The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing
Stress is simply unavoidable, and at some point most of us seek out techniques for reducing or better coping with the stress in our lives. One of the most common tips for stress reduction is to get outside, take a walk and immerse yourself in nature. There is no disputing that a little one on one time with Mother Nature can be a restorative experience. There are plenty of ways that you can do this, but one of the most therapeutic ways of interacting with nature is a Japanese philosophy known as Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
Before you begin wondering if I am suggesting that you actually go and take a bath in the forest, let me clarify what exactly Shinrin-yoku is. The philosophy is to simply spend time in the forest, being with nature and employing all of your senses. The idea is to be free from distractions and to not have a set purpose other than to enjoy and soak up the experience as you spend time walking through a forest environment. Shinrin-yoku is not a nature hike, it is not about physical exercise, logging a certain number of steps or bringing your binoculars to do some bird watching. It is simply about being present at the moment, and fully immersing yourself in the experience.
Although the first images that come to mind when we think of Japan may be the bright lights of Tokyo, Japan is actually a heavily forested country. Over 35 years ago, the Japanese government formally launched a program to encourage citizens to take advantage of this natural resource, as a way to reduce stress and lead a healthier lifestyle.
Shinrin-yoku became part of a Japanese public health program in the 1980s. Since then, Japanese officials and researchers have conducted dozens of studies and trials, spending millions of dollars, to scientifically prove the health benefits of forest bathing. The results were nothing short of amazing and included:
- Your body makes white blood cells which are called NK, or natural killer, cells. Their purpose is to serve as part of your innate immune system and act as a first line of defense against tumor formation and viral invasions. A study from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo measured the levels of NK cells both before and after forest bathing sessions. They discovered that not only were the levels of NK cells higher immediately after time spent in the forest, but they stayed elevated for a month following the experience.
- Another study looked at levels of salivary cortisol in participants that spent time in a hectic city setting versus just thirty minutes spent in the forest. What they found was that cortisol levels were significantly reduced after just half an hour in the forest environment. The physiological effects of this include lower blood pressure, lowered heart rate and enhanced parasympathetic nerve activity, which is the system that counters against natural stress reactions, such as anxiety and the fight or flight response.
- A study that took nearly five hundred participants and compared their emotional well being after being in a city dwelling and after spending time in a forest notes that forest exposure leads to significantly reduced feelings of depression and hostility.
- In addition to all of this, forest bathing has been shown to increase recovery times from injury, illness and surgery, provide clearer intuition, improved focus, healthier sleep habits, and an open flow of creative energy.
One of my first questions regarding Shinrin-yoku was about the environment. What is it about the forest environment that makes the experience more therapeutic than a walk on the beach or any other natural environment? The answer has to do, at least in part, with phytoncides which are antimicrobial, volatile compounds released by the plant life in the forest environment. The theory is that as you inhale the air, phytoncides have a relaxing effect on your mind and your body. However, it could also be that surrounding yourself in the quiet beauty of nature is an awe inspiring experience and the majestic natural beauty helps you feel connected to something much larger than yourself, which can help you see your daily turmoil from a new perspective.
Currently, there are 44 accredited Shinrin-yoku forests in Japan, and countless more unofficial spots around the world. While traveling to one of these forests might be a dream vacation, the fact is that you need a way to distress in your daily life that involves a little less travel and a little more practicality. The good news is that you do not need an accredited forest to enjoy and experience the benefits of forest bathing. If you would like to give this relaxing and restorative practice a try in the comfort of your own neighborhood or local wooded forest area, here are a few tips and guidelines to get you started.
- It is important to begin with the correct mindset. Remember that there is no goal here other than to immerse yourself in the healing powers of nature and regain a sense of peace and calmness.
- For safety reasons, it is important to be familiar with the area that you are walking through, however you should try to not actually plan out a route. Instead, just wander and let your body intuitively guide you through nature.
- You might choose a guided walk, or feel more comfortable in a group setting with friends. If you do this, make a promise to keep as silent as possible during the experience and reserve all discussions for the end of the Shinrin-yoku session.
- Leave distractions behind. This means that you should take off your fitness wristband, your step counter, your ear buds or any other device that might separate you from the experience. If it is necessary to have your phone on you for safety reasons make sure that you turn off all sounds and notifications and don’t be tempted to use it to take pictures. Leave it in your pocket or bag.
- Make a point of opening up all of your senses. While you are walking, take little breaks now and then to notice how the air smells, the color of the sky peaking through the top of the trees, the way the earth feels beneath your feet, the sounds you hear and even the taste of the fresh, clean air. Allow yourself these moments to be fully present on every sensory level.
- When you find a spot that speaks to you, or that you just intuitively feel comfortable in, stop and sit for a few moments. Notice the activity that is going on around you. It could be a bird fluttering among the branches, a chipmunk scurrying along the ground, or the delicate movements of a slow moving insect along a branch. Take the time to see the life around you that you seldom have the time or opportunity to notice.
- Just thirty minutes of forest bathing can do wonders for your spirit. However, most sessions tend to last anywhere from two to four hours. Have an idea of the distance you will be walking, whether you are walking from one destination to another or if your walk will be circular, and then loosely calculate how much time you will need for a leisurely paced experience. A good rule of thumb is two hours for every mile and a half that you plan on walking. This gives you plenty of time to walk at a non-labored pace and enjoy the experience without feeling pressured or stressed about time.
- Bring water and a light, nourishing snacks with you.
Know that you do not have to find a secluded forest to practice Shinrin-yoku. Even people that live in more urban areas can practice by taking advantage of city and town parks with ample trees and lush foliage. Research tells us that feelings of happiness, contentment and pleasure are experienced more often and with greater intensity in areas that are more heavily populated with natural greenery. The larger the trees and the more lush the leaves, the more positive emotions are experienced. This means that even if the nearest forest is simply out of your accessible range, that if you can find any spot where trees, plant life and animal life are abundant, you can experience the benefits of Shinrin-yoku.
According to numerous studies, Shinrin-yoku can reduce stress levels and prevent the onset of serious illness such as heart disease or possibly even cancer. We live hectic lives and surround ourselves in urban environments that seem to never sleep. We have wired ourselves into thinking that this is the natural way of the world, when in fact it is the exact opposite. Forest bathing is a healing technique that can help to restore that natural balance and rhythm in your life.
As human beings, we have lived in communion with nature since the beginning of our existence. We are biologically programmed to respond to nature in all of its forms. Over time we have separated ourselves from the natural world, however our connection to it still exists. Much of the stress that we feel in modern times is a direct result of being out of touch with the natural rhythm of life, of not knowing when to slow down, when to say no or when to just stop and appreciate the abundance that is already in our lives. Shinrin-yoku is a spiritual and scientifically proven means of healing our bodies and our souls by once again learning how to connect with nature on an intimate, personal level. It doesn’t matter the season, any time is the right time to try forest bathing as a stress busting, health boosting and soul beautifying experience.