Forest Bathing (Shinrin-Yoku) is a traditional Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses.
During the 1980s, Shinrin-Yoku surfaced in Japan as a pivotal part of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
The forest bathing therapy or Shinrin-yoku, consists of walking, sitting, stretching, observing native elements of the environment and enjoy the natural sounds and aromas in a relaxed and meditative way.
Forests, besides being beautiful natural spaces full of life, are places that can improve the mental and physical state in people. According to several scientific studies and experts who recommend the practice of “forest baths”.
Nature itself can be a medicinal therapy, but a simple walk between the trees is not enough. We have to absorb the forest with all our senses. It is necessary to connect with the environment and surrender to the benevolence of these magnificent beings called trees.
Shinrin-yoku promotes communication with mother earth through all the senses, something that we have unfortunately forgotten, in part, because we are immersed in this cement world, too busy and far from nature.
What is a Forest Bathing (Shinrin-Yoku)?
The term “Shinrin-yoku” literally means: “to absorb the atmosphere of the forest” and was initially coined by technicians from the Forestry Agency of Japan, the country where the practice originated.
However, the concept is inspired by ancestral Buddhist practices and Shintoism, a religion native to Japan that reveres the spirits of nature.
“It is about taking the time to notice what we see, breathe deeply, feel the contact with the air, the textures of the leaves, listen to the wind among the trees, hear the birds”, explains Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, based in California, which promotes Japanese practice in the United States.
Since the beginning of the therapy, several researches have scientifically verified the beneficial effects of forest baths on physical and mental health.
These studies showed optimistic results for the reduction of blood pressure and stress, anxiety and insomnia; improvement of type 2 diabetes mellitus, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and the immune system; increased mood and psychological well-being; and decrease in negative mood, among others.
In 1982, the Japanese government started the forest baths as a mental and physical relaxation therapy for a growing urban population subjected to intense levels of competitiveness and stress, and incidentally, to protect and enhance the forests.
Nowadays, between one and two million people practice Shinrin-yoku in the Japanese country, estimates Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physiologist and anthropologist at the University of Chiba (Japan) and one of the world pioneers of the scientific study of forest baths.
The Japanese Forestry Agency designated about 50 forests as therapy centers and hopes to expand the number to 100 in the next decade.
Additionally to Japan, other countries have several forest bath initiatives. In the Republic of Korea, exists the “forest cure” (Sanlimyok). In the United States, M. Amos Clifford founded in 2012 the Association of Natural and Forestry Therapy (ANFT), that performs forest baths and trains guides who can impart the therapy in other places. They started in California and now they have spread throughout the United States and other countries.
In Europe, besides to the expansion work of the ANFT, other initiatives can be found in Germany, Austria or the United Kingdom.
The importance of Nature in our lives
Individuals living and interacting in green spaces report being more energetic, in good overall health and, have more of a sense of meaningful purpose in life.
Current scientific findings are illuminating what humans intuitively know: nature has great benefits for the human brain and this is shown through increased happiness, health/well-being and cognition.
Historically speaking, Cyrus the Great, intuitively built lush green gardens in the crowded urban capital of Persia 2500 years ago to increase human health and promote a sense of “calm” in a busy city.
The 16th Century Swiss-German physician, Paracelsus, declared: “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician”.
These insights have lead Shinrin-Yoku researchers to investigate the modern health benefits of humans being exposed to nature or green spaces.
How to Practice Forest Bathing?
There are different ways of doing a forest bath, as it is included in the guide ‘Forest baths, a health proposal’, published by the DKV Institute of Healthy Living, which offers details about this practice and, in general, about how healthy environment benefits health.
The simplest alternative is to go through a forest on your own, it can also be in an urban park with nature. For its part, the organized option involves joining a group with a guide and participating in a session that can last between two or three hours or even several sessions over separate days.
Mature forests, with large and ancient specimens and a large living community of plants and animals, are preferable for forest bathing. However, scientific studies also indicate health benefits of being in contact with all types of natural spaces, including urban parks or marine nature spaces.
The restorative power of contact with nature has been experienced and intuited for centuries.
But it is in Japan, as we mentioned earlier, where more studies have been done on the concrete benefits of the forest bath.
One of the pioneers in this work is Yoshifumi Miyazaki, an anthropologist and deputy director of the Center for Environment, Health and Field Studies at Chiba University, just outside of Tokyo.
“We have passed 99.9% of our evolution in natural environments”, he said.
“Our physiological functions are still adapted to these environments and in the day to day we can achieve a feeling of well-being if we synchronize our rhythms with those of the environment”.
Miyazaki made the remarks in an interview for the Outside Magazine to American journalist and writer Florence Williams, author of the recent book “The Nature Fix” which includes an analysis of “Shinrin-yoku”.
More Shinrin Yoku related readings from Amazon here.
Health Benefits when practicing Forest Bathing
Several studies explored the therapeutic benefits of Shinrin-yoku in Asian countries.
Physiological and psychological differences between participants in a “forest therapy” program and a control were examined in the Seoul Metropolitan area with findings of a significant reduction in chronic widespread pain and depression.
Song and colleagues demonstrated how male Japanese students who walked 15-min in an urban park during the autumn season had decreased stress and heart rates.
By using divers valid psychological tests, researchers demonstrated the positive effects of forest therapy on individuals coping with chronic side effects of a cerebral vascular accident, specifically anxiety and depression.
On the other hand, since 2004, Miyazaki has conducted studies with more than 600 people in the forests.
His work, together with his colleague Juyoung Lee, also from Chiba University, showed that, compared to urban walks, the forest baths managed to reduce the levels of the stress hormone cortisol by 12.4% and by 1.4 % on average blood pressure. The incidence of heart attacks also reduced by 5.8%.
Song, Ikei and Miyazaki’s present day model: Concept of Nature Therapy clearly defines Nature therapy as “a set of practices aimed at achieving ‘preventive medical effects’ through exposure to natural stimuli that render a state of physiological relaxation and boost the weakened immune functions to prevent diseases”.
Contact with nature also decreases the activity of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for cognitive functions such as planning and at the same time, increases activity in other areas of the brain linked with empathy and emotions.
“That is why food tastes better in the countryside”. Miyazaki told Florence Williams.
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Forest baths also increase the level of so-called NK cells, the acronym for natural killers, a type of white blood cell that helps fight diseases.
Qing Li, from the Nippon School of Medicine in Tokyo, points out that volatile compounds in trees such as cedars are those that generate that beneficial impact on the immune system.
And if it is not possible to go to a forest, visit a park in a city and do it with all the senses, it is also beneficial.
Even, it was shown, that hospital patients with just looking at a tree through their window, are healed more quickly than those who do not have a tree in sight.
To summarize the extensive work: “Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) and Nature Therapy: A State-of-the-Art Review” (Margaret M. Hansen, Reo Jones and Kirsten Tocchini) that describes in detail several studies that support the benefits of the practice of forest bath, we can highlight the following results:
Health benefits of exposure to nature and green environments on human systems
- Cardiovascular system (hypertension/coronary artery disease);
- Respiratory system (allergies and respiratory disease);
- Central nervous system (depression and anxiety (mood disorders and stress);
- Mental relaxation (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and;
- Human feelings of “awe” (increase in gratitude and selflessness).
Finally, as the Association of Nature and Forest Therapies of California points out, the important thing to remember is that: “The guide just opens the door… the real therapist is the forest itself.”