Forest bathing has its origins in Japan and invites participants to delve into the atmosphere of the forest using all senses as a way to reconnect with nature. The benefits of forest bathing are said to be vast, from improving sleep quality and overall vigor to reducing anxiety and lowering blood pressure, among others studied.
I’d heard about the concept in Luxembourg and Germany but also on previous trips to Asia, yet I had to admit I was a bit sceptical. Was there something different about “forest bathing” as opposed to a mere mindful walk in the woods?
A dip into forest bathing
Before Karen and I even step foot in the Bambesch forest following our interview, she instructs me to be cognizant of the fact that we are stepping over a threshold, from the car park into the woods, and to envision it as if I were entering another's home. As we enter the woods, she reminds me to breathe deeply. Earlier she had explained why. “We need the trees to breathe, and they need us.”
Karen asks me to pay attention to how my feet feel over various terrain as we move from the more trodden path to deeper into the woods. I notice my steps feel more cushioned somehow, walking feels lighter. Earlier she said, “Walking slow is hard; if you start thinking about it, it’s wobbly.” Her steps are barely audible, those of an expert in this. At a certain point, she asks me to notice the difference of views between when I am fully focused on my footing--when I see a frame of the carpet of slick, brown leaves--compared to when I look up and take in the expanse of the forest around me, which makes it slightly harder to walk. She’s right: the two perspectives make the experience entirely different.
Karen demonstrating the imporance of touch in forest bathing in the Bambësch forest Photo: Delano
We approach a clearing, and the sound of cars from the street near the car park are now gone; instead, I hear what I think is a woodpecker. She corrects me: the trees are creaking. Karen explains that as strong as a tree seems on the ground, above they are swaying. We look up, and I’m surprised to see the trees are swaying above, although we don’t feel a breeze on the ground.
Despite the cold, Karen leads to me to place my hands on three different trees. We don’t use our sense of touch enough, she explains, yet each tree has a completely different feel. Despite the cold there’s even the impression of warmth in one of them. As my hands leave one of the trees, I’m surprised to see hundreds of tiny insects I never would have noticed otherwise.
There is a science to forests--trees actually are connected through fungi and bacteria through their web of roots--and what I’m surprised to discover, with Karen’s guidance, is the sheer variety of trees around me, how they are growing at different rates. She explains that many young trees in this particular area are being protected by the older trees, which block light intentionally so the youth can grow strong.
From Waldorf to Zen: a whole toolbox
Earlier during our interview, Karen described the therapeutic benefits she herself had experienced with the forest. Most of her career had been spent as a social worker and she told me she had been involved in a project she didn’t agree with. “I did it for five years even though I wasn’t convinced it was the right way to do it.” At some point in a stressful situation, however, she said, “The body doesn’t want it anymore. You get sick a first time, then a second time, then there’s less time between two illnesses.”
Karen said she had reached a limit when she couldn’t even stand up anymore. “I was brought with an ambulance to hospital, I had just shut down completely.”
When she had started to look for a job again, she said, “I couldn’t see myself in anything…I started thinking how I could help people in burnout.”
The forest had been a place she would often go, but she also had a growing awareness she could share “all the tools I had… I was lucky because I started meditating when I was really young with tai chi, Zen meditation, I had done martial arts, had a yoga diploma, studied Chinese medicine, and somehow [the combination of those disciplines] had taken on a purpose.”
Karen also grew up with the Waldorf school and philosophy, so nature has always played a fundamental role in her life.
In February 2019, the mother-of-two started her business as a forest bathing coach. She has worked with those dealing with illness, including cancer, and accidents, as well as those who simply want burnout prevention. Others join her out of sheer curiosity.
She explains to me why burnout has such a hold in today’s society. “The parasympathetic system doesn’t work anymore,” she explained. “Before, if a person had a tiger approaching, they had the adrenaline shot to run fast enough to escape. Today we don’t have the tiger anymore, but so much stuff coming all the time that this system is on a high level constantly. And when that’s repeated, the sympathetic doesn’t want to kick in anymore. We get sick because something isn’t balanced in our body anymore.”
Heading back into society
As our walk comes to an end, the sounds of the trees and sprinkling of light rain are drowned by the bells from a nearby church. A police siren wails. The slick rush of cars on wet pavement slices through the air. As we exit the forest, Karen reminds me I’m leaving that threshold again, heading back into society. I notice with her guidance that my footsteps feel heavier, not cushioned by the forest floor anymore. She tells me to take note of that feeling when I’m back in the city, walking on concrete--that even that can impact the joints, the body.
Karen asks how I’m feeling, telling me to use the first word that comes to mind. “Protected--is that strange?” I answer, surprised by this.
She smiles. My answer, apparently, isn’t uncommon. She tells me the trees are literally hovering above, creating “a sort of cocoon”.
The feeling is one that lasts all day, along with a sense of clear-headedness and feeling refreshed. Thanks to Karen for my first real forest bathing experience. I’m already a convert.