Are you stressed? In this modern era, we all are. But right outside our windows is a solution: Forest Bathing. Have you heard this term yet? What does it really mean to “bathe” in the forest?
Forest bathing is an opportunity to disconnect from technology and return to nature. Did you ever wonder why you can sit and stare at waves for hours? Or a crackling fire? Can you recall the pleasure when the sun warms your face on a cool afternoon? When was the last time you experienced those sensations without being tethered to the global flow of bits and bytes via that slim piece of metal and glass in your pocket?
We are going to explore what forest bathing is, where and why it started, and why we need it. We will also review the health benefits of nature, why it is critical to practice forest bathing regularly, and how to find forest bathing experiences near you.
WHAT IS FOREST BATHING?
Forest Bathing is the English translation of what the Japanese call Shinrin Yoku. Shinrin means ‘forest’ in Japanese, Yoku means ‘bath.’ This activity means surrounding yourself with the air of the forest or experiencing the forest with all of your senses. What it’s not: donning your swimming suit and playing Marco Polo in the trees.
Have you ever stopped to ponder why after a hike in the woods you feel so refreshed and invigorated? Short answer: because our brains and bodies are hardwired for connecting to nature. Instead of ethernet, think earthnet. Just outside your front door exists a wondrous world – one that has been a featured part of our internal operating system for the better part of 2 million years or so.
Our ancestors evolved in nature. This affinity for the natural world is called Biophilia, a term embraced by renowned biologist E.O. Wilson. Wilson described "the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms."
We in the modern world can regain that sense of peace and calm through Forest Bathing.
So how do you forest bathe? Most walks are two to three hours in length. This timing is critical to achieving total immersion within the forested environment. Phones are left at home or in the car – this is digital detox time. Wandering is encouraged.
As the Japan National Tourism Organization frames it: “No hiking, running, or mountain-climbing necessary. You can even sit if you want to. Take a moment to appreciate your surroundings and listen to the sounds around you: twittering birds, rustling brush, trickling streams. Breathe in clean, fragrant air and soak in the sights of the textured ground and the shapes of the leaves in the sky. Touch the soft, green moss carpeting the shaded stones, or the rough bark on the trees. Let the stillness around you influence your state of mind and make you forget the constant motion of the city. This is a sensory experience.”
Shinrin Yoku has officially been practiced in Japan since the early 1980’s – there are now nearly 70 national parks in Japan just for forest bathing. Japan has long struggled with suicide and depression – made even more prescient by the intensity of pressure to perform at work and in school. Perhaps forest bathing was seen as a way to reclaim a sense of peace, bringing the balance and insights of nature to temper the intensity of modern life.
We are only now beginning to understand the benefits of the forest that the Japanese have known for ages. In Japan, many shrines and temples are found in the forest. Two-thirds of Japan is covered in forest, so it seems only natural that this practice emerged here. This connection between people and nature is an essential part of Japanese culture.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF FOREST BATHING?
The medicine of the forests is deep and rich, multilayered and mysterious. We have barely scratched the surface of what trees might be able to help us with – but what we do know is this: research has shown repeatedly that spending time amongst the trees is incredibly beneficial to us.
One big benefit of this outdoor mindfulness practice is addressing burnout via reduced stress. Other benefits include better focus, improved mood, an increased sense of calm, more altruistic behavior, and enhanced creativity. A recent study reports that you only need two hours per week in nature to gain the most benefits. Time in nature has also been shown to reduce symptoms of PTSD and ADHD.
Another benefit, reinforced by continued research, is the boosting of our immune systems. Notable players are our Natural Killer (NK) Cells, whose focus is responding quickly to a variety of invaders, such as viruses and early signs of cancer. By spending time in forests our bodies absorb compounds that are known as phytoncides. These are what trees use to protect themselves from potential invaders and they also can protect us.
