Not so long ago, relatively speaking, humans existed and subsisted in natural spaces. There was no way to “get out” of nature.

But succeeding generations have become increasingly estranged from the wild. “We live most of our lives indoors, use more technology, and ingest synthetic foods and artificial scents,” says Tom Bezek, a Minneapolis-based shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” guide. “Each one of these things push us further from nature, which we’re interdependent.”

Bezek compares our modern disconnect from nature to some in a relationship growing apart. In order to improve the relationship, he says, you have to communicate and spend time together.

Strengthening that connection is the foundation of forest bathing. The idea was developed in the early 1980s by Tomohide Akiyama, then Japan’s minister of agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, who saw it as a way to connect an ancient Japanese practice with health-oriented ecotourism.

A shinrin-yoku session or retreat is typically guided. It begins with an invite to interact with the natural world. Following a designated amount of time in the wild, the group gathers to share experiences: how different senses engaged, what thoughts or feelings emerged, what truths crystallized. Sessions sometimes conclude having a brief tea ceremony.

I had time to experience shinrin-yoku last fall at the Tofte Lake Center, outside of Ely, Minn., while enjoying a weeklong writing residency. I hardly thought about being cooped up in my cabin alone, and so i was thrilled to discover the Gaia Forest Bathing and Wellness Retreat.

Once I learned what shinrin-yoku really was, that is. I knew it reconnects individuals with nature in a mindful method to improve their health and well-being, but I didn’t feel disconnected from nature.

I prided myself on getting outside daily — for exercise, to walk the dog, to work in the yard — regardless of weather. I wasn’t sure what someone like me could learn from a weeklong “bath” in the woods, but I was certain there was no such thing as “an excessive amount of nature,” so I was wanting to experience this new-to-me approach, especially encompassed by the last splash of autumn color in northern Minnesota.

That first evening, I joined the audience and searched the grounds for something representing a worry to leave behind for the week. We strolled in a variety of directions, at our own speed, scanning the forest floor for the best representation of needless stress.

When my attention caught a discarded pencil, I knew I’d found my object. It perfectly symbolized things i feared for the week: Despite an abundance of time and freedom, I wouldn’t be as creative or productive as I hoped.

The Benefits of Slowing Down Outside

The next morning, we gathered round the fire pit for our first official walk. Bezek, who spent 37 years as an assistant superintendent at a juvenile-corrections residential treatment facility, is well aware of the calming influence nature provides. The groundwork for his teaching, he explained, came in his youth as a graduate of both Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School.

While taking an online course on nature therapy in 2021, he discovered the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. He later traveled to California to go to one of their certification programs.

Bezek shared the science supporting the health benefits of interacting with nature, including Japanese studies on forest medicine showing how contact with trees reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol. (For more on these findings, visit “How Forests Boost Immunity.”)

What’s more, our immune function improves, because of phytoncide, an essential oil that trees release to guard against insects and disease. The oil increases our production of natural killer cells that fight cancer and disease — cells that remain slightly elevated even after we leave the forest.

Not only does shinrin-yoku make you feel better in the short term, but a regular walk in the woods can act as preventive medicine, too.

Although such research can inspire individuals to spend time in nature, I didn’t need to be convinced. I already know which i feel better after being outdoors. Things i didn’t realize is that these results aren’t a product of vigorous exercise. You don’t will need to go on a brisk walk; you don’t have to elevate your heart rate.

That may be welcome news to the sedentary population, who by means of getting outside will likely move more, but I, a multitasking mover (hearing podcasts, returning phone calls, checking my step count), resisted the idea of remaining still. I mean, wouldso would I get everything done? And just how would this support my effort to be more active?

Bezek offered our group one surprising selling point in his pitch for stillness: It takes the natural environment about 20 minutes to adjust to your presence and carry on as before. “Being present allows everything around you to settle down, and then you become a part of it instead of a visitor or intruder or part of an environment you need to control,” he was quoted saying.

He had me at “control.” I started to reconsider my multitasking walks.

To help reframe my thinking, I told myself shinrin-yoku would be to a brisk walk on my favorite trail what restorative yoga is to a class of sun salutations. We need both. We need to move and discover time to be still. The win-win is when we can do both during nature.

Meeting the Trees

In our first session, Bezek invited us to stand and orient ourselves to different directions. We spent a few minutes facing north, west, south, and east — first with this eyes closed, then together open.

He asked us to think about what each direction represented within our lives. What memories emerged? What emotions? What did we notice as our perspective changed? Then he suggested we gaze within the direction that felt preferred.

Facing south toward my Texas hometown, where the heat of the sun warmed my face, I considered how a direction can trigger emotions and memories around food or scents, a photograph or song. I designed a mental note to pay attention to the direction I undertake my daily walks.

Next, Bezek extended an “edgy invitation” to leave our comfort zones. He wanted us not only to be in nature but engage with it.

First, he told us to find a tree that stands out for us, then introduce ourselves. Wake up close, touch it, smell it, even participate in it. Notice where it sits in relation to other trees in the forest. Consider the branches, the bark, the leaves.

He reminded us that trees live, breathing organisms, and to approach them as we would when introduced to a person. When we first meet someone, he said, we notice a person’s hair, eyes, hands. Once we develop a relationship, we come to find similarities.

While I had not planned to become listed on every shinrin-yoku session — I had writing to do, after all — I couldn’t ignore the invitations. I couldn’t avoid an opportunity to forest bathe at night.

Because our sense of sight was diminished in the dark, Bezek invited us to pay attention to our other senses. It’s hard not to lean heavily on sight, however in the dark we couldn’t let our sight hog the experience. What did we hear? What did we smell? In the light of the waxing gibbous moon, how did the evergreen, maple, and aspen trees appear in contrast to how they looked during the day?

As a few days progressed, I found shinrin-yoku wasn’t infringing on my small productivity at all. The writing was pouring out of me, despite my spending time to slow down and step away to immerse myself in nature. (To learn how rest improves productivity, visit “Deliberate Rest.”)

Being Here

The apex from the retreat was a hike to nearby Kawishiwi Falls. This was a opportunity to use all the tips Bezek had taught us, to appreciate a place teeming with beauty: robust evergreens all around the waterfall, the smell of decaying stumps and oversize mushrooms, the sound of rushing water and bird calls.

As we moved along the trail, we used our vestibular and proprioceptive senses (which assist balance and motion in addition to spatial awareness), feeling our way over fallen trees and exposed boulders. We took Bezek’s advice to locate a “sit spot” — and “belong there.”

Though I’d subscribed to this session because I saw it as an opportunity to hike, I learned it had been really designed to help us get at something else.

Amos Clifford, who founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs this year, distinguishes forest bathing from the walk in the woods in the book, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature. “Forest bathing isn't the same thing as hiking,” he writes. “The destination in forest bathing is ‘here,’ not ‘there.’ The interest rate is slow. The focus is on connection and relationship.”

By week’s end, I'd achieved a comfortable equilibrium among stillness in nature, productive writing time, and moving my body. This symbiotic relationship was not lost on me. I can’t explain how I was both extraordinarily productive and relaxed at the same time, except to say, nature provides.

(Forest) Bath Time

Try shinrin-yoku on your lawn or neighborhood with one of these invitations provided by forest-therapy guide Tom Bezek:

  • What's in motion? Observe what moves who are around you.
  • Find a natural element on a walk. What does it represent in your life?
  • Find a location to sit and close your eyes. Exactly what do you hear?
  • What's up? Our gaze typically shifts downward. Check out what's above.

To download a Forest Therapy Starter Kit and look for guides in your area, visit