Lauren Theis, a 33-year-old yoga instructor, will lead a group hike Saturday through a trail deep in the New Jersey Pinelands, past stands of Atlantic white cedar, oak, and pitch pine — and maybe even a bald eagle nest.
But the goal isn't to hike or bird-watch. Rather, it's to soak in the forest through every sense, a growing practice known as forest bathing. Swimming is not necessary. And practitioners get to keep their clothes on as they enjoy one of the newest spiritual trends, which treats nature as a way to reduce stress and anxiety.
"Forest bathing is just slowing down, letting yourself be immersed in nature and using all your five senses," Theis said. "You can take a step back from your ego and what your prefrontal cortex is doing, and just experience your life in the moment."
Theis is leading the New Jersey Conservation Foundation's "Forest Bathing in the Pines" program from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at the 11,379-acre Franklin Parker Preserve in Chatsworth, Burlington County.
Amos Clifford, founder of the San Francisco-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, said forest bathing is derived from the practice of shinrin-yoku, developed in Japan in the early 1980s. Japanese researchers found that immersing people in forests provided a range of health benefits, from lower blood pressure to boosting the immune system. The practice has gained traction in the United States within the last few years, Clifford said.
Clifford runs a six-month training course that 300 guides have completed. Theis is not associated with his group.
"If you go on a guided walk with us, we're going to go very slow," Clifford said. "I don't mean we're moving in slow motion. But it can take three hours to go 100 yards. We're in our bodies, in our senses, aware of place, in a deep kind of exploration of just what the forest is offering us."
Clifford said guided walks are designed to connect practitioners with nature in a healing way by mindfully moving through the forest. A walk typically ends with tea brewed from plants foraged along the way. Clifford, author of "Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature," said he is speaking with federal agencies about bringing forest bathing programs to some national parks.
Even the U.S. military is studying how nature can affect people. The Green Road program, launched a few years ago, found that putting wounded veterans in a natural setting reduced anxiety. Architects and engineers built a nature path through woods near living quarters for long-term patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. The path gave patients and their caregivers "a breathtaking view" of the woods, filled with chirping birds and bouncing white-tailed deer. In all, the military created six Green Road sites nationwide, and now a study is collecting data such as patients' heart rates and other biomarkers.
Theis, who lives in Mendham, in North Jersey, is a trained biologist and director of education at the Raritan Headwaters Association. She has been running forest bathing events for a year. Saturday, she will offer a combination of gentle yoga with an easy hike through the pine forest so beginners and experienced practitioners can both take part. "There's some walking mediation, sitting mediation, and just a little bit of gentle movement," she said.
"I guess the forest bathing is like this wonderful blend of my day job, which is conservation education, and connecting people to the land," Theis said. "I can blend yoga with forest bathing to help make people a better steward of the land."