Be Right Back, I’m Forest Bathing (Michelle Abbey)

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When we say “forest bathing” we definitely don’t mean taking a scrub surrounded by trees. First formally started in Japan, shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing” is a nature therapy focused on mindfulness. And certified forest therapists, like today’s guest Michelle Abbey, help students get there.

OK, but why do you need a forest therapist to help you go outside? And what does studying forest therapy teach you about your own relationship with nature? Michelle gives us the inside scoop.

Some of the good stuff:

[1:20] Michelle’s favorite outdoor space
[2:20] What is forest bathing?
[4:37] What’s beyond the basic 5 senses
[5:33] How forest bathing is different than just going outside
[6:30] Do you need a forest required for forest bathing?
[7:35] Why get certified in forest bathing?
[10:10] What Michelle learned about herself and nature
[16:50] Why repeating some experiences over and over again is good
[21:15] Is there an ideal daily dose of time outside?
[25:58] Do you have to be distraction free?
[27:55] Who needs a forest bathing therapist
[30:50] Michelle’s favorite outdoor gear
[32:15] Michelle’s most essential outdoor gear
[33:04] Michelle’s favorite outdoor moment

Connect with this episode:

Follow Michelle on Instagram
Email Michelle at abbeynutrition (at) gmail (dot) com
Follow Humans Outside on Instagram

Mentioned in the show:

Certified Forest Therapist
Forest Bathing
California Central Coast 
Amy’s #humansoutside365 challenge 
Proprioceptive sense
Interoceptive sense
Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs
San Jacinto Mountain, Idyllwild California 

Favorite Gear: Buff

Most Essential Gear: Headlamp and emergency blanket 

Affiliate links included above.

Email Michelle at abbeynutrition (at) gmail (dot) com or follow her on Instagram as @thenaturenutritionist.


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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast. Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.  

AB: At its simplest, forest bathing is spending time in nature with intentionality. But what does that mean? How can you do it? And why do we need a fancy word or quote therapy for going outside? That’s what we’re going to explore today with Michelle Abbey, a certified forest therapy guide and registered dietitian. And this is as part of our occasional special Everyday Outside Series, focused on what happens if you spend a set amount of time outside every day. 

Michelle, welcome to the show.

MA: Thank you.

AB: So we like to start our show pretending we’re in our guest’s favorite outdoor space, just you know, hanging out doing my favorite thing, which is drinking coffee. So where are you today and where are we with you today?

MA: You know, I think today I would be over on Mount San Jacinto. Right outside the town of Idyllwild, one of my favorite outdoor places. I mean, it just feels like I’m somewhere magical when I’m there. And often when I would go, I would go during the week by myself. So just being out there on that mountain on a trail was just my happy place. So that’s where we are.

AB: That sounds delightful. Okay, so the Humans Outside Podcast usually focuses on exploring our guests’ relationships with the outdoors, but on our Everyday Outsides, we look specifically at what happens if you spend a set amount of time outside every single day, something that I started doing in 2017. So of course, the idea of forest bathing plays perfectly into that for obvious reasons. So first, can you tell us what in the world is forest bathing?

MA: Sure, and and I’m going to speak about it from my training as a forest therapy guide. So forest bathing was started in Japan in the 1980s. They were going through, you know, this big tech boom at the same time, they were kind of starting to see this big health crisis. And they were putting some money into researching some things that might be able to help people from literally working themselves to death. And they started to do some research about being out in nature and being out in forests. Japan has some pretty beautiful forests, and a lot of them, I think it’s somewhere over 60 of them right now are actually designated as forest bathing forests. 

And when they started doing this research, they were able to tease out these chemicals called phytoncides that the trees emitted. And they noticed that when we breathe them in, it actually helps to boost our immune system. And they found other things like, you know, being outside reduced blood pressure and heart rate. And you know, it boosted people’s moods. There were just a lot of positive things going on with being out in nature. And they came up with this whole concept of forest bathing, which just literally means bathing, you know, in these phytoncides and all of the goodness of the forest and being really present, taking it in and exploring it with all of your senses. And, you know, when I went through my training to become a guide, that’s, you know, one of the things that we’re trying to get people to do is is just slow down to, you know, leave that world that they’re normally in where they’re thinking about a million things and they’re not even where they are. And take a look, take a listen. Breathe it in, touch nature, and experience it with all of your senses, even senses beyond your basic five senses.

AB: What do you mean by beyond your basic five senses?

