Have your friends ever asked you to go forest bathing? Unless your friend is Japanese, the answer is likely no. We all know the refreshing feeling from time spent outdoors surrounded by plants, wildlife, fresh water, wind, and an expansive view. The sounds, the smells, the sunlight breaking through the canopy, a great big inhale of fresh air. When nature surrounds us, it provides a sense of comfort. Likewise, it helps us to relax and providing an overwhelming sense of clarity. Being in a natural environment rebalances our mood, gives us energy, and ultimately rejuvenates us physically, emotionally and spiritually. We become centered and feel whole.
Why does this happen, and is it universal? Is there a scientific reason for the perceived benefits we feel when we walk into the woods?
The Origins of Forest Bathing and Shinrin-Yoku
We've walked the woods and plains since the dawn of our species. Homo sapiens are part of the natural world regardless of how many walls we put up around us or how thick the soles we put on our feet to separate ourselves from it. Today it's common for our only time outdoors to be within specific activities such as exercising, hobbies, or work. Whether it's hiking, jogging, mushrooming, hunting, or walking the dog, there's usually some sort of goal in mind or destination to be reached. Forest bathing bridges the gap between us and the natural world, rejecting the goal and destination. It simply means embracing nature with no agenda attached. After all, it's hard to relax when focused on a specific achievement.
Forest bathing as an actual labelled practice became established in Japan in the early 1990s, when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries first coined the term 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.”Qing Li, 2018
That's the heart of shinrin-yoku - connecting with your senses and tuning in to the sights, smells, textures and sounds that occupy the forest around you. In other words, bathing in it! The practice is a meditation, an embracing of awareness. Various meditative methods can be combined with forest bathing to increase effectiveness and benefits. By closing your eyes, breathing deeply and allowing the sensations of the forest to wash over you, you begin to think less of what's going on out there and instead become more focused on the connection with an internal self.
How Forest Bathing Benefits Us
By simply stepping outside, we are immediately exposed to tens of thousands of negative ions. These ions are odorless, tasteless, invisible molecules that we inhale in abundance in certain environments. Mountains, waterfalls and beaches have notoriously high negative ion counts.
Don't worry, these ions are completely safe and actually give us a boost in many ways. Negative ions help increase the amount of oxygen flowing in the blood to the brain and muscles, resulting in higher levels of alertness, mental energy, and decreased drowsiness. They help protect against germs and other airborne pathogens, increasing our natural immunity. Consequently, there's a tangible reason why simply opening a window and letting fresh air into your house immediately leaves you feeling more refreshed and happy.
Forest Bathing and Medicine
Forest bathing has also become a tool for preventative medicine all over the world. For example, a study published by Environ Health Prev Med in a research paper titled: The Trends on the Research of Forest Bathing in Japan, Korea and in the World, has claimed natural and forest environments provide us a better state of well-being than city environments. Measurements include saliva samples, blood pressure, pulse rate and heart rate. An excerpt of the study is below:
"Salivary cortisol, blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability were used as indices. These indices were measured in the morning at the accommodation facility before breakfast and also both before and after the walking (for 16 ± 5 min) and viewing (for 14 ± 2 min). The R–R interval was also measured during the walking and viewing periods. The results show that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments. These results will contribute to the development of a research field dedicated to forest medicine, which may be used as a strategy for preventive medicine."
Furthermore, as the study above indicates, being outdoors reduces our stress response. For instance, Amos Clifford, a former wilderness guide with a master's degree in counseling and founder of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (the organization that certifies wilderness guides) wants to begin using forest therapy as a treatment method for people with various health conditions. Most importantly, Clifford's ideal goal is to help health care providers incorporate forest therapy as a stress-reduction strategy.
"It's my hope that the health care system will include [forest therapy] into the range of services they reimburse for."Clifford
Why Forest Bathing Matters
At the heart of it, modern humans spend too much of our time indoors. And never have we, as a species, been so disconnected from nature. Throw in the Metaverse and it’s game over for our connection to the natural world. (Okay, maybe not, but at times it sure seems like it.) Our species adapted to activities like collecting herbs and tending a fire, but modern productivity prefers us in front of a virtual window into an abstract reality. As a result, finding ways to reconnect with our natural environment today are imperative to our health and mental wellbeing.
Moreover, it's sobering to think about how we quite literally spend most of our time in boxes. We live in a house/apartment box, then get into our vehicle box, and go to our workplace - which often, it turns out, is also a box. According to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors (Klepeis, 2001). Sure, historically we have spent time indoors during inclement weather, but our indoor spaces are not our natural environment. An interesting research paper entitled Nature Therapy and Preventative Medicine found that as a species we have overwhelmingly spent our time in natural environments:
Five million years passed before humans evolved into what we are today. Therefore, more than 99.99% of our evolutionary history was spent in natural environments, assuming that urbanization can be defined as a postindustrial revolution development. We have become the species we are today, living in a modern civilization, through a process of evolution within a natural environment.Nature Therapy and Preventive Medicine
Bringing the Forest to Your Home
The next best thing, or really something supplemental to forest bathing, is bringing a part of your natural environment into your home. At Nakamoto Forestry we of course are fans of doing this in the form of shou sugi ban siding and interior wood paneling (see these blogs: The Health Benefits of Interior Wood Paneling and Biophilic Design (and wood)). But it can also be potted plants and flowers, cut flowers, aromatic cedar furniture, even recordings taken outside and replayed inside. Try different creative ways of bringing nature into your home environment and see the effects for yourself!
There is a fundamental need for humans to go outside and walk in the woods. It's one of the most basic things you can do to increase your well-being. Go for a walk in the forest!
Below is a video from Forest Medicine expert, Dr Qing Li's on the many benfits of forest bathing:
Don’t have access to a forest right now? Here’s something to stream while holed up indoors!
“the most effective aroma is Japanese Cypress” interview film with Qing Li in Japan.
Interview to with Prof. Miyazaki Yoshifumi
Forestry Agency (a government organization under the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture) promotes forest bathing and they have a list of locations in Japan- link below.
Nature therapy [English dubbed] | Yoshifumi Miyazaki | TEDxTokyo