The hidden world of Shinrin-yoku

forest
forest

Highlights:

  • Forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku is a traditional Japanese practice of mindfully immersing oneself in nature
  • Current scientific enquiry is illuminating what humans intuitively know: nature has great healing properties for human well-being
  • Forest bathing is a simple, affordable, and enjoyable intervention to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and to enhance joy, relaxation, cognition, health, as well as the overall sense of well-being and balance in one’s life
  • The practice of forest bathing offers humans an authentic and holistic way of healing and health prevention

Imagine yourself slowly wandering through a forest. Imagine the scent as you are breathing in the clear, fresh air, imagine the lush nature around you, the arcane sounds coming from near and far, maybe even the purling of a stream and sunlight sparkling through the leaves creating dancing patterns on the ground – doesn’t all that nurture something deep inside us? It seems to help us slow down, relax, and ease the chattering of the mind.

That is why forest bathing has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Shinrin-yoku, as it is called in Japanese, was developed in Japan during the 1980s and literally means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”. But what exactly is forest bathing?

It is not an exercise in the conventional way. It is neither hiking nor jogging nor an informative nature excursion. The idea of Shinrin-yoku is to give participants an opportunity to slow down and to appreciate things that can only be perceived when one has slowed down. It is about being mindful in nature, connecting with it through all our senses. We dive deep into nature and into ourselves.

Humans may have known for a long time that nature has a healing effect on us and it really wouldn’t be that surprising. After all, humanity has spent a solid 99,9% of the time of its existence in close contact with nature and coevolved in, with, and through this environment. We may as well call it our home, which might illuminate why nature seems to have such potent healing effects on us.

However, it wasn’t until recently that its potential for well-being became focus of scientific enquiry. Researchers primarily in Japan and South Korea have established a plethora of studies on the health benefits of mindfully spending time in nature (for an overview see Hansen et al., 2017). And by now, a robust body of scientific literature exists that demonstrates why simply being in wild and natural areas, such as forests, can restore our mood, energise, vitalise, and rejuvenate us, and help us think more clearly. And it is this wealth of studies that is currently helping to establish forest bathing throughout the world.

Science confirms what humans may have intuitively known for a long time

Forest bathing has been associated with a broad range of therapeutic effects. The findings include, amongst others, (1) links to immune system functioning, such as an increase in natural killer cells due to phytoncides (wood essential oils), which in turn has been associated with cancer prevention (see Li et al., 2008), as well as accelerated recovery from surgery and illness. (2) Also links to the cardiovascular system have been found, such as a decrease in hypertension and coronary artery disease. (3) Regarding the respiratory system, a reduction in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and allergies were traced. (4) Forest bathing has further been associated with an easing of mood disorders, that is to say, a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety. More than that, Shinrin-yoku even leads to an increase in well-being, vitality and energy levels. (5) In addition, it allows for mental relaxation, thus a decrease in sympathetic nerve activity and stress hormones (a decrease in both acute and chronic stress symptoms), even in children with ADHD, as well as (6) improved cognition, such as the increased ability to focus.

But it doesn’t stop here, people regularly report feelings of “awe” which have been associated with an increase in gratitude and selflessness, that is to say, a state of deep happiness. And the list goes on, positive effects further include improved sleep, mindfulness, a beneficial development of our gut health as a result of exposure to microbial biodiversity as it is found in nature, and an opening of our senses to nature, which helps us develop our intuition. Lastly, forest bathing has even been associated with an enhancement of spiritual health in cancer patients. And while it is already astonishing what impact a single mindful forest sessions can have, regular trips to the forest will bring the best outcomes on our well-being and our ability to communicate with the land and its inhabitants.

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.

                         – John Muir

 

How to get started?

Sometimes it can be tricky to take a break from the stress of one’s daily life and to slow down when one has been busy. One might no longer know how to stand still. In your own pace just slowly slow down. In case your mind wouldn’t let you do so, walking with a guide, for example a trained forest therapist, can help you decelerate and feel more comfortable during the journey.

But it is just as easy to forest-bathe without a guide. Just make sure you turn off your smartphone and leave any other technical devices at home. You won’t need a camera for this activity. Once you are in the forest, there are many different activities you can do that will help you relax, become mindful, and connect with nature. You could, for example, try mindful walking (do you dare to go barefoot?), yoga, mindful eating, preparing your food on a campfire, Tai chi, meditation, deep nature connection mentoring, meaningful nature experiences, breathing exercises, mindful observation, or really any other activity that will help you mindfully connect to nature. You can go alone or in groups, just make sure you don’t distract yourself from your immersion by chatting away with your companions. People report having had the best outcomes when everyone was fully immersed during the walk and only afterwards exchanged thoughts and experiences.

And you might even want to consider forest bathing for your own business activities. Considering the enormous benefits for vitality, cognition, and stress levels surely make for better, more balanced decisions than the never changing four walls in the company that might even be associated with chronic stress and that might to a surprising extent block the potential for fresh ideas.

With an increasing acknowledgement for the central importance of healthy, stimulating, and nurturing environments for human well-being, forest bathing hits the very core of human (psychological) health at exactly the right time. In an era of unprecedented urbanization and digitalization (with a great many people “bathing” their faces almost entire days in the glow of screens), humans might need nature and nature experiences more than ever. Let us create, protect, and visit these oases of life and well-being. Are you ready for experiencing the forest as you may have never done before?

For a deeper dive

Qing Li – Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing

Introduction to Forest Therapy and Shinrin Yoku 

References

Burls, A. (2007). People and green spaces: Promoting public health and mental well-being through ecotherapy. Journal of Public Mental Health, 6, 24-39.

Hansen, M. M., Jones, R., & Tocchini, K. (2017). Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and nature therapy: A state-of-the-art review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14, 851.

Kuo, M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1093.

Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Kobayashi, M., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., ... & Kawada, T. (2008). Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 21, 117-127.

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