The profound sensory experience of forest bathing in NJ

Forest bathing is the practice of communing with nature and activating your senses. Though you can do it alone, we went on a walk with certified guide Richard Collins at Duke Farms in Hillsborough.

When you show up to your first forest bathing event, the trees will look like trees, the clouds will be clouds, the dirt… just dirt. But after a couple hours of guided meditations and a walk through the woods, they transform. In a rustling young tree branch, you might see your child. In the clouds, an answer to a perplexing problem. In the dirt, everything.

You won’t expect it. You won’t really be able to explain it. And that’s kind of the whole point.

Though people have been communing with nature for centuries to improve mood and health, the modern practice of forest bathing, or nature therapy as it’s also commonly called, started in earnest in the ’80s. Citing an increase in work burnout, the Japanese government encouraged people to practice forest bathing (or shinrin-yoku), which could be as simple as walking or sitting in a forest, or doing so with a group, while practicing curated meditative exercises, or invitations, that activate your senses. 

That’s what I recently did at Duke Farms in Hillsborough with certified guide Richard Collins, who runs the forest bathing practice The Friendly Territory. Collins had been traveling to Japan for some two decades for work, and noticed people kept mentioning he ought to try forest bathing. He had regularly meditated, and so was interested in the practice, and eventually tried it.

“Maybe six years ago, I went out and did it and I had what I consider to be a profound experience,” Collins says. “It shocked me how profoundly I felt forest bathing there. I came back thinking I’m going to do this as a practice. I was thinking about semi-retirement, and this struck me like a bolt of lightning. This was so beautiful and so full of potential for the U.S.”

Collins trained with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, where he undertook a six-month program, involving lessons on how to conduct a walk, a weeklong immersion in the woods, weekly meetings with a mentor, foraging exercise and practice walks. 

Collins opened his practice in the pandemic, which, as you might imagine, was fortuitous timing—people who had plans to go on vacation or were otherwise sick of being inside had a chance to do something interesting in a safe environment.

But woven into the fabric of forest bathing are benefits that are not only realized in times of stress, isolation and sickness, as in the pandemic, but in the ups and downs of everyday life. There are mountains of anecdotal evidence from forest bathing practitioners, and several countries (South Korea, Canada and Finland, to name a few) incentivize the practice through various methods.

But there’s also plenty of clinical research that bolsters the claim that forest bathing benefits both the immune system and mental health. When we commune with trees, we breathe in phytoncides, a natural compound released by trees to fight pests and disease. Turns out, phytoncides have a positive effect on humans, and increase the production of natural killer (NK) cells, which fight off certain diseases.

While the immune response to forest bathing is quantifiable and communicable, the mental health benefits are trickier to quantify and much more difficult to communicate. But they’re present, and they’ll be the thing you take away immediately from a forest bathing program. 

Collins is aware of that awesome power of nature and sees his role in the process as to facilitate connections between person and environment.

“We are not therapists,” Collins says. “The forest is the therapist. The guide’s job is to hold the space. We create a sacred space and then our job is to hold it without ego. What we always like to say is whatever you get from this is between you and nature. I don’t want to get in between that.”

Our program at Duke Farms began with a short introductory speech from Collins about what we were undertaking. Collins asked us to partner up with a stranger and talk about a memory involving nature from our childhood that sticks in our heads. Then, Collins guided us through our first invitation, a 25-minute meditation under the cover of trees, where he prompted us to sense nature in different ways—”Hear the farthest sound, now the nearest,” “Touch the soil, then bring your hands to your nose,” “Open your eyes slowly, as if you’re waking up.”

After each invitation, the group convened in a circle, where we could hear everyone and no one was in front of or behind another. Collins asked us to speak about our experiences, and emphasized both in the meditation and the circle, not to judge ourselves or one another.

“The secret of the circle is [people] have to feel safe and not judged,” Collins says. After each person speaks, “I basically just say, ‘thank you’ or, ‘that was a great insight,’ because if you give anyone credit, then you’re taking away credit from the next person. You have to stay neutral. Everyone has something to say and as our walks go on, people start opening up more and more. With each circle, they open up a little more and little more and by the end, they’re wide open.”

After spending time in these invitations taking input through your senses, and not necessarily your logical mind, it’s hard, at first, to use that mind—the one’s we get caught up in everyday—to describe the experience. You might say something that your logical mind wouldn’t, or that it would’ve judged you for saying, or that you wouldn’t have shared with a group of strangers if not for the priming Collins provides. 

But dang, is it wild to hear what comes out of you and to see what crosses your mind when you try to process, in the moment, the experience of the invitations. After the first meditation, I couldn’t stop thinking about the 20 seconds we focused on sound. If I paid attention, I could hear one of the farthest sounds, and I could hear the nearest one, when just minutes before it was a cacophony. A beautiful one, but jumbled nonetheless. And I was struck with the thought that I don’t know where one sound begins, and one ends. What’s in me, and what’s without. What’s sound, even.

And so, to communicate that to the circle, I said something along the lines of, “I’m aware of something much bigger and deeper than myself that I can’t explain.” Look, it’s not Rumi, but it’s what came out. And it was true.

