Imagine walking into a lush green forest, silent except for the sounds of nature. You can see birds flitting from one branch to another, feel a cool breeze on your face, and hear leaves crunching underneath your feet. As you spend more and more time here, you start to feel relaxed and at peace and feel like you can think more clearly. As you return home, you feel rejuvenated and ready to take on whatever challenge comes next.
What you just imagined is called shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing — and it has incredible effects on your physical and mental health!
What is shinrin-yoku?
Shinrin means “forest” in Japanese, while yoku means “bath.” Shinrin-yoku literally means “to bathe in the forest environment” or “to take in the forest via our senses.” Forest bathing is an age-old practice in many cultures around the world. However, 1980s Japan used the official term as we know it for a physiological and psychological activity recommended to many. It was intended to provide a nature-centric antidote to fatigue caused by the tech boom. It was also meant to encourage inhabitants to reconnect with and maintain the country’s woods. In 1982, this form of mobile meditation in living forests became an official part of Japan’s national health program.
The premise of forest bathing is more relevant today than ever before. Cities are expected to house 66 percent of the world’s population by 2050. The average American spends 93 percent of his or her time indoors, according to research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.
How does forest bathing help?
Even a short period of time spent in nature can improve our health. But why is that? It’s because humans are, according to American biologist E.O. Wilson, “hardwired” to connect with nature. On that note, here’s how forest bathing can help.
Physical health benefits
Forest bathing has been shown to decrease blood pressure and heart rate. It also reduces dangerous hormone levels such as cortisol which your body creates when you’re stressed. Therefore, forest bathing can directly lead to you feeling calmer and more relaxed. Other studies have found that spending just 10 to 20 minutes a day outside can improve your well-being and happiness while also lowering your stress levels.
The air we breathe in while walking through a forest also has incredible benefits. Researchers have found that an essential oil that trees emit called phytoncide increases the level of natural killer (NK) cells present in our blood. NK cells combat infections and cancers as well as boost creativity and increase attention and better mood.
Mental health benefits
According to Dr. Qing Li, the president of the Society for Forest Medicine in Japan, spending time in the forest can help you feel better by reducing stress, anger, anxiety, and depression. In his book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, Dr. Li also adds, “You sleep better when you spend time in a forest, even when you don’t increase the amount of physical activity you do.”
Walking through a forest, as compared to walking in the woods or in an urban environment, has much more of a positive impact on vigor and reduces fatigue.
Stepping away from the urban sprawl to spend time in forests can help us reconnect with nature. We often forget that we live as part of a massive ecosystem, one that is constantly in danger from human activities. Reconnecting with our forests can help us truly understand how vital they are to the planet and flora and fauna other than humans. That leads us to realize better how critical the regeneration and conservation of forests is.
How to perform forest bathing
The first thing to note here is that despite being named “forest” bathing, shinrin-yoku can be performed in any green space in the city or a nature reserve near you. However, we’d still recommend doing this in a real forest at least once. Here’s how Dr. Li himself describes the process of forest bathing in his book:
“Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind… The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses.”
Find a spot
Once you’ve reached your local park or nature reserve, find a good spot under a tree away from crowds and comfortable to sit at for a while. Take a few deep breaths and tune in to what is happening around you. It helps to focus on one thing at a time at first, like the sounds of birds chirping, or the sound of wind rustling the leaves. You can also look around where you are, again paying careful attention to details like the sunlight filtering through the canopy or the bark of the tree. Here are some prompts to help you along:
● What do you see?
● What sounds can you hear all around you?
● Can you inhale and exhale deeply?
● When you reach your hand out, what can you touch, and how does it feel?
At this point, you can decide to start walking, but do so aimlessly and without a destination in mind. Wander around the forest or the park, stopping here and there to pay attention to something that has caught your eye. Reduce your pace consciously so that you’re able to engage all your senses.
Try different activities
Once you’ve gotten used to forest bathing, consider trying out related mindfulness practices such as yoga or meditation. Consider working with a trained forest therapist if you would like a more structured program. You can easily find something else to do in a green space, like creating art, reading a book, hosting a picnic, foraging where it’s legal, and making scrapbooks. Keep in mind that phones and cameras traditionally aren’t carried along when you’re forest bathing!
Spend at least 20 minutes but stay safe
Ideally, you should have spent at least 20 minutes on forest bathing because that’s when the benefits start to kick in. 10 hours in a month is the ideal amount of time, according to some scientists.
While forest bathing, it’s important to look after your safety as well, and avoid trespassing into areas that are protected or too wild. Stay on marked trails, wear appropriate clothing, and carry water, sunscreen, and bug repellant if you’re going into a forest or nature reserve.
The final word
Forest bathing is ideal for people of all ages who are looking for a break from city life and stress or merely want some time to themselves. It requires a different mindset and can take a while to getting used to, especially if you have a busy life lived entirely on calendars. But it is worth the effort, because the process of returning to nature is calming and fulfilling and has long-standing positive effects.
If you start forest bathing and see the benefits in store for you, consider supporting reforestation, conservation, and tree planting efforts in in-need areas across the world. We have one of the most incredible natural healing methods on the planet, and we need to take extensive steps to make sure we get to enjoy it for a longer time!