What is forest therapy or as the Japanese refer to it as forest bathing? Picture yourself right now immersed in a beautiful forest, breath in the fresh air and notice the incredible foliage all around you – do you feel better? How would you feel if you were actually there?
Originally from Japan, forest bathing—or shinrin-yoku in Japanese—isn’t what it sounds like. Yes, it involves a trip to the forest, but you won’t be stripping down and jumping into a serene lake surrounded by larger-than-life trees. Instead, it’s a meditative moment or walk spent immersing yourself in all the forest has to offer: clean air, peace and quiet, and immune-boosting benefits.
Research has long shown the positive impact of nature and greenery on our overall health, and forest bathing is no exception. This spiritual practice is scientifically proven to boost the immune system, lower your heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and improve our overall sense of well-being.
Yes, forest bathing has been around for decades, but it’s so popular this summer that the U.S. Association of Nature & Forest Therapy has plans to certify 250 new guides next year, and 2017 has seen the largest number of guides ever. In other words, this meditative exercise isn’t going anywhere.
This specific therapy was founded on the idea that as a species, we spent the first few million years of our existence in the forest. Now we reside in cities and suburbs and are surrounded by all kinds of stimuli. This has led to a tremendous amount of stress on our minds and bodies that result in negative health consequences.
How Getting Back to Nature Works
By engaging in forest bathing, we’re getting back to our roots in nature. A typical forest bathing session includes a walk in the woods and encouragement by guides to drop all racing, analytical thoughts and simply breathe.
“Forest bathing calls for using all of your senses so you are practicing being present in the moment rather than focused on the future or worrying about what might happen or regretting what took place in the past,” says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo. “Forest bathing encourages you to take deep breaths of clean air and to simply take some time out of your busy life to do something special for yourself. How could that not be effective?”
Beyond the basic benefits of spending time in nature—increased well-being, lower blood pressure, the list goes on—forest bathing has some unique health benefits involving a compound called phytoncides. “Trees shower (or bathe) themselves in an antimicrobial, antifungal, antibacterial compound called phytoncides,” explains Ben Page, founder of Shinrin Yoku LA. “This is how trees combat disease.
When humans inhale these phytoncides, it triggers the human body to produce a specialized white blood cell called NK cells, or Natural Killer cells.” These NK cells are responsible for attacking cancerous and tumorous growths in the body, improving overall immune strength.
— Forest Therapy Scot (@ForestTherapySc) July 25, 2017
Forest Therapy 101
- There is a specific intention to connect with nature in a healing way. This requires mindfully moving through the landscape in ways that cultivate presence, opening all the senses, and actively communicating with the land.
- It is not something to rush through. Shinrin-Yoku walks are not undertaken with the primary goal of physical exercise. Shinrin-Yoku walks are typically a mile or less and range in duration from two to four hours.
- Mindfulness is encouraged to begin to perceive more deeply the nuances of the constant stream of communications rampant in any natural setting. We learn to let the land and its messages penetrate into our minds and hearts more deeply.
- It’s not a one-time event. Developing a meaningful relationship with nature occurs over time, and is deepened by returning again and again throughout the natural cycles of the seasons. Like yoga, meditation, prayer, working out, and many other worthy endeavors, shinrin-yoku is a practice.
- It’s not just about taking walks in the forest. The walks are important, but there are other core routines that we can do that will help in our deepening relationship with nature, and in the exchange of health benefits between humans and the more- than-human-world.
Forest therapy was founded on the idea that as a species, we spent the first few million years of our existence in the forest. Now we reside in cities and suburbs and are surrounded by all kinds of stimuli. This has led to a tremendous amount of stress on our minds and bodies that result in negative health consequences.
Forest Therapy is Popular For a Reason
So, why is forest bathing more popular than ever this year? Amos Clifford, founder and director of U.S. Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, thinks it has to do with how much stress regular use of smartphones and other technology have added to our lives.
“I believe the reason for the growing popularity of this practice has to do with an instinctive reaction to the growing dominance of devices in our lives,” he explains. “And when people practice forest bathing, the benefits are so immediately felt that people want more.”
While the scientifically proven benefits are one reason so many people turn to forest therapy, Clifford adds that its popularity has a lot to do with the need for connection. “Many people who I have guided feel more connected, not just to nature but to themselves.
Putting aside the habitual stressors of daily life, the constant immersion in technology, and the rushing about and exhaustion is a bit like waking up from a bad dream. As clarity descends, people remember who they are and what is important in life. They feel refreshed, renewed, and restored.”