MA: We normally think about the five senses as sight, touch, smell, hearing taste, but we have other senses. Proprioceptive sense, so sensing where your body is in space; interoceptive sense, so sensing what’s going on inside of your body. And then you know, going even beyond that, things like your heartfelt sense, you know, what do you feel in your heart, not literally in your heart. But you know, it’s kind of the place where we feel love and that sort of thing. And imaginative sense, something many of us don’t use much anymore when we grow up and become adults. 

AB: So this sounds much different than just going for a walk for 20 minutes, like it’s fundamentally different in many ways.

MA: Yes. So just going out for a walk for 20 minutes – I mean, a lot of us do that, right? We want to go get our exercise and we’re going to get it outside and get some fresh air. So say you’re by yourself and you go for that walk. You know, a lot of times we’ll go for that walk and all we’re thinking for that 20 minutes is what I’ve got to get at the grocery store later and what happened last night and let’s, you know, ruminate over that. Or let’s worry about what’s happening in the future. We’re not even there that 20 minutes and then if you go with a friend, sometimes it can be the same thing, right? Because you’re just talking with your friend the entire time. And it’s like — where was I? Oh, yeah, I was outside. So yeah, that’s kind of what it ends up being a lot of time.

AB: So you described the chemicals that the trees released. But I’m wondering, is forest bathing specific to being with trees like that, or are there forms of it that happen without a forest? In other words, is a forest required for forest bathing?

MA: So my answer to this would be no. I think that, you know, I like to think of it as you can be in any type of nature. You know, I recently moved from San Diego. So in San Diego, I did forest bathing walks on the beach and there was no forest there. There was water and there was sand and it was magical. It was beautiful. And same thing in the desert. In the desert, there aren’t forests, but there’s, you know, beautiful rock formations and there’s the sun or there’s the moonlight. So there’s, you know, plenitude of nature to be then that, that doesn’t include trees. And while trees specifically do release those phytoncides, you know, I do believe that there’s something coming out of all of nature that is beneficial to us.

AB: So why get certified in something like this? And what’s the process for that? 

MA: I got certified because I didn’t know a whole lot about forest bathing whenever I came upon this certification. And, you know, I love nature. I love being in nature and I wanted to get, you know, everything that I could out of it and to understand that, I thought that maybe going through this certification will be helpful and and even if nothing came of it and I never really did anything with it as far as leading other people on walks, I thought that it you know, it would be just awesome for me to to learn about. 

The association I did this certification through is called the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs and they are based in Central California. They do certifications all over the United States, Europe, Costa Rica, they do certifications everywhere. It’s a six month total program starts off with a week long intensive, just depending on where you go to get certified, and I did mine in Central California. And those seven days are just amazing. You’re there with about 20 people and your instructors, and you learn everything about the history, about the way these guides structure their forest therapy walks, and you learn about yourself, and what it means to become a guide. And after that week long intensive, you spend the next five and a half months, you go back home and you go through a mentored practicum. So you’re having you know, follow up calls with your mentors and follow up group calls and you have assignments that you do and during that time you take four groups out on walks, and at the end of the six months you graduate. What I feel is you basically just begin your life as a guide, which is you know, every day you learn something. So yeah, that’s that’s it in a nutshell.

AB: So you said you learn about yourself and I’m wondering, well what you learned about yourself during the certification process, but maybe also what you have learned about yourself and your own relationship with nature since then. 

MA: I guess I learned about my, in general, my own judgments. And so we, you know, we all come from somewhere and we all come from a very different place. We all have our stories, everything that makes us who we are today, all the experiences we’ve been through, and that makes every single person so very unique. I came into this and it’s like, you come into it and you think you have this open mind. But there’s always something that you find out about yourself like — oh, okay, like there was this edge that I felt, and I have this edge because I have a judgment and need to learn how to let everything go. You have to let go. I just learned so much more about going into every situation. 

Just imagine yourself as like a three year old, like I don’t know anything and I’m really curious. So I need to, I just need to go into everything with curiosity. And then I also learned a little bit more about approaching situations from a place of love instead of a place of fear. Because I feel like I read that somewhere before that, that’s, you know, when we take action. There’s two ways you can go and you take action. Actions can come from a place of love or a place of fear, and we do a lot of things out of fear. And sometimes that can be helpful that could save our lives. But I think sometimes, you know, we act out of fear, because we’re just not allowing ourselves to be open enough to to be curious to learn, which could just result in a better place, I guess in the end.

AB: Man, is that true!

