SNOHOMISH — What does a forest sound like?
On a Sunday morning in November, forest bathers in the depths of Lord Hill Regional Park listened to the gradual descent of water droplets, as the remnants of earlier rain splashed onto logs and leaves.
What does a forest taste or smell like?
Some people attempted to catch water with their tongues. Others perched on stumps and fallen trees, inhaling and exhaling the crisp, cold air.
“That’s what I love, you know, about being here in the Pacific Northwest,” said Alexis Burroughs, the forest bathing guide during the November session. “We have so much of abundance of nature around us that you know, it’s so sad to not visit it.”
The exercise — inviting participants to indulge their senses in the woods — was a part of a forest therapy session, also known as forest bathing. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term for the nature-based meditative practice, shinrin-yoku, in 1982 to inspire Japanese citizens to connect with and preserve the country’s wilderness. The practice is founded on the well-known fact that spending time outdoors is good for our health, both mentally and physically.
Burroughs, a yoga instructor based in Bothell, and staff at the Adopt a Stream Foundation lead forest bathing sessions in an effort to restore the relationship between earth and human.
Burroughs typically meets interested people and groups at McCollum and Centennial parks, in addition to Lord Hill. She accompanies the party on a relatively unpopulated trail, aside from the occasional trail runner or hiker, and asks individuals to pause at certain points along the path, usually over the course of two hours.
At each stop, Burroughs reads a prompt that she calls an invitation. She typically begins with the five senses exercise before introducing activities that spark curiosity: offering magnifying glasses for people to locate something they wouldn’t have normally noticed and welcoming them to talk with and hug nearby trees.
Every forest therapy session ends with a tea party, with the earth receiving the first pour.
By this time, people have completely transformed from when they arrived hours ago at the forest’s edge, often stressed about personal matters or anxious about what the forest bathing experience would entail, Burroughs said.
“I always love to see people’s faces,” she said. “You can see the stress has been lifted.”
Cousins Kelly Singleterry and Kayla Horton have led two forest bathing classes at Adopt a Stream’s center in Everett over the past two years. They plan to offer more sessions next year, including one that may involve a collaboration with Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, leading a palliative care seminar. Singleterry and Horton this month were in the early stages of planning that event.
The duo said leading forest bathing classes together seemed like the ideal opportunity to merge their interests — something they wanted to do for years. Singleterry is an educator at Adopt a Stream and Horton is a massage therapist, and has experience in guiding meditation.
At both of the Adopt a Stream classes, Singleterry held a brief presentation about the history of forest bathing and the benefits of the practice. Participants were then welcomed out onto the center’s back patio overlooking the pollinator garden. There, Horton led a meditation, inviting members to explore their five senses.
Horton encourages people to let go of their thoughts of the past and future, hoping they’ll stay in the present moment. Sometimes participants have unexpected emotional reactions to her meditation, she said.
“I think a lot of people, when they take the time to just breathe — to bond and connect with that — it just can really bring up a lot of visceral responses for people,” she said.
Singleterry then conducts a sage smudging on each person before they venture out on the center’s boardwalk and surround themselves with the quiet woods. She and her family have used native plants to conduct cleansing rituals for years, having hailed from the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations on Vancouver Island.
“I just feel like it’s a good way to get someone to feel like they’re ready to enter, in my mind, a sacred space out there,” Singleterry said. “Because the boardwalk and the wetland and everything, to me, is a sacred space.”
Horton and Singleterry said people who have lived, or currently reside, in urban settings are often attracted to forest bathing because they feel disconnected from natural areas, having few small parks to explore.
Everyday use of technology can also create a barrier between people and the time they spend outside, Horton and Singleterry said. Finally embracing what Singleterry describes as our innate bond with nature can trigger overwhelming, powerful responses to forest bathing, too.
“Not many people are lucky enough to live and breathe and thrive in the same place where their ancestors were from,” Singleterry said. “And so me being from this area and my family being from around here, I think about that. When I see plants, I’m like, ‘Wow, my ancestors from like 10,000 years ago, they looked at the same types of plants and same types of trees.’ And it was all similar.”
Anyone interested in forest bathing classes through Adopt a Stream can contact the center at (425)-316-8592. Classes cost $35 and usually cap at 20 participants.
People can schedule forest therapy sessions with Alexis Burroughs by phone at (425) 200-4646.