What is Forest Bathing?
“Forest Bathing” is the literal translation of the Japanese term “Shinrin Yoku”. The name was coined in 1982 by the Japanese Government in response to high levels of stress and burnout (karoshi = death by overwork) in the urban working population. No actual bathing is involved, no nudity required! Forest bathing is an immersive sensory experience in nature. It involves moving slowly and mindfully in a natural place and using all your senses to connect to the world around you. It’s like a calming, soothing bath for the nervous system in which you let nature soak in through all your senses.
Forest Bathing is standard preventative medicine and wellness science in Japan. Doctors can recommend Forest Bathing as a preventative measure or complementary treatment for stress-related illness. The Japanese Government funds scientific studies that measure the physiological effects (changes in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol) of walking on forest trails. Currently there are 48 official forest therapy trails designated for Shinrin Yoku by Japan’s Forestry Agency.
Forest Bathing is quite different to other nature walks, bushwalks or hiking. Unlike botanical or naturalist walks, there is no cognitive effort required to learn the names or uses of plants. Unlike hiking or bushwalking there is no objective to climb a mountain or arrive somewhere that you are not currently. You can certainly do Forest Bathing on your own, that’s the ultimate goal, but especially for us Westerners it’s advisable at first to experience it with a guide, much like you would with a yoga, tai chi or meditation class. Similar to these practices, Forest Bathing is a mindfulness practice that you can learn and become skillful at over time. It is the art of slowing down and noticing with your whole body!
The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides trains and certifies guides around the world. A typical Forest Bathing session with a certified guide would involve a guided meditation, some very slow, mindful walking and various invitations to connect to nature through different senses, moving far beyond the usual five we are familiar with and into the territory of imagination, directional sense and intuition. After each invitation we come together in a group and are invited to share what we are noticing. This practice of having our experiences heard and witnessed is socially connecting and soothing.
The Health Benefits of Forest Bathing…
There is growing evidence to suggest that human physical and psychological wellbeing is highly dependent on nature. Compared to urban walks, leisurely forest walks have been shown to lower sympathetic nervous activity, blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol. They can improve our mood and decrease stress, anxiety and depression. Studies have also shown that forest walks can stimulate the production and activity of Natural Killer Cells, the immune system’s anti-tumour and anti-viral cells by as much as 50% after just three 2 hour forest walks. Nature also helps us to be more empathetic, focused and grounded and increases our cognitive function, mental clarity, creativity, optimism and hopefulness. Experiences of awe in nature have also been linked to reduced inflammation.
A variety of EEG (electroencephalography) and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) studies have been performed both out in nature and in laboratories (with people viewing nature scenes) to examine the effects of nature on the brain. They variously show that when people are in or viewing urban environments, there is activity in the prefrontal cortex (the task-orientated part of the brain which becomes fatigued by continuous stimulation and attention) and the amygdala, which is associated with fear and anxiety. In contrast, when we are in nature or viewing nature, the prefrontal cortex and amygdala are generally less active and blood goes to other parts of brain associated with pleasure, empathy, compassion and unconstrained thinking. What’s called the Executive Network of the brain has a rest and time to restore, whilst the Default Network (the day dreaming, free ranging part of the brain associated with creativity) comes alive.
EEG studies have shown that nature scenes heighten alpha wave activity in the brain (the wavelength associated with relaxation, meditation and increased serotonin). In lab experiments people relaxed and recovered quicker after being stressed when they viewed nature scenes. Hospital patients who have a green view have also been shown to recover more quickly from surgery, need less pain medication and be more amicable with hospital staff!
Japanese studies have also focussed on Phytoncides, the nice smelling organic compounds secreted by trees in response to pathogens. They are part of the tree’s immune system and they seem to act on our immune system as well. Studies have shown 50% increases in number and activity of Natural Killer cells (the human body’s anti-tumour, anti-cancer and anti-viral cells) after people went Forest Bathing for three days in a row. The increases in NK cell activity remained a month after returning to urban environments. These results were also found in a lab experiment, where NK cells exposed to phytoncides increased their expression of anti-cancer proteins.
Do you have to be in a forest to feel the effects?
Brain scans of people viewing nature scenes in labs would suggest that no you don’t have to be out in nature to produce a physiological effect in the brain. Simply looking at an image of nature can be restorative. However, the effects are likely amplified when all the senses are engaged at once and we’re actually out in nature- listening, smelling, feeling and moving in a mindful way. Also, with nature it’s a dose-response effect. The bigger and more awe-inspiring the nature, and the more fully immersed in it you are, the more powerful the restorative effect will be. However, as long as we’re being mindful and fully absorbed, we can have meaningful and effective interactions with nature on small scales on a daily basis. Even having a pot plant on your desk at work has been shown to have a restorative effect on your cognition and attention. Let yourself examine it’s leaves and smell it’s flowers. Pay attention to the tiny caterpillar as it makes it’s way across a leaf. Have a mini green meditation routine a few times a day. Pot plants in the office can also significantly improve indoor air quality, which is great for your respiratory system.
5 tips to get you started in your Forest Bathing practice:
“Think less, feel more”. We’re dropping out of our thinking minds and into our feeling bodies. Don’t judge yourself or worry about what other people think, let your inner child come out to play and explore.
Be curious. Notice. Inquire. Let yourself become fascinated and completely absorbed in the textures, smells and sounds of the natural place you’re in.
Slow down. We spend our lives rushing, always trying to get somewhere or get something done. This is a time to enjoy the pleasures of being exactly where you are right now.
Use all your senses. Keep expanding your awareness. Notice what you feel, what you smell, what you taste, what you hear, the sounds in the different directions, and notice how you feel inside.
Allow whatever arises without judging or trying to rationalise anything. Let yourself play if you feel like playing, embody animal movements and sounds. Let yourself be still if you feel like being still. Tune into what your body needs right now. Listen deeply.
You can also keep a journal, draw, paint or otherwise create out in nature to express your experiences.
The Nature Pyramid: Your Recommended Dosage
Much like the food pyramid, there is a nature pyramid which suggests a regime to acquire adequate vitamin N(ature)
Daily interactions with nearby nature to help us destress, find focus and lighten mental fatigue
Weekly outings to bigger parks and waterways for longer walks
Monthly excursions to forests or other more wildish natural areas for an extended weekend getaway
Annual or biannual multiday wilderness immersions / holidays to completely unplug and fill us with awe, human connection and help us remember our place in the universe.
Join in on our next Forest Bathing walks, see upcoming dates here.