Mother Nature’s Rx for Body and Mind
In 1982, the Japanese government coined the term Shinrin-yoku (“taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”) to inspire people to visit and appreciate national parks. Today, that walk in the woods has become a medically recommended activity worldwide for improving immunity, reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, managing chronic pain and promoting better sleep. The research supporting the physical and mental benefits of forest bathing is so compelling that it’s advocated by the National Institute of Public Health of Japan and prescribed to patients there.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia, in England, examined years of studies and found significant evidence that experiencing nature has a positive impact on health. Published in the journal Environmental Research in 2018, the meta-analysis involving 290 million participants from 20 countries concluded that spending time in green spaces lowers blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. The study also noted a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes and death from heart disease.
Terpenes and Tree Therapy
Another recent review of studies, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, concluded that Shinrin-yoku can ease the symptoms of adult depression. “Forest bathing plugs us into something we all seek—a source of peace and well-being. The thing that first hooked me into being a forest bathing guide was reading the robust body of research that proves the benefits of forest bathing,” says Judy Beaudette, board secretary of Friends of North Creek Forest, in Bothell, Washington.
Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a certified forest therapy guide and author of The Joy of Forest Bathing: Reconnect With Wild Places & Rejuvenate Your Life, in Chevy Chase, Maryland, attests to the therapeutic value of forest bathing. “Even occasional nature immersion can have beneficial health effects that can last for days. Many doctors are now prescribing nature to patients. There’s an organization devoted to this called Park Rx America.” She recommends just 20 minutes during a lunch break to sit on a bench or on the ground beneath trees.
There are many theories of why spending time in the woods or any other natural place makes us feel good; for example, findings published in the journal Toxicological Research in 2017 attribute the immune-boosting, mood-lifting benefits of forest bathing to natural terpenes released into the air by trees, especially conifers. Terpenes contain anti-inflammatory properties that strengthen the body’s natural defenses.
Sensory Immersion, Not Exercise
Shinrin-yoku is intended to engage the trinity of body-mind-spirit. “The main purpose is not exercise or getting from point A to point B, but rather having a mindful, sensory experience in nature. It isn’t some prescribed task you need to do, like pushups,” explains Hannah Fries, a poet and author of Forest Bathing Retreat: Find Wholeness in the Company of Trees. She communes with the wild for both health and inspiration. “Even if it’s only 20 minutes a week, go outside without a phone or other electronic device. Walk slowly. Look more closely. Listen. Smell. Touch. Interact with the living, breathing world around you. It’s that simple.”
Choukas-Bradley says that observance is key. Recalling her first forest bathing experience, she says, “We paid attention to our breath and tuned in to the sights, sounds and sensations all around us. I noticed a perfect spider’s web, just barely trembling in the slightest breeze, its creator clinging to the center.”
She recommends finding a “wild home”—a neighborhood park, garden or backyard tree. “Make it a practice to find a ‘sit spot’ where you can quietly observe beauty and are apt to feel a sense of awe. Psychology researchers have shown that experiencing awe has many positive effects on emotional health.”
It doesn’t matter if we commune with nature in a rural or urban setting, only that we remain dialed in to our surroundings. “Forest bathing is a tool for slowing down our buzzing minds and practicing a secret superpower—the skill of consciously choosing what we put our attention on,” says Beaudette.
Marlaina Donato is the author of several books, including Multidimensional Aromatherapy. She is also a composer.
A Simple Meditation
Forest bathing guide Judy Beaudette suggests:
• Find something you can put your attention on that is natural—a plant, a stone, a bird’s song, a stream or a forest, the sky, even a tuft of grass or weeds growing out of a crack in the sidewalk.
• Practice noticing something small in nature, like an acorn, a leaf or a grain of sand. Put it in the palm of your hand and for five minutes, notice the details. Keep noticing. See what thoughts come to mind and keep returning your attention to this small thing. After the five minutes have elapsed, write down your observations.
This article appears in the July 2019 issue of Natural Awakenings.