Multiple studies have confirmed that spending as little as 20 minutes in the forest can instigate many positive physiological changes. For example, in every instance of the study, the forest walks consistently resulted in a substantial reduction in cortisol and blood pressure measurements.
WHY DO WE NEED THE FOREST?
Only recently, in evolutionary time, have we been systematically and exponentially disconnecting ourselves from the natural world. This disconnect from those living things is hurting us. We need to re-establish that link, and deep down, we know it.
Research has cited that nearly 70% of humanity will be living in cities by 2050; and 93% of our time is already spent indoors. Between 5-12 hours per day of time is spent on our devices, with social media crowning the list of diversions. What is this disconnect doing to us?
We have become digital zombies, numbingly thumbing our electronic pacifiers with glassy-eyed stares. Humanity can now claim the sad metric of having lower attention spans than a goldfish. Our bodies were not designed for this. They evolved for a more balanced existence, one that the practice of forest bathing can provide.
THE PRACTICE OF SHINRIN YOKU
As Dr. Qing Li, Chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, says: “Shinrin Yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.” The closing of this gap is critical to our wellbeing, as noted by E.O. Wilson, cited earlier. He said: “Our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.”
Forest bathing should become a regular practice in your life because everyone can benefit from a boost in hope, a strengthening of the warp and weft of our spirits. As with any practice, the more you engage with it, the better you become; the more attuned to subtleties around you. With practice you’ll gain more and more benefits – mental, physical, spiritual - drawing strength from nature’s constant cycle of renewal.
Forest bathing can be done individually, or as a guided practice. Similar to yoga, you can open an app or put on a DVD and do yoga alone in your living room; or you can choose to join a guided class in a yoga studio.
Likewise, anyone can plunge into the woods and enjoy the benefits of a peaceful walk in nature. However, the difference of experiencing a forest walk with a certified guide is that you will be intentionally and purposefully brought through a series of low-impact ‘invitations’ over the course of a few hours. Forest bathing is also wonderful to try if you struggle with traditional sitting meditation.
WHERE CAN I FOREST BATHE?
Forest bathing can actually be done in many places. The obvious one is forests or woodlands, but since the practice is about honing an ability to perceive and notice the natural world around us this can extend to trails, parks, and arboreta.
It can be done alongside lakes and rivers, in the mountains or on the prairie. Nature Centers; Local, State, and National Parks and Forests are also fantastic locations for forest bathing. You can even do a simplified version right in your own backyard.
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides (ANFT) is an international leader in the practice of forest therapy, training guides, and providing resources for those interested in learning more about this practice. ANFT has a global network of certified guides and excellent means for finding a certified forest bathing guide near you.
Why do you need to try forest bathing? Because humanity’s collective vitality is quickly being sapped via our disconnect from nature and each other. In less than a decade it seems we’ve become incapable of face to face conversation.
Today, most folks couldn’t tell the difference between a cottonwood, a maple, or an oak. People have reverted to feeling a fear of nature (bio-phobia), because nature has become so unfamiliar.
As one of the characters in Richard Power’s recent Nobel-prize winning book about forests – The Overstory – mentions:
“You can’t see what you don’t understand. But what you think you already understand, you’ll fail to notice…”
We think we already understand what the forest holds, however I’ve seen time and again on my guided walks, guests return completely amazed at what they’ve just noticed – as if they were noticing it for the first time. They’ve gained an understanding they didn’t have, and thus are truly ‘seeing’ something in a new light.
Forest bathing offers you a path to a deep and profound connection to nature. It gives you a tool to feel less stressed. You’ll rediscover a sense of calm and peace amidst the chaos of modern life. You’ll emerge with a boost in your immune system, so you stay healthy. You will be kinder to your fellow human beings. And most importantly, you will start to experience the mystery of the forest once again.
David Motzenbecker is the founding principal, licensed landscape architect, and certified forest therapy guide for Motz Studios – a wellness and design consultancy. His forest therapy certification is through ANFT.