Forests have been imbued with magical, spiritual powers in folklore and fairy tales for centuries. But it’s their therapeutic properties that have captivated modern scientists. In Japan, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing — defined as spending time among trees — has been considered a form of preventive medicine since the 1980s, when researchers in Nagano found that the practice lessens stress, boosts immunity and lowers blood pressure. Subsequent studies showed that soaking up the forest environment — the still atmosphere, the verdant scenery, the gentle crunching of twigs underfoot — reduces cortisol (the body’s primary stress hormone) and activates the parasympathetic (self-healing) nervous system. These findings paved the way for other holistic disciplines, including today’s forest medicine (the study of how wooded environments improve health) and ecotherapy (which considers the curative potential of natural settings).
Over the past decade, shinrin-yoku has become a well-established ritual among wellness buffs in the West, too, and from Baja California to the Berkshires, guided walks in the woods are now offered by rustic outfitters and high-end spas alike. Qing Li, the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine in Tokyo and the author of “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” (2018), says that incorporating the practice into one’s routine isn’t all that complicated — there are no grueling moves to memorize, murky tinctures to ingest or mental gymnastics to master — which is part of the appeal. Instead, it’s simply about “connecting with nature through our sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.” But it’s the crisp, clean forest air that’s perhaps most powerful. Breathing in phytoncides, the aromatic oils released by trees, can increase the number of the body’s natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell crucial to the immune system that can limit the spread of microbial infections and tumors).
To reap the best possible results, Li prescribes a three-day stay in the woods once a month or a six-hour day trip once a week. But getting into nature — even for a few hours, let alone days at a time — can be difficult for those of us with demanding schedules. Fortunately, for especially busy times, there’s a decent substitute: In recent years, a wave of new wellness options that aim to simulate the soothing effect of the great outdoors has emerged. The Nue Co.’s Forest Lungs ($95) fragrance, for example, replicates the molecular compounds in tree phytoncides, with the goal of producing a psychologically calming response. The scent itself is a crisp, green blend of cedar wood, pine and vetiver. The London-based perfumer Maya Njie’s Nordic Cedar perfume (about $125), meanwhile, evokes the forests of Sweden, where she grew up, with earthy amber, cedar wood and zesty cardamom. It smells of log cabins and sprigs of greenery after a rainstorm. Or consider Kate McLeod’s Grounding Stone ($38), a solid oval moisturizing bar that, when warmed in the palms and stroked over the body, nourishes skin and leaves behind aromas of mossy vetiver and sweet bergamot.
You might also try infusing your home, and not just your person, with woodsy fragrances: The Portland-based Saint Olio’s No. 3 Sitka Aromatic Cleaner ($20), designed for wiping down surfaces, is spiked with antimicrobial spruce and deodorizing juniper, and the Laundress x Aromatherapy Associates’ gentle Deep Relax detergent ($45) will perfume linens and bedding with vetiver and sandalwood. For a more comprehensive approach, simply put a few drops of Made by Design’s Balsam Fir Essential Oil ($18 for set) into a diffuser, or light D.S. & Durga’s Big Sur After Rain ($65) candle for a whiff of the California forest layered with notes of damp eucalyptus and magnolia.
A bath offers a more immersive and spalike experience: Try a soak infused with Amayori’s fragrant Hinoki Onsen Camellia Japonica Bathing Oil ($80), which combines extracts of hinoki cypress with jasmine. Or follow the lead of the Japanese-born, Los Angeles-based author and facialist Joomee Song, who recreates shinrin-yoku by submerging a bag of Tosaryu Hinoki Aroma Flakes ($8), sourced from hinoki trees in Japan’s Kochi Prefecture, in her tub (post-bath, hang the bag to dry and reuse another time). The ritual takes her back to the years she spent walking up Mount Takatori with her father as part of their family’s weekly forest-bathing tradition. “We climbed up dirt roads for hours and prayed at a shrine on the top of the mountain,” she says. “It was always just an all-around magical experience.”
Scent is only one part of the magic, though, notes Li, who recommends stimulating your other senses, too: Listen to bird song, drink herbal teas and bring plants, potted trees and wooden objects into your living space. (Song favors cypress-wood stools and serving bowls.) Such gestures work in harmony to create a cumulative calming effect while also, as Li says, forming “a bridge between us and the natural world.”