MA: Yeah. Right? And then just in the forest bathing walks, I think when I first went in, I worried so much about getting to a certain place as far as being a guide and what I needed to experience in the walk. I was worrying so much about getting there. That you know, I just kept telling myself — I’m not feeling it, wait, I’m not there. And it was just stressing me out. And I had to learn to let that go and just accept what was happening outside and to accept that — okay, whatever I get from this today, that was what I was supposed to get. And then I’ll go back out tomorrow and maybe I’ll get something else. Maybe I won’t. But every day is different, even if you go to the same place every day. Every day is different. And I’m going to get what I need to get, I just need to allow it to happen. And that’s a really hard thing to do. Because again, we go into situations with so much judgment. I think some people hear that sometimes and they think like — oh, someone’s trying to tell me there’s something wrong with me because I have judgment. No, it’s just a natural thing. It just happens from all the experience you have in your life. Your brain’s awesome. And it’s able to make these judgments because it’s put a million things together and you get into a situation you’re like — I judge that situation as this and to let that go is a hard thing to do.

AB: You know, you say judgment. I wonder if it’s also another word for that might be expectation? Yeah, it’s like we have, we can have this expectation of what we expect other people to do for us or other people to be, whether that’s based off of our own experiences, or our own culture, or maybe just our own biases that we walk into something. So when I walk even into a spot that I’m familiar with outside, right, it’s not even about other people. I’m expecting it to be a certain temperature or I’m expecting the trail look like this, or I’m expecting to have a certain level of solitude. And, you know, that doesn’t always work out so well.

MA: No, not at all. And then if you throw other people into it, now you’re thinking about what you’re expecting, what you think you’re supposed to expect, what you’re trying not to expect, what you think other people are supposed to expect, what do you think they’re actually expecting? You’re thinking about so many of these things that you’re just not allowing the experience to happen.

AB: So, I want to talk about this a little bit more. You mentioned going to the same trail over and over again, and so that’s something I’ve sort of struggled with a little bit during my now almost 900 days straight of spending at least 20 minutes outside every single day. So one of the things that I have struggled with there is this idea of repeat experiences, right? Because while it would be great to say — I’m going to do something new every day. One, that’s not possible, and two, it may not be beneficial, is sort of what I’m hearing you say. And so I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you notice and what you’ve learned from repeat experiences, because of course, nature is not stagnant. And when you look at it, even if I go on the same walk, and I do by the way, try to shake up the path every little bit and avoid taking the same path through the woods because I’m so a creature of habit that I could do that every day. 

Yesterday, for example, I went out there and I did the opposite direction. I stopped, and instead of just looking around me I, you know, because I’m standing there and thinking — this all looks the same, it looks the same, this is boring, right? Nothing has changed. And I stood there and even going the opposite direction, it’s still the same path. And instead of looking around me, I took a second and I looked up, right, what’s above me? And I noticed the trees have some buds on them and the sky was blue and the cloud had an interesting formation and, and sort of all of these things. And so I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the experience of noticing that change and why repeat experience might be good for that.

MA: When I was going through my practicum, one of the things that we do is we are encouraged to find a sweet spot. And so it’s a spot where you go and you sit for about 20 minutes. And that’s what you do. You just sit there and notice. And you know, you’re encouraged to go to that same spot on a regular basis because of the fact that yes, throughout the year that place is going to change. Even for a place like San Diego, which didn’t really have seasons, still changed somewhat. There were times during the year where things bloomed and different birds are there at different times. If you were lucky enough to be in a place where there was some water flow, that changed a little bit throughout the year and yeah, even day to day you know. I found a place that was pretty close to our home and I didn’t love it. I wanted this perfect place way out where I couldn’t hear any human noise and I wanted to be surrounded by beautiful green trees and, well that just wasn’t where our house was located. 

So I settled, you know, in a piece of this canyon and it’s one of those things where I think when you would go there on a regular basis, you start noticing the smaller things. You start noticing the same little birds that come in and check you out. After you sit there for, you know, a long enough time they get a little bit closer. And you just start noticing the little things and you know, one day you go and there’s an orange dragonfly and you’re just kind of following that little guy around. And so yeah, you notice all these little things that you wouldn’t normally notice if you were just kind of like checking through every day and just kind of you know, eyes ahead of you. Like you said, being able to kind of stop and look up for a decent amount of time and notice all of the things above you. Same thing with looking down. I mean, you know, just sitting down on the ground and looking at the ground and you know, you notice a trail of ants or some other bug and you’re like watching him you’re like — wow, you know, this guy’s working in there. This whole little world like, you know, this, like a five foot area, just going on. There’s always an opportunity to slow down just a little bit more and become mesmerized by the smallest things, which sometimes can be surprising.

