Traffic. Zoom meetings. COVID-19. Climate change.
With the environmental and situational stressors of life, the common concerns of the kitchen table, and those unknown unknowns always lurking – not to mention the daily challenges of playing well with others and maintaining our own inner selves, there is much to navigate. No wonder we humans sometimes feel physically bludgeoned and mentally fried. While a lavender candle is soothing and a bubble bath is so soothing, imagine stepping into the great outdoors and treating yourself to a different kind of relaxation: a relaxing forest bath.
What is forest bathing?
Shinrin-yoku – translated, “forest bathing” or “taking in the atmosphere of the forest” – is all about slowing down and “bathing” in the beauty of nature. Also called forest therapy, it is based on thousands of years of intuitive knowledge that because we are part of nature, we humans naturally have a deep need to feel connected to nature. It also involves inhaling the essential oils of the wood, called phytoncides, which are exuded by the plants and trees of the forest. Happy fact: it turns out that forest baths increase our NK cells, or natural killer cells, which help fight disease.
Shinrin-yoku originated in Japan in the early 1980s as a government response to a workforce suffering from technostress. The long-term positive effects of shinrin-yoku on mind, body and spirit have been widely studied and demonstrated, primarily by teams in Japan and Korea, but more recently in Western Europe and the UK. United, by the Forest Bathing Institute and the University of Derby.
How it works?
“The main hypothetical mechanism of how shinrin-yoku works is thought to be due to ‘biophilia’,” says Dr Kirsten McEwan, Associate Professor, College of Health, Psychology and Social Care Research, University of Derby, in an email. ..” is the concept that humans have spent most of their ancestral history in nature, and therefore we are adapted to process and respond more easily to natural stimuli than to urban or man-made stimuli. This is summarized in Kaplan’s attention restoration theory, which suggests that because natural stimuli (such as the branches of a tree or the veins of a leaf) are easy to process, we are able to pay attention to nature in a way that is restorative rather than tiring.”
Why is forest bathing good for you?
Forest bathing is proving to be an invaluable tool in the preventive health care toolbox. McEwan’s research aligns with others in the field who say shinrin-yoku can regulate blood pressure, improve heart rate variability (an indicator of cardiovascular health and psychological well-being), reduce stress hormones and inflammatory markers such as cortisol, and increase the number and activity of NK cells and cancer-fighting proteins. Research has also shown that practicing shinrin-yoku also has psychological benefits, such as improvements in mood (anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, fatigue, and vigor), coping and resilience, and attention restoration.
Why are forest baths relevant to modern science and medicine?
With a growing population and huge demands on public health services, McEwan believes governments around the world must prioritize preventative health measures and affordable social prescriptions like shinrin-yoku that larger communities can easily access. Furthermore, McEwan states that “with the current climate crisis, priority must be given to the protection of ancient and semi-ancient forests. By making shinrin-yoku a social prescription, Japan and Korea were able to protect large areas of forests and replant areas to provide people with the resource to engage with shinrin-yoku. Research has also indicated that shinrin-yoku increases connection with nature and pro-environmental attitudes, thereby motivating people to value and protect natural environments.
So how is forest bathing different from a walk in the woods?
Gary Evans, founder and director of the Forest Bathing Institute (TFBI) in the UK, explains that forest bathing is different because of the speed and orientation of the visit. “Typical forest activities such as walking, jogging, bicycling, and horseback riding increase heart rate and use the sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight),” he says. “Forest bathing is a slow-paced activity that typically lowers the heart rate, leading to relaxation and serenity. These feelings arise when we increase parasympathetic nervous system activity (rest and digestion). The best way to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system The answer is to sit in the forest and take a few deep breaths and give yourself at least five to 10 minutes of quiet observation time for noticeable changes to occur.”
A quick guide
If you want a quick and easy forest bathing experience, visit a forest, slow down, and walk around without speaking until you find an attractive place to stop and sit. Sitting is vital. Now immerse yourself in the forest through your senses for at least 15 minutes. When the mind wanders, bring your attention back to the surroundings and focus on something new.
To start, decide to visit a forest to enjoy the surroundings. A walk in a forest bath is an opportunity to get away from our cell phones and decompress by taking a slow-paced break. When hiking in the forest, leave your phone at home or turn it off, stay quiet, walk more slowly than usual, and stop at regular intervals when entering new areas to digest. Focus on different senses as you arrive in the areas that interest you. The golden rules are never to litter, pick up anything alive or harm the environment in any way.
How to take a forest bath?
Evans walks us through the process keeping an eye on the senses:
As you walk through the forest, start paying attention to the colors around you. Green and blue have been measured to provide soothing benefits. Walk until you find a quiet place that seems like a great place to stop and take a few deep breaths.
Deep breathing is a fundamental aspect of forest bathing for many key reasons:
- Oxygen is created in the forest; if we live in a city, we can enjoy the sweet smell of fresh air.
- The air is also full of beneficial chemicals, called phytoncides; while we are in the forest we can take advantage of the abundant supply. Think of it as a form of mass aromatherapy.
- The rate of our breathing is high when we are stressed or constantly busy; by slowing down the breath, we encourage the body’s relaxation response. Try taking a deep inhale followed by a slower exhale.
- By controlling the breath we can encourage our heart rate to slow down and as a result our mind can begin to calm down.
After a few deep breaths, you might enjoy exploring the sense of smell. Don’t worry if you don’t usually feel much; you may find that simply focusing on your sense of smell allows it to flourish. Can you smell the fresh air? Green leaves that have fallen to the ground may have a stronger scent, pick up a fallen leaf and tear it in half, then in half again; now put the pieces together and see what you can smell. This technique amplifies what we can feel.
When birdsong catches your eye, stop and focus on the sounds. Do they arouse particular feelings? The sound of gentle rain or light wind can also be pleasant.
Did you know that the sense of touch of the fingertips is much more sensitive than the palm? You may also find a stronger touch feeling between the right and left hands. Find objects on the forest floor to explore, or if you prefer, explore the bark of surrounding trees, notice the ripples and valleys in the texture. Compare the sense of touch to your visual observations. Are you aware of more details using both senses together? Foam is always a good thing to watch out for; specific areas of foam can feel like a furry animal and therefore can be quite enjoyable.
The critical step, rather than walking around, is to stop. Stopping allows the heart rate to slow down, and in doing so, our perception changes.
Our physiology adapts to our needs; when we move, we know the big picture; when we stop, finer details arise in our awareness. Guests at forest bathing events have described this process as the forest changing from 2D to 3D. See what catches your eye after a few minutes of sitting and watching.
In Japan, a forest bathing session often ends with a tea ceremony. Why not bring a cup of your favorite herbal tea?