Featured photo: Marc Farrow has always loved nature, even as a child. Now he uses his passion for the outdoors to help people slow down through the practice of forest bathing.
The subtle, sweet taste of the unseasonably warm February air dancing on the back of my tongue in the afternoon. The distinct, satisfying crunch of wild grass as it crumbles underfoot. The glances of light that bounce off tree branches that canopy the forest overhead.
I wouldn’t have noticed any of these small, yet beautiful instances of nature had it not been for the man that walked a few yards ahead of me, his sage green backpack swaying ever so slightly as it grappled with the weight of his hiking gear.
Marc Farrow is a certified forest-bathing guide and physical therapist who lives in Winston-Salem. For him and others who practice forest-bathing, a walk in the woods becomes more than just a simple form of exercise.
“This practice is and it’s not meditation in nature,” Farrow says as we sit at a park picnic table. “This is antithetical to the running-hiking thing because it’s not exercise; you’re not going to break a sweat. It’s a situation where you’re trying to slow your life down in this process because in our society, it’s, Go, go go! And it gives us the opportunity to not only slow down but pay attention. That’s where the beauty lies.”
The concept of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku in Japanese, doesn’t actually have anything to do with bathing, Farrow explains; it’s actually more about immersing oneself in nature. The term was coined and popularized in the 1980s in Japan as a response to the internet and technology boom. At the time, researchers became concerned with a rise in stress-related illnesses, looking for solutions in the benefits of spending time outside. According to multiple studies, forest-bathing has been linked to reduction in stress, anxiety, depression and anger; stronger immune systems and improved sleep.
As a certified physical therapist, Farrow says he was drawn to forest therapy as another science-based way to help people. After his wife brought the phenomenon to his attention, he got certified through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, the “gold standard” for forest therapists, as Farrow calls it. Now, through his business, Winston-Salem Forest Bathing, Farrow takes individuals and small groups on walks through forests. And while it’s not necessary to have a guide to engage in forest bathing, it can be helpful for those just starting out.
“I’m trained to do this in a particular way in order to be able to open up some doors that perhaps would be difficult to do on your own,” Farrow says. “As they say, ‘The forest is the therapist, the guide is the one that opens the doors.’”
To start engaging in the practice, Farrow explains that we will be going through a series of invitations. The first one he calls “pleasures of presence.”
Farrow picks a spot behind the picnic table at the entrance of the Black Walnut Bottoms Trail in Winston-Salem where moss covers the ground and sunlight dapples between the tree branches above. He asks me to stand across from him and to start taking deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Not unlike during yoga classes I’ve attended, he encourages me to feel the breath filling my lungs and expanding my belly, in and out. I close my eyes and begin to tune into the sounds around me and notice the chorus of croaking peeper frogs from the surrounding swamp, the occasional rev of a far-off car engine.
“Begin to notice the temperature of the air,” he says. “The sensations on your skin. Maybe even bringing attention to the hair on your skin.”
I stand like this for another 15 or so minutes with Farrow guiding my senses, encouraging me to take deep breaths to smell the air or try to taste it. At the end, I open my eyes and a flash of green fills my vision, the vibrancy of the moss flooding my sight. I notice how the branches waver in the breeze and how they shine, almost as if self-illuminating when hit by the sun’s rays. I feel calmer.
For the next two hours, Farrow guides me through the trail, walking at a slow, deliberate pace. He introduces more invitations that engage my senses. One asks me to notice things that are in motion or encourages me to toss things into a trickling creek and watch the impact create whirls in the water. I experience the texture of goldenrod seeds as I crumple them in my hand and find comfort in the softness of a deconstructed milkweed. The world, this seemingly ordinary trail, becomes an endless array of sensory discovery.
“It’s about slowing down and really trying to engage all of your senses as much as you can,” Farrow says.
And given the incredibly stressful events of the last year coupled with the ongoing pandemic, Farrow says now is the perfect time for people to try forest bathing.
“Depression is huge right now, anxiety is huge with people,” says Farrow. “And those are the two largest areas that this practice can really have a positive impact on.”
Farrow also understands that it’s not going to be for everyone. At the end of the walk, he invites me onto a picnic blanket and mentions how one woman who attended a session left in a huff after complaining the whole time.
“A lot of people don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” Farrow says. “And that’s okay, that’s alright.”
He explains how a two-hour session — the optimum time for a beginner — can be therapeutic by bringing out deep feelings. He mentions one instance, earlier this year, when Farrow guided his father through a seated session. Farrow says it surprised him how contemplative the practice made his father.
“The things that came up for him blew me away,” Farrow says. “He was really taking in and from a distance, sort of looking at his life laid out and where he is and where he came from and where he was going. I just didn’t expect that from him. So, it can be difficult for some people.”
During a biography invitation earlier during the walk, I found myself contemplating the relationship between a trio of trees that grew next to a small creek. Two towering giants flanked a central, smaller tree that looked to be sprouting outwards towards the larger entities. It reminded me of my relationship with my parents and brought up questions of identity and parenthood. To what extent are we bound to become our parents? To what extent are we able to branch out to become our own individuals? Our own trees?
Of course, not everyone has these sorts of deep epiphanies on these walks, Farrow says. But that’s the beauty of forest bathing, he adds. There’s no wrong or right way to do it. The important thing is to just get out there.
“One of the sayings we came up with during the training is, ‘The forest has your back,” Farrow says. “There’s something to that. It gives you that sense of being held.”
To learn more about Farrow and his business, visit wsforestbathing.com. You can find his business on Facebook at Winston-Salem Forest Bathing.