The hippies were onto something when they were hugging trees back in the day. It turns out that being with trees is beneficial for us physically, mentally and emotionally. Many of us know this on a subconscious level – being in nature calms us down! But science also has something to say about the benefits of nature to humans. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the Japanese practice of forest bathing.
Why get into Nature?
We all understand that we’re exposed to environmental toxins of all kinds both when we’re at home and out in the world, which increases our risk for illness. Couple that with the high stress of a modern life and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Because so many of us live in concentrated urban settings, we’re somewhat disconnected from the natural world. Most of us spend about 90% of our time indoors and a lot of that time on computers and other devices. But we are part of the natural world and being disconnected from it has created something called nature deficit. Kids are learning about the environment in their classroom but not out in the natural world and it’s that experience that will help to cultivate a relationship with nature that we all need to nurture.
In Japan there’s a practice called forest bathing, or “shinrin-yoku”. This is the practice of immersing (bathing) yourself in nature fully. One of the world’s leading authorities on the subject, Dr. Qing Li says that walking in the forest can help reduce blood pressure, stress hormones and may help prevent some illnesses like cancer. One of Dr. Li’s studies looked at whether forest bathing could improve sleep patterns among middle-aged Tokyo office workers who tended to suffer sleep deficiency due to high levels of stress. During the study, participants walked the same amount of time in a forest that they usually did in a non-forest setting on a normal working day. After a walk in the forest, participants were significantly less anxious, slept better, and slept longer. In addition, researchers found that afternoon walks were even more beneficial than morning walks. The practice of forest bathing was officially recognized in Japan in the 80’s and has since become a pillar of preventative health in that country.
Why Forest Bathe?
It has been observed in all sorts of situations of risk, stress or disaster, that people turn to nature for to help them heal – scientists call this “urgent biophilia.” If we engage with nature frequently and actively, we can often reduce our stress and anxiety before we reach a breaking point.
The positive impact of forest bathing on our stress levels, our immune system, blood pressure, sleep and our mood has been proven by Japanese studies on the topic. The investigations backed up what a Russian biochemist uncovered about trees and plants – that they release a chemical called phytoncide, which protects trees and plants from damaging pathogens. This chemical also offers benefits to humans in the form of immunity boosts, mood improvement and disease prevention. Also, there’s a higher concentration of oxygen in a forest than there is in an urban setting, which is good for the lungs and brain! Evergreens are the largest producers of phytoncides, so walking in an evergreen forest seems to have the greatest health benefits.
How to Forest Bathe
Forest bathing is about being mindful and focusing on being present rather than having a destination, which is a big change from how we operate in our daily lives. This includes having no expectations and allowing ourselves to wander freely, absorbing the experience through our senses. Noticing the different shades of green in the trees, listening to the birds and other critters and feeling the peace and a connection with nature. It is recommended that we leave our camera and phone at home, so we can be fully present with what’s going on. Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?
If possible, spend some time walking around barefoot. Research shows that taking some time each day to walk barefoot in the grass can help improve sleep, reduce pain, decrease muscle tension, and lower stress.
Where Should We Forest Bathe?
Researchers in Japan discovered that folks who live in heavily forested areas have decreased risk of early mortality and cancer. The great news though, is that you can forest bathe anywhere; it doesn’t have to be in the country or even in a forest – you can do it in your backyard or a nearby park. As long as you’re around trees, it works, so green spaces in an urban setting are fair game.
The beautiful exchange we have with nature when we forest bathe is that nature purifies the air we breathe and helps us feel calmer and healthier. We learn the importance of taking good care of our environment. It’s easy to understand why nature is among the top prescriptions we can take for wellness.
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