Forest bathing and forest therapy (or shinrin-yoku) broadly means taking in, in all of one’s senses, the forest atmosphere. Not simply a walk in the woods, it is the conscious and contemplative practice of being immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. It was developed in Japan during the 1980s, and in 1982 Japan made this form of mobile meditation under the canopy of living forests a part of its national health program. Researchers, primarily in Japan and South Korea, have established a growing body of scientific literature on the diverse health benefits.
We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for centuries. The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air — these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry, help us to relax and to think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.
In Japan, they practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.
This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.
Never have we been so far from merging with the natural world and so divorced from nature. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. According to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors.
But the good news is that even a small amount of time in nature can have an impact on our health. A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you. Numerous studies I’ve conducted have shown that shinrin-yoku has real health benefits.
So how does one go about forest bathing?
First, find a spot. Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.
The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.
When it comes to finding calm and relaxation, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – it differs from person to person. It is important to find a place that suits you. If you love the smell of damp soil, you will be most relaxed where the natural landscape provides it. Then the effects of the forest will be more powerful. Maybe you have a place in the countryside that reminds you of your childhood or of happy times in the past. These places will be special to you and your connection with them will be strong.
When you have been busy at work all week, it can be hard to slow down. You may have been rushing around so much you no longer know how to stand still. Walking with a guide who is a trained forest therapist can help you feel more comfortable and find the right environment to fit your needs. In one of my favorite forests, Iinan Furusato-no-Mori, the forest-therapy program includes guided walks. Doctors are on hand to offer general health assessments. When you arrive, you are given a physical health check and a psychological questionnaire. The therapist then works out the best walking plan for you.
But it is just as easy to forest-bathe without a guide. And there are many different activities you can do in the forest that will help you to relax and to connect with nature. Here are some of the things people do: forest walking, yoga, eating in the forest, hot-spring therapy, T’ai chi, meditation, breathing exercises, aromatherapy, art classes and pottery, Nordic walking and plant observation. It doesn’t matter how fit – or unfit – you are. Shinrin-yoku is suitable for any level of fitness.
You can forest-bathe anywhere in the world – wherever there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine or snow. You don’t even need a forest. Once you have learned how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere – in a nearby park or in your garden. Look for a place where there are trees, and off you go!
Forest bathing in nature allows the stressed portions of your brain to relax. Positive hormones are released in the body. You feel less sad, angry and anxious. It helps to avoid stress and burnout, and aids in fighting depression and anxiety. A forest bath is known to boost immunity and leads to lesser days of illness as well as faster recovery from injury or surgery. Nature has a positive effect on our mind as well as body. It improves heart and lung health, and is known to increases focus, concentration and memory.
An intangible outcome of forest bathing is enhancement of emotional intelligence and self-confidence which leads to improved relationships and better social health.
- Physiological Effects of Forest Bathing: From Lowered Cortisol to Greater Parasympathetic Nerve Activity
A 2010 Chiba University study on the diverse physiological effects of forest bathing (from field experiments conducted in 24 Japanese forests – 280 participants) found that forest environments promote lower pulse rate, blood pressure and concentrations of cortisol–and greater parasympathetic, and lower sympathetic, nerve activity–than do city environments.
- Forest Bathing Increases Human Natural Killer Activity & Expression of Anti-Cancer Proteins
A small 2017 Nippon Medical School study, comparing the impact of a 3-day forest bathing trip to a city trip with exercise, found that the forest bathing trip significantly increased Natural Killer (NK) activity, numbers of NK cells, the expression of intracellular anti-cancer proteins, while significantly decreasing the concentration of adrenaline in urine–with the increased NK activity lasting more than 7 days. In contrast, the city trip did none of these things.
- Review: Forest Environments/Bathing Lead to Significant Reduction in Blood Pressure
A 2017 systematic review from Japanese universities (15 studies, 732 participants) indicates that forest bathing has hypertensive effects: SBP and DBP in the forest environment were significantly lower than in the non-forest environment. In particular, the forest environment has a larger effect on lowering SBP in people with high blood pressure and in middle-aged and older people.
- Forest Bathing and Nature Therapy: State-of-the-Art Review
This 2017 state-of-the-art review from University of San Francisco spotlights the universe of research on the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing from Japan and China–from heart rate metrics to psychological impact.
- Short Forest Bathing Experience Significantly Lowers Pulse Rate, Blood Pressure, While Reducing Anxiety
A 2017 National Taiwan University study (128 middle-aged and elderly participants) found that a 2-hour forest bathing experience led to changes in autonomic nervous system activity and emotions. Heart rate and systolic and diastolic blood pressure were significantly lower after the short experience, while the mood scores for “tension-anxiety”, “anger-hostility”, “fatigue-inertia” and “depression-dejection” were also significantly lowered.
What is forest therapy?
Inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” forest therapy is a guided outdoor healing practice. Unlike a hike or guided nature walk aimed at identifying trees or birds, forest therapy relies on trained guides, who set a deliberately slow pace and invite people to experience the pleasures of nature through all of their senses. It encourages people to be present in the body, enjoying the sensation of being alive and deriving profound benefits from the relationship between ourselves and the rest of the natural world.
Shinrin-yoku started in Japan in the 1980s in response to a national health crisis. Leaders in Japan noticed a spike in stress-related illnesses, attributed to people spending more time working in technology and other industrial work. Certified trails were created to guide people in outdoor experiences. Decades of research show that forest bathing may help reduce stress, improve attention, boost immunity, and lift mood.
How does forest therapy affect the body?
Stress raises levels of the hormone cortisol. Long-term stress and chronic elevations in cortisol play a role in high blood pressure, heart disease, headaches, and many other ailments. In test subjects, levels of cortisol decreased after a walk in the forest, compared with people who walked in a laboratory setting.
Trees give off volatile essential oils called phytoncides that have antimicrobial properties and may influence immunity. One Japanese study showed a rise in number and activity of immune cells called natural killer cells, which fight viruses and cancer, among people who spent three days and two nights in a forest versus people who took an urban trip. This benefit lasted for more than a month after the forest trip!
Some research suggests exposure to natural tree oils helps lift depression, lowers blood pressure, and may also reduce anxiety. Tree oils also contain 3-carene. Studies in animals suggest this substance may help lessen inflammation, protect against infection, lower anxiety, and even enhance the quality of sleep.
Finding a forest therapy guide
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy trains and certifies forest therapy guides across the world. Guides help people forge a partnership with nature through a series of invitations that allow participants to become attentive to the forest, to deepen their relationship with nature, and allow the natural world to promote healing and well-being.
Ultimately, guides support what the forests have to offer us, inviting participants into practices that deepen physical presence, pleasure, and partnership with nature. When we connect with nature in this way, we are connecting with ourselves.
Global Wellness Institute
Time, by Qing Li, May 1, 2018 10:51 AM EDT
Association of Nature and Forest Therapy