My mind could use some settling—and I’m willing to caress a tree to make that happen.

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If You Go: Forest Bathing takes place on Friday afternoons within the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks system.

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