Never have we been so far from being merged with the natural world. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. Despite these gloomy prospects, even a small amount of time in nature can have a big impact on our health.
The Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is the simple and therapeutic act of spending time in a forest. A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will help get grounded into the present moment and relax you.
What is Shinrin-yoku?
If you’ve ever been in a forest, listened to the birds, and watched the sunshine filtering through the leaves, you’ve already participated in Shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath”. So Shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere or taking in the forest through our senses.
Shinrin-yoku was developed in the 1980s in Japan. Although people had been taking walks in the country’s forests for centuries, new studies showed that such activity could reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory. A chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, was found to boost the immune system. As more research highlighted the benefits of Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese government incorporated it into the country’s health program.
This is not exercise, hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. Opening our senses between us and the natural world.
What is the value of this practice?
The real value of forest bathing is how accessible it is. Forest bathing has similar benefits to other Japanese practices, such as Zen meditation and mindfulness, and is a much less intimidating concept.
Meditation requires you to sit still with your thoughts and allow them to pass through your mind without engagement, while mindfulness is an active awareness of your surroundings and life circumstances, and the acknowledgment of how you feel in the moment. In a forest, however, meditation and mindfulness come naturally when you allow your senses to focus on the small, uncomplicated changes around you.
How to practice Shinrin-yoku?
First, find a spot. Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere.
The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm.
Shinrin-yoku is a bridge between us and the nature
We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for centuries. The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air — these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry, help us to relax, and to think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.
When you have been busy at work all week, it can be hard to slow down. You may have been rushing around so much that you no longer know how to stand still. Walking with a guide who is a trained forest therapist can help you feel more comfortable and find the right environment to fit your needs. But it is just as easy to forest-bathe without a guide. It doesn’t matter how fit – or unfit – you are. Shinrin-yoku is suitable for any level of fitness.
Seek what makes YOU happy
When it comes to finding calm and relaxation, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – it differs from person to person. It is important to find a place that suits you. If you love the smell of damp soil, you will be most relaxed where the natural landscape provides it. Then the effects of the forest will be more powerful. Maybe you have a place in the countryside that reminds you of your childhood or of happy times in the past. These places will be special to you and your connection with them will be strong.
You can forest-bathe anywhere in the world – wherever there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine or snow. You don’t even need a forest. Once you have learned how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere – in a nearby park or in your garden. Look for a place where there are trees, and off you go!