This blog post was written by Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH.
“Profound” even “transformational”… these are powerful words that proponents of a mindful health endeavor called “forest bathing” often use to describe their experience. Originating in Japan in 1982, forest bathing or “shinrin-yoku” in Japanese is more than a simple walk in the woods. According to many who practice it, forest bathing is a transcendent, sensory connection with the forest.
For millennia the human race has known how good it feels to be in nature. Scents of trees and flowers, forest animal sounds, the hypnotic lull of a rushing river – it’s all so refreshing and rejuvenating to mind, body, and spirit. “We know this deep in our bones. It is like an intuition or an instinct, a feeling that is sometimes hard to describe,” says Dr. Qing Li, Chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine and author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness3. The Japanese have a word for feelings that are too deep to describe: yūgen. Yūgen is a profound sense of the mystery and beauty of the universe. “It is about this world,” Li says, “but suggests something beyond it.” Such is the nature of forest bathing.*
The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
In his book Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature, M. Amos Clifford notes that long ago, our bodies learned the advantages of breathing in the exhalations of trees. The rich mix of oxygen and other aerosols can benefit our moods, hearts, mental capacities, and immune systems1. Data shows that shinrin-yoku can lower stress, lower blood sugar, improve energy, increase anti-cancer protein production, and even assist with weight loss3. Conversely, “the less green a person’s surroundings, the higher their risk of morbidity and mortality - even when controlling for socioeconomic status and other confounding variables,” reports the author of a review paper from the journal Frontiers in Psychology2. In short, we’re a lot healthier in nature than we are apart from it.
Thanks to numerous researchers’ work, a mountain of evidence now supports the health benefits of time in nature. That much we know. Less explored until recently is exactly how nature influences these health improvements. Recent research has shown that forest bathing lowers the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, suppresses the sympathetic nervous system while enhancing the parasympathetic nervous system, lowers blood pressure and increases heart rate variability, increases sleep time, and decreases anxiety, depression, and anger3. In his own research, Li even found increases in immune system natural killer cell activity of over 50%, and these effects can last for up to 30 days!
A boost in immune system function of this magnitude is remarkable and begs the question: How do trees exert this effect? The answer is found in the forest’s natural aromatherapy chemicals called phytoncides. “Phytoncides are the natural oils within a plant and are part of the tree’s defense system,” explains Li. “Trees release phytoncides to protect them from bacteria, insects, and fungi.”3 They also use phytoncides and other gases as part of their communication pathways – they’re the mechanism by which trees warn each other about an impending danger like pests or animal predators4.
Not only do phytoncides protect trees (and other plants like fruits and vegetables), but when we inhale them during a forest visit, they also boost our immunity and protect us in a similar fashion. Evergreen trees like pine, cedar, spruce, and conifer produce the most phytoncides, consisting mainly of terpenes. Terpenes are what you smell when you perform shinrin-yoku in a forest3.
A novel application of an old idea may explain how nature exerts a powerful effect on mental capacity. A 19th-century thinker named William James discovered that there are two ways to pay attention. The first is voluntary or “directed,” which is used for tasks that demand effort in concentration, like for work or navigating our way through traffic. Even brief periods of this type of intense attention can bring on fatigue. The second type of attention James labeled involuntary or “soft fascination.” In contrast to voluntary or directed attention, soft fascination requires little to no mental effort. In other words, it just comes naturally. This is how nature captures our attention – the beauty of clouds, sunrises, and sunsets, leaves rustling in the breeze or under an animal’s feet, a bird’s song, or perhaps most powerful of all: the serenity of silence. “These soothing sights and sounds give our mental resources a break. They allow our minds to wander and reflect, and so restore our capacity to think more clearly,” according to Li3.
Forest Bathing Practice
As a restorative paradise, the forest offers us the opportunity for health, peace, and happiness. All we have to do is accept the invitation. While the benefits are many and complex, the basic practice is simple: engage all five senses while spending some unfettered time connecting with trees. Walk, sit, or recline. Begin with a plan or no plan at all – the choice is yours.
Even if you have a rich history with nature, let go of being an expert and approach forest bathing with a “beginner’s mind,” suggests Clifford. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” explains Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind1. The wisdom of Suzuki’s message is this: Rather than forcing how you think it should go or predicting how you think it will go, let your visit with the forest be a surprise as it unfolds organically.
