Shinrin-yoku. Forest bathing. Forest Therapy. No matter what you call the practice, the goal is the same: for humans to use the forest as medicine.
History of Forest Bathing
Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or, more simply, forest bathing. The practice was developed in Japan in the early 1990s as a response to the negative impacts of the high-stress lives that many Japanese city-dwellers were experiencing at the time.
Since then, shinrin-yoku has become a prominent feature of Japanese wellness practices. Though it’s not integrated into the health care system (You can’t get a prescription for it), the practice is ingrained in the culture and is moving in that direction.
If the Industrial Revolution is a marker of urbanization, then 99.99 percent of the five million years of human evolution has taken place in the natural environment, not in cities. In fact, it wasn’t until the last decade that the world population distribution tipped the 50 percent mark to become more urban than rural.
As our modern, plugged-in city culture leaves less and less room for authentic connection to nature, the need for such a connection becomes ever more urgent. What humans have known since the very beginning (but forgot sometime relatively recently), the Japanese have rediscovered. And now the West is catching on to the fact that mindful time spent in nature is integral to one’s well being.
The Science Behind Forest Therapy
Thanks to certain Japanese researchers – who have spent a few decades studying the physiological effects of forest bathing – we have a robust body of research that points to specific positive effects of Forest Therapy on human biological systems.
Recently, Western scientists and universities have started to add to the research. In 2009, Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine published a survey of the research related to forest bathing. It shows that participants of forest bathing walks demonstrated lower cortisol counts, lower blood pressure, lower blood glucose levels, increased white blood cell activity and higher mood profiles.
Basically, when people spend a few hours in the forest, they come out less stressed, healthier and happier. And even better, some of these effects tend to last up to a month.
Several studies have demonstrated that shinrin-yoku is an effective tool for lowering stress. One of these studies measured prefrontal cortex activity (greater activity indicates more stress) and salivary cortisol levels (higher cortisol count indicates more stress) in men who walked in nature versus men who walked in the city.
In all of their subjects, they measured significantly lower prefrontal cortex activity and lower cortisol levels in those who walked in the forest. The results of this and many other studies show that forest therapy can effectively relax people.
One element of the human immune system is natural killer (NK) cells. And one element of a tree’s immune system is phytoncides. A tree showers itself with essential oils as a way to combat pests and parasites.
These essential oils (which smell pleasant to humans) contain compounds called phytoncides. Qing Li and other researchers from the Department of Hygiene and Public Health at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo have shown that phytoncides not only significantly increase NK activity in otherwise healthy immune systems but also significantly restore NK activity that has been reduced by exposure to the DDVP pesticide.
So it would seem that the trees’ immune systems are tied to human immune systems.
Improve Mood And Memory
In one study from the University of Michigan, individuals with major depressive disorder demonstrated not only improved mood but also improved short-term memory after walking for just one hour in the woods as compared to walking for an hour in an urban environment.
In another study from 2014, Zelenski and Nisbet found that nature connection positively correlates with happiness. In other words, the more connection a person feels with nature, the happier they tend to be.
So, How Do You Forest Bathe?
Well, to start, there’s no need for a bathtub. Simply find yourself a quiet place in nature, alone or with other people, and try to slow down. Use all of your senses to notice what is there. Enjoy the slow pace. Playfulness is recommended.
Though it sounds simple, this practice can be hard for many of us because we’re simply not used to operating at a slow pace. Or we have a hard time quieting our thinking minds.
Or our culture tells us that rather than being still we should be hiking for exercise through the wood or multitasking by listening to a podcast at the same time.
Or the forest is more often seen as something to just get through on the way to a destination like a lake or a waterfall.
Going on a Forest Therapy walk gives us permission to release all these notions and habits to focus simply on being present in the non-human world and receive what it freely offers us.
Popular Forest Bathing Areas
According to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT), the leading certifier of Forest Therapy guides in North America, the ideal location for practicing shinrin-yoku is called the Satoyama Zone.
Satoyama is a term that historically applies to the land between arable farmland and the foothills of the mountains. It is the buffer zone between the town and the wilderness – not completely wild but also not completely tame.
A good modern example of this would be an urban or suburban forest with well-tended trails, a large city park with forested areas or even an arboretum. It’s even possible to do Forest Therapy in places where there are no trees – many guides have reported success leading walks in the deserts of the Southwest and along rocky beaches.
One reason for using the Satoyama Zone is because these areas are not too difficult to get to. Not everyone is able to drive two hours to a trailhead in the mountains. And even if that’s possible, it’s not something most people are willing to do regularly. Forest bathing should feel easily accessible.
Also, being in the actual wilderness can be stress-inducing for many people, which is the opposite of the goal of forest bathing. So the Satoyama Zone offers amenities, like parking and a bathroom nearby; just enough of the city comforts to keep our minds at ease while we explore the offerings of the forest.
Benefits Of Using A Guide Vs. Going Alone
Anyone can sit at home and do stretches, right? You don’t need a yoga instructor. Likewise, anyone can pray without a minister and anyone can play sports without a coach. Yet coaches, teachers, and ministers are common professions in society.
Why? Because if you’re like me, you’re not going to stretch, pray, or play on your own as often as you probably should. But more importantly, a guide has been where we are going and therefore can support us on the journey.
This all equally applies to Forest Therapy walks. Anyone can walk out into the woods. You don’t need a guide. But if you are looking for a deeper experience, you should probably allow yourself to be guided. To that end, consider finding a guide near you who is certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.
What’s It Like To Be Guided?
Guided Forest Therapy walks are typically about three hours long and cover less than a mile of trail. During this time the guide, in partnership with the forest, will offer an evolving series of invitations crafted to help participants slow down and open their senses.
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The opening of one’s senses encourages mindfulness and liminality – sometimes referred to as a flow state. It is a frame of mind where time and space are not so locked into place. Liminality is why we have the phrase: “time flies when you’re having fun.” It is in this liminal space that we are best suited to perceive the stream of information and messaging present in the natural world.
Shinrin-yoku. Forest bathing. Forest Therapy. No matter what you call the practice, the goal is wellness. And like any wellness practice, the more often we engage, the more proficient and healthy we become.
Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Michael is the founder of Cascadia Forest Therapy. When he isn’t guiding walks in the woods he is the instructor of Outdoor Recreation and Leadership at Waskowitz Environmental Leadership and Service High School in Burien, WA.