Shinrin-yoku: The Soothing Practice of Forest Bathing

By: Carrie Tatro  | 
shinrin yoku
Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is a practice that can be employed by almost anyone to help improve mental balance and psychological well-being. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.0)

The traffic. The Zoom meetings. The COVID-19. The climate change.

With life's environmental and situational stressors, common kitchen table concerns and those ever-lurking unknown unknowns — not to mention the daily challenges of playing well with others and maintaining our own interiority, it's a lot to navigate. No wonder we humans sometimes feel physically pummeled and mentally fried. While a lavender candle is calming and a bubble bath so soothing to slip into, imagine stepping into the great outdoors and indulging yourself in another kind of R&R: a leisurely forest bath.

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What Is Forest Bathing?

Shinrin-yoku – translation, "forest bathing" or "taking in the forest atmosphere" – is all about slowing down and "bathing" yourself in the beauty of nature. Also called forest therapy, it draws on thousands of years of intuitive knowledge that says because we're a part of nature, we humans naturally have a deep need to feel connected to nature. It's also about inhaling the wood essential oils, aka phytoncides, that are exuded by the forest's plants and trees. Fortunate fact: turns out forest bathing increases our NK cells, or natural killer cells, that help fight disease.

Shinrin-yoku originated in Japan in the early 1980s as a government response to a workforce suffering from technostress. The positive long-term effects of shinrin-yoku on the mind, body and spirit have been extensively researched and evidenced, primarily by teams in Japan and Korea, but more recently in Western Europe and in the U.K., by the Forest Bathing Institute and the University of Derby.

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How Does It Work?

"The main hypothesized mechanism for 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. "This is the concept that humans have spent most of their ancestral history in nature, and hence we are adapted to more easily process and respond to natural stimuli than urban or man-made stimuli. This is summarized in Kaplan's Attention Restoration Theory, which suggests that because natural stimuli (such as the branches on a tree or veins on a leaf) are easy to process, we are able to pay attention to nature in a way that is restorative rather than fatiguing."

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Why Is Forest Bathing Good for You?

Forest bathing is proving itself to be a valuable tool in the preventative health care toolbox. McEwan's research aligns with others in the field who say that shinrin-yoku can regulate blood pressure, improve heart rate variability (an indicator of cardiovascular health and psychological wellbeing), reduce stress hormones and inflammatory markers such as cortisol, and increase numbers and activity of NK cells and anti-cancer proteins. Research has also consistently found that practicing shinrin-yoku has psychological benefits as well — such as improvements in mood (anxiety, depression, anger, confusion, fatigue and vigor), coping and resilience, and attention restoration.

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Why Is Forest Bathing Relevant to Modern Science and Medicine?

With a growing population and huge demands on public health services, McEwan believes that governments around the world need to prioritize preventative health measures and affordable social prescriptions like shinrin-yoku that large communities can easily access. In addition, McEwan says that, "with the current climate crisis, priority needs to be given to protecting ancient and semi-ancient woodland. By making shinrin-yoku a social prescription, Japan and Korea have been able to protect large areas of woodland and re-plant areas to provide the resource for people to engage with shinrin-yoku. Research has also indicated that shinrin-yoku increases nature connection and pro-environmental attitudes, hence motivating people to value and protect natural environments."

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So, How Is Forest Bathing Different From a Walk in the Woods?

Gary Evans, the founder and director of The Forest Bathing Institute (TFBI) in the U.K. explains that forest bathing is different due to the speed and focus of the visit. "Typical forest-based activities such as walking, jogging, cycling and horse riding increase the heart rate and use the sympathetic (fight and flight) nervous system," he says. "Forest bathing is a slow-paced activity that will typically lower the heart rate, leading to relaxation and serenity. These feelings arise as we increase activity in the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. The best way to boost the parasympathetic nervous system response is to sit down in the forest and take a few deep breaths and give yourself at least five to 10 minutes of silent observation time for noticeable changes to take place."

shinrin yoku
The textures, smells and sounds of the forest touch chords deep within the human psyche and paying attention to them can help alleviate stress and create inner peace.
library_mistress/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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A Quick Guide

If you want a quick and easy forest bathing experience, visit a forest, slow down and stroll without talking until you find an attractive place to stop and sit. Sitting down is vital. Now soak in the forest through your senses for at least 15 minutes. When the mind wanders, pull your attention back to the environment and focus on something new.

To start with, decide to visit a forest to enjoy the environment. A forest bathing walk is an opportunity to step away from our mobile phones and decompress by taking some slow-paced time out. During your forest hike, leave your phone at home or turn it off, stay silent, walk slower than usual and stop at regular intervals as you enter new areas to digest. Focus on different senses as you arrive in the regions that appeal to you. The golden rules are never to drop litter, pick anything that's alive or damage the environment in any way.

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How Do I Take a Forest Bath?

Evans walks us through the process with an eye to the senses:

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Sight

As you walk into the forest, start paying attention to the colors around you. Green and blue have been measured to offer calming benefits. Walk until you find a quiet area that feels like an excellent place to stop and take a few deep breaths.

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Smell

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 may appreciate the sweet smell of fresh air.
  • The air is also full of the beneficial chemicals, called phytoncides; while we are in the forest, we can take advantage of the abundant supply. Think of this as a mass form of aromatherapy.
  • The pace of our breathing is elevated when we are stressed or constantly busy; by slowing 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 by-product, our minds may start to feel calmer.

After a few rounds of breathing deeply, you may enjoy exploring the sense of smell. Don't worry if you can't usually smell much; you may find the simple act of focusing on your sense of smell allows it to flourish. Can you smell the fresh air? Green leaves that have dropped to the ground can have a more potent fragrance, pick up a fallen leaf and tear it in half, and then half again; now, put the pieces together and see what you can smell. This technique amplifies what we can smell.

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Sound

When bird song catches your attention, come to a stop and focus on the sounds. Do they elicit any particular feelings? The sound of a gentle rain or light wind can also be enjoyable.

Touch

Did you know the fingertip sense of touch is far more sensitive than the palm? You may also find a stronger touch sensation between the right and left hands. Find objects on the forest floor to explore, or if you prefer, explore the bark on surrounding trees, notice the ripples and valleys of the texture. Compare the sense of touch to your visual observations. Are you aware of more detail by using both senses together? Moss is always a good thing to look out for; specific areas of moss can feel like a furry animal and can be rather enjoyable as a result.

The critical step, rather than walking around, is to come to a stop. Stopping allows the heart rate to slow down, and as this happens, our perception changes.

Our physiology adapts to our needs; when we move, we know the big picture; when we stop, finer details spring into our awareness. Guests at forest bathing events have described this process as changing the forest from 2D to 3D. See what catches your attention after a few minutes of sitting and observing.

In Japan, a forest bathing session often finishes with a tea ceremony. Why not bring along a cup of your favorite herbal tea?

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