2016 was a difficult year for Robin Hancock. 

“I was going through a really, really rough time,” said the Atlanta native. “I had experienced some grief in my life, a couple of instances of pretty big grief.”

In 2015, Hancock lost her mother to ovarian cancer, and that giant loss followed her into the next year. In an effort to heal, she took to the forest, hiking and immersing herself in nature as she went. Then, a friend sent her an article about Shinrin-Yoku. 

Shinrin-Yoku, or “forest bathing,” started in Japan in the 1980s as a way to combat burnout from the country’s rising tech boom. The practice is a form of ecotherapy that focuses on reconnecting with nature. 

“Literally instantly, I knew that’s what I needed to do,” Hancock said. In those last few weeks with her mom, she said, she began to view the preciousness of life through a different lens. She was a bit nervous about getting involved with this brand new world, but she didn’t want to regret anything. After talking to a few friends, she took the leap. 

Hancock started and completed her training to become a certified Forest Therapy Guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy in 2016. She now has her own company, called Renewal by Nature, and leads walks around the metro area, including at the Woodlands Garden in Decatur and the Dunwoody Nature Center. She leads group walks, does team-building walks for corporations, and even couples walks. 

Two people participating in a “forest bathing” session.

Faye Sullivan met Hancock a few years ago and has been on about four formal walks with her. However, she said, Hancock sometimes visits her at her home in Jasper, where they’ll usually take a walk or two. 

“I’ve spent time in the woods with her probably a dozen times,” Sullivan said. 

Sullivan first came to Forest Bathing several years ago during a particularly difficult time in her life, and her first walk with Hancock was in the Fernbank Forest with a group of about eight people.

“It was just a quiet, peaceful, meditative, connecting kind of experience,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to describe, because it feels real ‘woo-woo.’ But it’s a very, very peaceful, centering kind of experience.”

For Reporter Newspapers, Hancock walked through the particulars of what exactly happens during forest bathing, and what sort of positive effects it has had on her life and the people who join her. 

First Invitation: Pleasures of Presence 

According to Hancock, a forest walk will last around three hours and consists of five to six “invitations,” with a 30-minute tea ceremony at the end. The first invitation is called “Pleasures of Presence,” and begins with the group standing in a circle.

Participants are asked to pay attention to how their surroundings feel. Whether that be considering how the air feels on their skin, or focusing on specific sounds of the forest, the important thing is getting in touch with their senses. 

Hancock ascribes to the theory of biophilia, or the idea that humans tend to seek connection with the natural world and that connection can improve our general well-being. The first invitation opens up participants to that theory, and the rest of the walk builds from there. A recent report published in Yale Environment 360 – the online magazine of the Yale School of the Environment – cited numerous studies that found that being in nature can correlate to better mental and physical health. 

“No matter how hard we try to be relaxed in an indoor space, we really can’t be 100% relaxed,” Hancock said. “Our bodies just know better.” 

Second Invitation: What’s in Motion

Hancock described the second invitation, called “What’s in Motion,” as a snail’s pace of a walk through the forest – only moving about one mile per hour.

“Some people have trouble, like it feels hard for some people to actually go that slow,” Hancock said. “But the purpose of that is to notice little things that are going on around us as we walk along.” 

Hancock said the slow pace is meant to encourage people to notice aspects of the forest they might not have noticed before. On a regular hike, you might take in the beautiful view, or appreciate the swaying limbs of a tree. But this second invitation invites you to focus on a tiny bug on the ground, a spiderweb stretching across your path, or a small patch of moss on a rock.

“You can really appreciate a nice vista, or being in a hemlock grove or something like that – we always appreciate those things,” Hancock said. “But slowing down, and appreciating the little things is what ‘What’s in Motion’ is about.”

Ann Allender, a frequent forest bather who lives in Senoia, said this is one of the invitations she enjoys the most. 

“When we come back together, we talk about those things we noticed that you would never notice just taking a walk,” Allender said. “Once you do it, you never take a walk the same again. You notice things, and you appreciate things. It’s such a stress relief.” 

Partnership Invitations 

Hancock said she always includes the first two invitations, but afterwards she begins what she calls “Partnership Invitations,” which can vary in design and number. Hancock said she usually performs about three or four of these invitations, some of which are individual, but can also require participants to pair up with one another, or to work as a group. 

Two forest bathers participating in an invitation.

“I have a library in my head,” she said. “Some I make up as I go. It might be based on something that somebody has said as we’ve gone along, but I have invitations that tend to work very well.” 

One invitation Hancock particularly likes is asking participants to have a conversation with a tree. She said she did this invitation during her training to become certified, and she initially thought people might find it too “edgy.” But, to her surprise, people seemed to love it. She couldn’t say for sure why, but she has a theory. 

“There’s no ego involved,” she said. “I’m not worried about what the tree might think if I tell it something, so I’m just going to be honest with it. And the more honest I am with the tree, the more honest I am with myself.” 

Sullivan also has a particular invitation she enjoys, one where the group stands in a circle with their backs toward the center. Participants close their eyes, and are asked to consider exactly what they’re feeling at that moment. Sullivan began tearing up as she discussed the experience.

“You’re feeling the sunshine, or the breeze,” she said. “You’re hearing the birds, there’s water running. You’re hearing the wind and the leaves. You just become super, hyper aware of those things.”

Forest Bathing Effects

Hancock has been leading walks for over five years now, and she has experienced many different reactions to the practice. She said over the years, she has had people decide to end relationships, decide to buy or sell a house, or even come out as gay for the first time. 

“[People] just get so in touch with themselves on the walks that they’ll make big decisions,” Hancock said. 

Allender said she has brought many friends with her to walks over the years, but one experience stands out above the rest. For one walk, she brought a close friend whose husband had been going through some tough medical issues. 

“She was able to talk about her experiences dealing with all those medical issues, and it just brought us closer, I think,” Allender said. “Because she was able to talk about it and I was able to respond in kind.” 

Hancock said she thinks the connection aspect of forest bathing is one of the things that allows people to make these momentous decisions or have these breakthroughs.

“I think they just get tapped into themselves when they get connected,” Hancock said. “There’s a wholeness involved with that, so when the mind and the body all are kind of experiencing the same thing, there’s no disconnect.”

Writer and Journalist Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.