AB: While you’re talking, it strikes me that the repeat experience, because you are getting used to the big picture things, you’re sort of dismissing those things from being new and fresh. You have the opportunity to more readily notice things that are, no pun intended, I guess in the weeds.

MA: Yes, correct.

AB: I’m gathering from you that that’s a really important part of the forest bathing experience.

MA: Yes.

AB: When I first started my challenge, I set rules for myself. Okay, so the first rule I picked was that it was 20 minutes because I read a study or two that said it was a good quote unquote dosage. And I thought that it was also something I actually do, which is of course the most important part of any challenge – pick something you’re going to do. What do you find to be an ideal daily dosage of time spent outside? Is there an ideal daily dosage of time outside?

MA: So, you know, the first thing is and you know, I was thinking about this and I was thinking about what you’re doing and this 20 minutes outside a day, I’m like — wow, what a what a world we live in that we’ve gotten to this point now where we have to like, like, say — Okay, I’m going to go outside for 20 minutes, you know, every day. You think that should be more normal, but it’s not, right? Like this thing you’re doing, most people can’t even get 20 minutes outside or don’t get 20 minutes outside every day. And you’re right. As far as research that I’ve read goes, what I’m kind of seeing across the board right now is they say two hours a week, which You know, 20 minutes a day, if that works out to about the same thing. And I like the 20 minutes a day better than saying two hours a week, because I like the consistency of it, how you spread it out so that you’re outside every day. Because the thought is that if you do that, and you get into this habit where you’re out there every day, well, hopefully there will be some days where you’re out there more than 20 minutes. But the thing is that you are outside every day, and that’s a big thing. Because yes, for most people that is not the case.

AB: Well, it’s also entirely achievable, right? Because 20 minutes is not long enough to really put a cramp in your life. You’re thinking about it. And you might think, wow, I don’t have 20 minutes, right? But you do, because you do. Walk out the 20 minutes you just burned collectively over two hours looking at Facebook, lump it together, go outside, right? I found when I purposefully set out to carve that time out, I did have it. I didn’t think I did, but I did. And I will also add that it does usually extend. So, outside of the winter, I can say that I don’t even look at my watch, because I know I’m out for more than 20 minutes. 

There’s never a day when the weather’s good, or we’re not in the middle of winter up here in Alaska, that I think — oh, have I hit the mark yet? Am I at 19 or 21? Right? On days in the wintertime when it’s negative 10 and windy, it’s harder. I’m not gonna lie. I do have to look at my watch and make sure that I’ve actually hit the 20 minute mark because I’m too hot to try to get back inside. Especially if I am just really box checking, right? I, oh my gosh, the weather’s so bad. I have to get my 20 minutes. We’re taking the dogs for a walk, has it been 20 yet? If I make an effort and put on the layers and go skiing, right, no problem. So it really is activity dependent, and it’s weather dependent. But I’ve actually found myself thinking, maybe I should extend it to a 30 minute challenge because this 20 minute stuff is getting too easy. And then I think, Amy, it is two degrees outside, it’s windy, and you’re crazy. But I think it’s possible. It may not be pleasant all the time, but I think it would be possible. 

So I also thought about making a rule that I would not look at my phone or leave it at home entirely. But I realized that I wanted to actually take a picture every day so that did not jive with those two things. Part of what I wanted to do was document my time outside with the photo. And I also realized that I would have a really hard time sticking not looking at my phone. However, I also know, on the flip side, that I don’t get the kind of benefit outside when I’m distracted in any way, shape, or form. And that’s not just looking at my phone. I tried to do my walk talking to my mother on the phone a couple weeks ago, and that was a very nice conversation, but categorically not good at that time. Right? I was not present. But I do find that the outside time is beneficial. If I’m running with a friend and we’re chatting, but I’m in motion, it’s different. I don’t know. So I guess there’s push and pull there. I’m wondering how much you find the distracted thing to be important or not important. And if there’s a dichotomy where we can spend time outside with other people and be semi-distracted, but still see the benefits.

MA: You can do different benefits with different situations. So the other day I went on a little hike with a friend of mine out in the Badlands. And it was beautiful. We were the only ones out there for a while surrounded by nature. So yeah, we’re you know, we’re breathing in phytoncides and the fresh air and getting the sun, the much needed winter sun. We were getting benefits. 

Was I in full blown forest therapy, connecting to nature mode? Maybe not. But there was a community thing going on there, right? I was bonding with another human being, which is also really important. So if she wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be able to do that. So yeah, I just think it’s just a good thing to vary it up a little as far as connecting with nature itself. Connect being with yourself, connecting with another person, and getting that physical activity. I mean, these are all different things. And sometimes you can do a few of them at the same time. I think the true nature connection and connection with yourself can only happen when you’re alone. And you still have to be very intentional. Because there’s so many times when I’m out there alone, and I let my mind go and start thinking about other things. And I’m not connecting to nature at that point.

