It may sound a bit hokey at first, but science backs up the benefits of shirin yoku or “forest bathing,” the practice of wandering mindfully through the woods. We instinctively know it’s good for us to be outside. Escaping to “the great outdoors” for peace and relaxation is nothing new. But the longing for fresh mountain air isn’t just pleasurable; it’s a physiologically-driven need. To chill and heal under the trees has become the foundation of preventative health and wellness in Japan.
WHAT IS FOREST MEDICINE?
“Forest medicine,” developed by Japanese researchers in the 1980’s, is a radically new, evidence-based healing modality that suggests simply being in the forest, or other natural environment, is at the very heart of healing. As it makes its way to the U.S., what common sense tells you may soon materialize into a ‘pine tree script’ from your doctor, rather than a pill. Not only is nature good for us, it actually keeps us from getting sick. Humans are meant to live each day exposed to the elements of nature, touching ground and inhaling the sweet fragrance of diverse green species.
HOW TREES HEAL US
Tree therapy makes sense when you consider that most medications are derived (both synthetically and naturally) from tree bark, oils, nuts, fruit and other plant oils. Trees and plants emit essential oil, called phytoncide, for self-protection from germs and insects. According to research, inhaling phytoncide improves immune system function. Thus, trees are powerful agents of healing and forest bathing has been shown in numerous studies to have an impressing benefits package (with no deductible or out-of-pocket fees):
- Boosted immune system functioning
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced stress
- Improved mood
- Increased ability to focus
- Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
- Increased energy level
- Improved sleep and creativity
- Reduced heart rate
- Reduced anxiety and depression
TONIC OF THE WILDERNESS VIA THE SIX SENSES
Forest bathing is unlike hiking, or any other outdoor recreational activity. It is a gentle, relaxed walk – or idle sitting – in the woods. It is unhurried, and without physical exertion; simply being still. The key is to experience the woods with new eyes, a heightened awareness of all six senses, soaking up the restorative green emissions underneath a canopy of trees.
The following is adapted from the article, Japanese “Forest Medicine” is the science of using nature to heal yourself – wherever you are, by Ephrat Livni. Physician Qing Li, referenced below, is chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, and released the book Forest Bathing in April 2018. Enhance your forest bathing experience by activating all six senses.
The tree tonic works best with minimal effort. Let your gaze be drawn wherever it wants to land. As for how long is best to spend gazing at the trees for maximum medicinal effect, Li might ask, “How long have you got?” Weeks of forest bathing would be fantastic. But four hours is also great, and two hours will more than do. In fact, he thinks we can benefit from spending just a few minutes watching a single tree.
To hear the sounds of the forest, Li advises listening outward. Most of the time, we’re listening in- to the babbling brook of our inner thoughts and chattering ego. Tune into the forest’s frequency by slowing down, listening in all directions, and even closing your eyes to hear more keenly.
Aromatherapy is serious medicine. To take it, just breathe deeply. Inhale, exhale, enjoy. But it’s not just the trees that offer healthy smells. The soil, rich in nutrients, is also good for humans. Sniff below as above, because inhaling the smell of dirt works like an antidepressant, too. Smelling and touching soil stimulates the immune system, making people healthier and happier.
Hugging a tree will really help you feel the connection you biologically need to satisfy, but aren’t always aware of. But hugging is not required. You can also feel a tree’s touch by leaning up against it. Forest bathing is all about connecting with nature, and touch deepens connection. Rub a tree’s bark, caress its velvety leaves, and take off your shoes and feel the ground beneath your feet. Grab some dirt in your hands.
Forests are full of delicacies—berries, mushrooms, leaves and grasses, and bark to flavor tea or soup. Unless you know how to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous items, Li advises bringing your own tea and stopping for a thoughtful ceremony, or pausing for a sip of water from a stream you know is clean. You can also picnic with forest foods from a nearby farmer’s market when on a tree trip.
THE SIXTH SENSE
In this context, the sixth sense refers to the sublime—a feeling of awe or wonder. Perhaps you’ve felt it before in a wild setting—staring at the stars, a sunset, mountains, or the ocean. Trees can live hundreds or thousands of years. Standing among them, life seems simpler, and we feel better physically and emotionally, without making any effort.
The practice of shinrin yoku is really just seeing the world through eyes of a child. Emerson expressed our need to reconnect to nature, in his essay, Nature: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”