It’s prudent to remain flexible while still being prepared, though. Here are a few practical suggestions from Clifford:
1. The choice of whether to recruit a guide is up to you, but a guide does bring considerable skill to a novice experience. For those new to forest bathing, guides can offer welcome education in the optional areas of invitations (activities that encourage you to immerse yourself in and connect with the natural world), sharing circles (time-out periods to share what you’re noticing with others if you’re part of a group), creating thresholds (places of your choosing that mark transitions in your experience, e.g., opening and closing your session) and hosting a tea ceremony (an unstructured, enriching way to close out your forest bath).
2. Areas best suited for forest bathing have level or nearly level trails. Therefore, the pathways are relatively effortless and may offer plenty of sit spots, native vegetation, natural waterways, natural sounds, biodiversity without herbicides, pesticides and poisons, and restroom facilities.
3. Take only what’s necessary in a manageable backpack. Items to consider include a forest bathing book, a muted cell phone, an emergency whistle, snacks, water, extra clothing layers for unexpected weather changes, and protective footwear if you plan to wade in the water. Other items to consider are a comfortable pad or lightweight folding stool, a small first-aid kit, sunscreen, and insect repellant. If you plan to do a tea ceremony, take whatever supplies you need for that purpose.
4. Ideally, a forest bath should last a couple of hours or more, giving your mind and body a chance to relax thoroughly. But if that much time isn’t possible, go anyway. Even 30 minutes in nature yields benefits.
5. Let someone know where you are and approximately when to expect you back.
6. Check the weather forecast in advance and monitor it while you’re in progress.
How does forest bathing differ from other nature experiences?
Forest bathing may be more of a mindful art than an activity. The previous suggestions simply serve as safety precautions and methods to facilitate the real goal of connecting with nature and opening to whatever the trees have to offer.
Some people find a structure helpful and some don’t. The journey, not some end-point prize, is the reward. “Forest bathing is not the same thing as hiking,” notes Clifford. “The destination in forest bathing is ‘here,’ not ‘there.’ The pace is slow. The focus is on connection and relationship.”1 While it could be considered a mild form of exercise, exercise is not the goal. Soaking in the forest atmosphere with all five senses is much more important. In fact, the total distance covered can be a quarter-mile or less. It’s not uncommon to find a fascinating spot, sit down, observe, and stay there for the majority of the time spent.
No Forest, No Problem
Trees (and other members of the natural world) offer health benefits no matter where they are – in a forest, city park, your neighborhood, or even in or around an office building. Of course, the more expansive the natural space, the more opportunities it provides. Most cities also have lovely parks, gardens, or wild areas where you can practice this technique. “Trees in the city are just as important for our health as trees in the countryside – maybe even more important,” notes Li. If nothing else, they play a vital role in keeping city air clean3.
Whether your forest bath takes place in an actual forest, a park, or even under a tree in your backyard or at your office, take some time to leave the “noise” of your manufactured environment behind and tune into nature’s sounds, or better yet, nature’s quiet.
To learn more about forest bathing, visit https://healingforest.org/2020/01/27/forest-bathing-guide/.
For information about forest medicine and forest therapy, visit the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy’s website at https://www.natureandforesttherapy.org.
To locate a forest bathing guide, visit https://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/membership/guide-directory#!directory/map.
Clifford, M.A. (2018). Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature. Conari Press: Newburyport, MA.
Kuo, M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology, 6: 1093. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01093.
Li, Q. (2018). Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness. Viking: New York, NY.
Wohlleben, P. (2016). The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. Greystone Books Ltd: Vancouver, B.C and Berkeley, CA.
*A note of clarification: The terms forest medicine, forest therapy, and forest bathing are sometimes used interchangeably, yet while the differences are subtle, they are nonetheless substantial. Forest medicine is the collective or umbrella field that encompasses forest therapy and forest bathing. Whereas forest therapy seeks to boost wellness and prevent disease, the goal with forest bathing is more casual and unburdened by expectations.
About the Author:
Victoria L. Freeman, Ph.D., CHFS, CMH has traveled a long and winding professional road that includes working as a teenage fine artist, later a personal trainer and wellness coach, a college professor and administrator in exercise science and education, a freelance natural health and fitness writer for national magazines, a property manager and interior designer for vacation and executive rental properties and most recently returning to the natural health arena while attending Trinity School of Natural Health to become a Certified Holistic Fitness Specialist and a Certified Master Herbalist.