AB: Do you find that there’s a specific type of person who needs help with this from a professional level that you’re offering? Or is it you know — I need professional help going outside? No, but I mean, joking aside, is there  one person who’s attracted to this over another? Who are your clients? And what do you find is true about them sort of across the board?

MA: I think everyone should be my client. I think forest bathing bathing practice is beneficial for everyone. Even the people who think —  I’m out in nature all the time. Why would I need to go forest bathing? The first groups that I took out on a forest bathing walk were actually hike leaders in San Diego, so these were people who were outside all the time. They were naturalists, they were leading walks, talking to other people, teaching them about nature. I was a bit nervous taking this specific group on a walk because I very much thought – because here I am, my expectation of what other people were expecting, right? These were also you know, they were friends of mine, so I knew that they would be supportive no matter what. So that’s like a little bit of the pressure off. But what was so cool is you know on these walks, we do a lot of sharing, so you get to hear other people’s perspectives and their stories of what’s going on during the walk for them. And the things that I heard coming out of these people’s mouths just made me almost want to cry, like they were having an experience, they were experiencing places like they hadn’t experienced them before. They were realizing that — wow, by slowing down, I’m seeing things and feeling things that I don’t normally feel when I’m out here. And that just, you know, warmed my heart and made my heart sing to hear that. So I’m like — okay, if these people could have this kind of experience, I think this is for everyone. There’s so many ways that it’s going to spill into your life afterwards. That’s going to be helpful and a lot of that’s going to be really hard to measure, you know, on a research scale, but I do know that it’s going to happen. It’s going to help you in your personal life, your professional life, because it’s going to open your mind and your heart to things that you may have not been open to before, and that’s going to be helpful to you no matter what’s going on in your life.

AB: How can people get in touch with you if they happen to live in the Bend, Oregon area and want to take advantage?

MA: Easiest thing would be to email me at [email protected] and we can go from there. I’m also on Instagram as @thenaturenutritionist so you can contact me there as well.

AB: Alright, so we do this with every guest, special edition episode or not. All right. This is my little leftovers round. Okay, tell us and maybe this is forest bathing specific, and maybe it’s not. What is your favorite outdoor gear item?

MA: My favorite outdoor gear item at the moment would be my buff. You know, it’s a great under layer for under hats and helmets. And it’s a great nose wiper. I mean, it could be used as a bandage. I hope I never need it for that. I think there’s so many uses and right now with this cold weather that I’m still getting used to, because you know 20 degrees is cold for me. I know that’s probably balmy for you right now. But it’s great for covering up my face so it doesn’t freeze.

AB: The buff is really the workhorse clothing item I found. Just everything you said. And my favorite new use, I don’t know if it’s new to everyone else, but I just started doing that, in the summer, I wrap it around my wrist. Okay, so like easy access nose wiper, as you said. But also if I get cold all the sudden I’ve got it there. You know if because when you’re mountain running, bad weather sort of happens when you’re not looking? Yeah, just great. Maybe it is also your most essential outdoor gear item because it is essential to me but maybe not. So if not, do you have the most essential outdoor gear item other than the buff?

MA: The two things that I always have in my bag is a headlamp and an emergency blanket.

It’s just you know, just in case. You never know, headlamp, an emergency blanket, always in the bag.

AB: I like it. All right. And finally, this is actually my favorite question of every podcast. So your favorite outdoor moment ever. If you close your eyes and think about a time in the outdoors that gives you joy, where are you and what are you doing?

MA: Well, that’s a good one because boy, I’ve been in a lot of places and had a lot of amazing times and moments. But I think at this point, of all the places I’ve been, my favorite moment is going to be a camping trip that my husband Derek and I went on with my brother, my nephew, my best friend, her nephews, and then several other of our close friends. It was a big group camping trip, right on the side of San Jacinto Mountain in the town of Idyllwild. And so you know, the place probably had a big, big thing to do with it. But the other thing was that we were with so many of our favorite people, you know, my husband, my family, my friends, and just being in that campground. Just the feeling of the place, the feeling of the people, that smell of the campfire, the joy of the dog, there’s so much joy just radiating from that place and the connection to everything was just phenomenal. That’s probably my favorite moment ever outside at this point.

AB: Well, thank you so much for joining us on the Humans Outside Podcast. I really appreciate it.MA: Amy, thank you so much for having me. It was truly a pleasure.

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