Take a breather: It’s time to go forest bathing for Tu B’Shvat

    Looking up at the forest

    Even as minor Jewish festivals go, Tu B’Shvat has always felt particularly tiny. Hanukkah has candles, donuts and gifts; Purim is basically a Jewish carnival. For Tu B’Shvat (New Year for the trees) we’re asked to do little more than eat a few nuts and commune with nature; not much of a big deal, right?

    Think again. Tu B’Shvat, which falls on January 21 this year, is a perfect opportunity to get in tune with the times. Celebrating nature is on trend right now, and forest bathing is taking off around the world.

    No soap required

    The term “forest bathing” has caught the popular imagination, but it’s actually a bit misleading. There’s nothing about the practice that involves taking off your clothes. Developed in 1982 in Japan, where it’s known as shinrin-yoku, forest bathing is simply about spending meaningful time in nature.

    Calm down

    There are now certified forest therapy guides all over the world, and you’ll see it popping up in ads for spas or wellness vacations. But to take a forest bath, you don’t need an instructor or any special equipment. And while the forests of Costa Rica or Brazil might indeed be spectacular, you don’t even need to travel very far. Forest bathing can be as low-key as taking a leisurely walk through your nearest woods and taking a moment to appreciate the trees.

    Afterwards, you’re likely to feel a lot calmer. We all know that it feels good to wander around outside getting closer to nature, but science has identified some health benefits too. Studies in Japan have found that forest bathing can reduce stress levels and blood pressure while helping to boost your mood. Researchers have also compared forest bathing to walking in the city; not surprisingly, the natural landscape won out. The secret? It’s said that the phytochemicals emitted by the trees may have something to do with it.

    Forest bathing and Jewish tradition

    Naturally, Jewish people have known about the benefits of connecting with nature for centuries — Tu B’Shvat is a celebration of this, after all.

    Julia Plevin and friends.

    Julia Plevin is the creator of the San Francisco-based Forest Bathing Club, which regularly hosts events around the Bay Area. Her book, The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing, will be published by Penguin Random House in March. Forest Bathing Club led a forest bath with Congregation Sherith Israel for Tu B’Shvat last year, and as far as Plevin is concerned, Judaism and nature therapy are totally interconnected.

    “Judaism is a nature-based religion, and that aspect is coming back now at a really important time when the survival of humanity depends on our ability to reconnect to nature,” she says.

    There’s also the Jewish practice of hitbodedut — unscripted, individual prayer outside of the traditional liturgy. Popularized by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, hitbodedut can be practiced anywhere, but many people find that being in nature is best for inspiring spontaneous meditation.

    No time like the present

    “I always find my connection to the divine in nature and believe this is part of why nature is so healing,” says Plevin. “It gets us out of our heads, enables us to readily experience awe, and connect to something much deeper and more profound than the noise of modern life.”

    So, turn off your tech and go find a tree. This latest wellness trend is free, you don’t have to be an expert to do it, and you might just emerge from the woods feeling more spiritual than when you walked in. Minor or not, Tu B’Shvat may just be my new favorite holiday.

    Susannah Cohen is a fashion journalist, e-commerce editor (specialist subjects: lingerie and diamonds) and Jewish mom. Recently relocated from London to the West Coast, she’s feeling a lot more spiritual these days.