Forest Bathing: Do I Bring a Towel?
When I take folks out walking in the woods, the only goal is perhaps a destination I have in mind, a rocky outcrop or vista. “Nothing to do, nowhere to be.” is the mantra. My woods are young and old-growth, dappled with sunlight. We stop and stand with a favorite 200 year old oak tree. Lean quietly and listen. As we pass through a stand of birch trees, we stop to touch the papery bark and watch as the whole grove of red pines sway. In the Spring, mushrooms grow in the loam and moss, and we may come across wild morel or chanterelle to collect. In Autumn, black walnuts fall with a thud and give off a strong citrus smell when we gather them. The blackberries and wild grapes drop and attract birds, and if we’re lucky a wild turkey, owl, or even a rare Pileated woodpecker will swoop through the trees. I say it’s my therapy.
The healing way of Shinrin-yoku (森林浴), or Forest Therapy, and is the medicine of simply being in the forest. The term Shinrin-yoku means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” Forest Bathing was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. In 21st century America it’s become a thing, but the practice of visiting a forest with the intent of restoring metal and physical health is not new.
The practice of returning to nature to find stillness and calm is as old as cities themselves, creating the need to return. In the West, the industrial revolution lead to the rise of the Transcendental movement, and writers like Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman. This was an emphasis upon simple living in natural surroundings to become aware of the essential unity of all creation, and the supremacy of insight over logic for the revelation of the deepest truths. Was this an idealization of nature - or an acknowledgment of its fundamental importance?
In his essay Walking, Thoreau writes, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
There is great value to be realized in periods of solitude and silence. Nature provides this, especially for those whose lives are in and of the world. One goal of forest bathing, is to use the rhythm of the natural environment to slow down. In the forest it’s easier to the spend time to take in our surroundings using all of our senses. You can’t work, so you tend not to worry about it. By becoming immersed in the organic world we can more easily tune in to smells, textures, tastes, sights, sensations. All of these things help to support clearing out the clutter in our brains. The role of the forest guide is to help you be ‘mindful,’ to be in the moment, or “Be here now” as Ram Dass put it.
For starters, let's define what ‘mindfulness’ is: A Perspectives on Psychological Science study described it as “the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment.” This can be broken down into 4 elements: body awareness, self-awareness, regulation of emotion, and regulation of attention. We know here that we defining a Buddhist concept. And the relationship between nature and Mindfulnesss are inextricabley linked.
It’s also a great place for people to learn to breathe if they are unfamiliar with meditation. Sit peacefully and just breathe. Watch your thought arise, and let them go. Take a few minutes to clear out the clutter in your brain, and tune in to the natural world. I work with the gatha (zen poem), related by Thich Nhat Hanh “In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, smile, release, present moment, only moment.”
When you lift your eyes, you can imagine you're seeing the world for the very first time. After you look up, the greens often look greener. You began to see things you hadn't noticed before: the flutter of birds, the reflections in the water, the movement of the leaves. By working with a practice that helps us to see the world clearly and to stabilize our minds, wisdom can arise.
We now know there are numerous health benefits of meditation. I like Courney Ackerman’s blog. If you’d like to look at some data, she does a great job explaining the Mindfulness research. Here’s one of her lists of benefits:
- Higher brain functioning
- Increased immune function
- Lowered heart rate
- Increased awareness
- Increased attention and focus
- Increased clarity in thinking and perception
- Lowered anxiety levels
- Experience of being calm and internally still
- Experience of feeling connected
- Lowered blood pressure
There's a growing body of evidence that Forrest Bathing has the same demonstrable health effects as meditation. Research suggests it can help boost immunity and mood and reduce stress.
“Medical researchers in Japan have studied forest bathing and have demonstrated several benefits to our health,” says Philip Barr, a physician who specializes in integrative medicine at Duke University.
One study compared the effects of walking in the city to walking in a forest (Li, Kobayashi, Wakayama, et al., 2011). The forest environment led to significant reductions in blood pressure and stress hormones. On average, the forest walkers saw almost a 10 point reduction in their systolic blood pressure after four hours in the forest. Thats compelling because it’s competitive with hypertension medications used alone, but without the negative side effects. "Forest bathing could be considered a form of medicine," Barr says. "And the benefits of nature can be accessed so simply."
So, you relax in nature and we measure a decrease in blood pressure. Pretty normal. But there’s another factor that might improve health: phytoncides. Trees release these compounds into the forest air and there’s evidence that is therapeutic. For example, Japanese scientists report inhaling cedar wood oils led to a reduction in blood pressure (Dayawansa, Umeno, Takakura, et al., 2003). In another study inhaling these tree-derived compounds enhanced the activity of white-blood cells, particularly natural killer cells (Li, Kobayashi, Wakayama, et al., 2009).
This research suggests, for health purposes we may view Forest Bathing as a form of mediation. Today most of us spend much of our life indoors, tethered to devices, miles from tree groves. We rarely put our hands in the dirt. If nature tunes our bodies, our bodies are tuned to concrete, artificial light, plastic fabrics, and antibacterial hand soap. Our environment is unnatural in the most literal sense - and it’s become our normal human habitat. Perhaps the new forest bathing trend is a recognition that many of us need a little nudge to get back out there.