As others spoke in the circle, there were plenty of people nodding along to those who could put words to what we were experiencing. In one invitation, Collins asked us to take a string of twine tied into a small circle, place it anywhere on the ground that calls out to us, and look at it for 10 minutes. After, we were instructed to roll over and look at the sky.

I did not know how to express what this experience delivered, except that it delivered something. In the circle after that invitation, one person said what I had experienced perfectly and beautifully. They said, “You look at the ground and it’s a small area but it feels so massive. You turn to the sky, and it’s a bigger area, but it feels so small.” And I’m paraphrasing because, in the moment, informed by his experience, he said it much better than I can with my logical brain after the fact.

Though Collins has been doing walks for several years, he, too, still has moments of wonder. On an invitation to pick up an item in nature that called to us, he said in the circle that he picked up dirt, and, by the end, had a looser grip on what dirt really is.

“It came to me that I did not know what dirt is,” Collins says after the fact. “It’s this beautiful combination of blood and bone and water and soil and rock and cosmic beings. I don’t know, but it’s magical. We like to call it dirt, which has a bad connotation with it. We put words on things, but that restricts things.”

The examples of the power of the circle are numerous. One person who said they had social anxiety and seemed uneasy talking at first, ended up coolly sharing wonderful insights by the end. A 9-year-old came to a walk one time, Collins says, and “blew everybody’s minds” with their insights. Collins says he’s surprised by what comes out of people in the circle “every single time. I’ve never not been surprised.”

People come from all walks of life to forest bathing. Collins asked us in the introductory circle to tell us why we were there.Though it may not be the exercise’s primary intention, it serves as a benchmark for where many people end up.

“I’ve had people in the opening circle say … because my wife made me come,” Collins says. “You know right there you’re going to get some resistance. But I find the bigger, tougher they are, the harder they fall.”

Collins is quick to pass off credit for the powerful experiences many of us had during the walk. Nature, as he said before, is doing the work, and when people trust themselves, listen to their bodies and submit to the experience, they and nature alone generate the benefits of forest bathing.

But Collins is also pretty good at this, and takes care to make sure the circle remains a judgment-free and safe space to share, and that the invitations are maximally beneficial to the group. The first two invitations—the quiet meditation, and a quiet walk through the forest listening and looking at nature—are the same in almost every walk, Collins says, because they’re intended to get practitioners in the proper space. 

“After that, things always change, but those two are the base foundation of the walk,” Collins says. “If I can, in the first one, quiet your mind down even a little bit, doesn’t have to be a miracle that you’re stoically still, and then in the walk, slow you down physically, now I’ve created a foundation for the invitations to follow.” 

Collins decides “in the moment,” which invitations will follow the first two, based on what he’s hearing from the circle participants. And he occasionally reads poems from which he feels the group might benefit.

But the work also begins long before, and after, any given walk. Collins says he spends at least five hours in a natural area before deciding whether or not to hold a walk there. Currently, he holds monthly walks at Duke Farms and several locations in Morris County. After a walk, the weight of conducting a walk requires a bit of decompression.

“The hardest thing is holding the space for two and a half hours,” Collins says. “When I get home, I am exhausted. If you truly hold the space of people and you keep it sacred and you keep track of everybody and hold the meditative space, that takes an incredible amount of energy. For me, the hardest part was building up the stamina for two and a half hours and not losing my focus. It’s very easy to drift off and lose your attention because it’s demanding. The foraging, a lot of the other things, were tricky but not too difficult. Once you start practicing, you realize how important it is to hold the space.”

On the last invitation, we were told to pick a scroll out of a bag. On the scrolls were handwritten invitations, and we each got different ones. I picked a scroll that said to be with something that makes me smile. I walked around a bit and eventually felt called to a small branch growing out of the trunk of a very large tree. I didn’t know why it called out to me. But toward the end of the invitation period, the wind picked up and the leaves on the branch started batting my face. Sometimes lightly, sometimes way up in my business. Then the branch would retreat, only to suddenly, almost playfully, tap me again. In just a tiny moment, the branch was my kids on the couch doing silly kid things and climbing all over me. Maybe it was a coincidence, but the sensation, the feeling I got was identical. One and the same. Logically, it wasn’t the same, of course: this tree and my kids. But in something deeper within me, something much harder to communicate, it was. 

So, you know, I’m hooked. As are others—Collins says in the U.S., forest bathing is today what yoga was 20 years ago. And I don’t know what Collins experienced on his first forest bathing trip, but he’s, obviously, hooked too. Now that he’s been doing it regularly for years, he can communicate some of what a long-term forest bathing practice feels like.

“I’ve grown more in the last three years than I grew in the previous 40 of meditation and anything else I did,” Collins says. “With meditation, it’s nice to sit in a quiet room but if you can’t be present in the world through the daily activity of somebody yelling at you or honking at you or all the little inconveniences, then does meditation really work? This practice has made everything more real and brought everything into sharper focus. For me, the connection with nature has deepened and deepened and deepened, and my realization is we’re all just part of one being.”

Collins has several upcoming forest bathing events in Morristown and Chester in August. And on Sept. 10, International Forest Bathing Day, Collins will hold a forest bathing event at Duke Farms with an ending Japanese Tea Ceremony. For more info, go here.