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Shinrin-Yoku: The Japanese Practice of Forest Bathing

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is the Japanese art of spending time in the forest.

Spending time in forests is not a novel idea. Man has always spent time taking in the glory of trees - their shadows, their majestic silence, their immense presence. Beyond the metaphorical tree bathing, is the emerging practice of forest bathing.

Originated in Japan, forest bathing is the practice of spending time in the forest for health benefits. The Japanese name for forest bathing is shinrin-yoku. Shinrin-yoku research indicates that phytoncides, the chemicals emitted by trees are extremely beneficial to human health when inhaled. While forest bathing may sound like the latest in a long line of “new-age” trends promising improved health, research has proven its effects to be both powerful and long-lasting. 

Shinrin-yoku research

The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries came up with the term shinrin-yoku and began promoting the practice in the 1980s. This effort was a government reaction to the ills of modernity. People were overworked, cities were overcrowded, and Japanese citizens were beginning to have negative physical and mental responses to the new reality of urbanization. Japanese culture is full of practices, such as meditation and zen, that demonstrate a value for mindfulness. The Japanese government fought to maintain its cultural values of appreciating the moment as a new working culture threatened to upset their societal balance. 

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As the population was much in need of resources for relaxation, shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing in English, had immediate popularity. The concept of taking a walk in the forest to breathe in fresh air is far from a novel idea, but naming it as an exercise in mindfulness and healthy living encouraged people to do just that.

As people flocked to the multitude of Japanese forests, taking in the fresh air and the stillness, reports of improved health began to surface. The incidence of improved mental and physical health was so high that several studies were done on the efficacy of shinrin-yoku. One study looked at people’s measures of health after time spent in the city, versus their health after time spent in the forest. The shinrin-yoku research showed that time spent in the forest has several observable positive impacts on the health of individuals spending time in forest environments as opposed to city environments. 

Health benefits

After proving that time spent in forests brought about immediate health improvements, scientists began to focus on exactly how forest bathing improves human health. The benefits are both numerous and long-lasting. Forest bathing research shows that immune function, neurological sensitivity, heart rate, blood pressure, and mood are all improved by spending time in the forest.

Studies also show that forest bathing lowers cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone released to help the body and mind respond to stress or danger. When this hormone is secreted in excess, it can cause inflammation in the body and unwanted effects such as the accumulation of belly fat. 

Forest bathing also increases the amount and function of natural killer cells. Natural killer cells function in the immune system as virus and cancer killers. The increase in function and presence of natural killer cells gives rise to the theory that forest bathing may be an important step in preventing and or treating cancer. The ability of time spent in the forest to protect us from viral infections or tumor formation while simultaneously decreasing stress makes this activity an important part of preventative medicine. The health-boosting features of forest bathing can be attributed to the substances emitted by trees — phytoncides. Trees emit phytoncides into the air, and they are inhaled by people. 

Phytoncides and how they work

Phytoncides are substances emitted by trees and plants to kill potentially harmful insects and bacteria. When people inhale phytoncides, the results are almost immediate. The body begins to function in a more balanced way, regulating its functions and changing the way it protects itself against viruses, bacteria, and cancer.

These effects can last between seven days and a month after having just spent a few hours or a couple days of forest bathing. The studies on phytoncides and human health are both numerous and conclusive. The essential aroma of the forest has healing properties.

Forest bathing how-to

Since the science is there to prove that forest bathing improves mental and physical health, you may be interested in trying it out yourself. Here are the basics:

  1. Forest bathing means spending time taking in the forest air, in a mindful state. 
  2. Some people find that sitting in the forest, shoes off, is a peaceful way to enjoy shinrin-yoku. 
  3. Practice deep breathing; the benefits of forest bathing are largely due to breathing in phytoncides. Try to make the most of it!
  4. Slow down — taking in the sights, smells, and sounds of the forest will allow you to relax and make the most of the healing experience. 
  5. Leave your tech and your worries behind - mindfulness requires the absence of distraction. Turn your phone off, or if safety allows, leave it behind. Also feel free to leave behind concerns about work, family, world news, and the likes. 
  6. Engage your sense of touch, pick up leaves, touch trees, dig your toes into the soil. 
  7. Set aside enough time, the benefits of forest bathing are in direct proportion with the amount of time spent doing it. Try not to rush through the experience.
  8. Do it regularly, healthy habits require consistency. Make forest bathing part of your routine as much as time allows.
  9. Be safe — practicing mindfulness does require focusing on the moment, but plan your bath carefully. Don’t abandon regular precaution under any circumstances. 
  10. Do not overthink it. Many people are flocking to the forests because of the aforementioned health benefits and overall trendiness of forest bathing. There are even guided forest bathing experiences. Choose what works but try not to make it a production. 
  11. Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously or spend too much time picking out your yoga pants or hiking shoes. Just enjoy it. 
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