November 8, 2018
Shinrin yoku is the Japanese term for ‘forest bathing’. The idea is that when a person spends time immersed in a forest, what they experience and sense provides improved physical and mental well-being. The Japanese have embraced shinrin yoku whole heartedly. They have now dedicated 48 “Forest Therapy” trails so that everyone can have access to a forest, and their national forest agency has funded around $4 million into research about forest bathing.
Florence Williams book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, peaked my interest in shinrin yoku. Then a bit of internet research revealed a growing trend toward forest bathing in the United States. In fact, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (Santa Rosa, CA) is currently training practitioners to guide forest therapy programs around the country. More locally there was a practitioner located in Kansas City, Michael Beezhold, and he was already a linkedin contact of mine. The two of us have a common friend in Carbondale, Illinois. Michael was conducting some forest therapy walks over the next few weeks. So, October 28, my wife, Sharon, and I found ourselves on the road to Kansas City to participate in shinrin yoku.
During a forest therapy walk, the participants strive to immerse all five senses (sight, hearing, feeling, taste and smell) into the experience of the forest. By focusing everything on the walk, other concerns and distractions go by the wayside. It might be thought of as a guided meditation. We started our forest therapy by sitting in a small clearing for a few minutes. There were nine of us in all. Michael asked us to just pay attention and note what we experienced. After we sat long enough to clear our minds, we then shared those experiences. My initial response was noting the way gusts of wind moved through the forest. Others noticed sounds, the coolness, the feeling of their bare feet on dirt etc. We spent about 15 minutes on this ‘invitation’. Our next experience was to walk slowly through the forest to a second gathering place. Michael encouraged us to get off the trail, pay attention to smells and tastes, make mental notes of what we saw. It took about another 15 minutes to walk the quarter mile down to the second clearing. There we sat again and share our experiences during the walk.
After another 15-minute walk we stopped at a small stream. It was surprisingly clear and fresh for an urban stream. Michael referred to these stops as ‘invitations’. We were invited to look at the surface of the water, then to look at the streambed, then we felt the surface and finally we pushed down our into the water and finally just listened. Once again, we were invited to share our feelings.
Our last invitation was a traditional forest bath. No, we didn’t remove our clothes and dive in! A forest bath is merely finding a quiet place in the forest to sit and listen, smell, feel, taste or see. We broke up our group and each headed out on their own. The bath lasted possibly half an hour. By now I had totally lost track of time. Then when Michael blew the whistle, we re-emerged from the forest and came together one more time. That time we raised a toast to the forest using an infusion of pine and spruce needles in water. It really didn’t taste all that bad. Most of us hung around a talked a bit, then walked back to our cars. Over the afternoon, the walk may have covered a mile or less.
There is no defined outcome expected form forest therapy. Sharon and I agreed that it was a relaxing afternoon and that we felt refreshed. Research shows that participants in forest therapy as a group have significantly lower blood pressure, a slower pulse rate, less cortisol (a stress hormone) in their system and a decrease in sympathetic nerve activity after the experience compared to prior to the therapy (See Florence Williams book or check out the scientific papers posted on the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy’s website, https://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/about/science). Other research indicates that regular forest therapy alleviates depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzhteimers (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-getting-away-in-nature-is-good-for-your-mental-health/). Why forest therapy works is still a field for study. According to Williams, researchers are looking into an aroma therapy type of response to chemicals in the forest air and soil, a response to the diversity of the microbiome in the forest, a response to the relaxation effect or just to getting away from stress for a while. Hendriksen’s article mentioned above gives several theories related to the improved metal health documented in participants. Those theories include reduction of attention fatigue, evolutionary remnants from our history as a forest species, and what was called ‘soft focus vs. hard focus’. Hard focus is what you experience driving in heavy traffic or playing video games. Soft focus is what you experience gazing at a stream or mountain. During soft focus, your mind has free time to heal itself. Not being a neuroscientist, I can’t claim to know which theory is best. My expectation is that it is some combination of all of the above and it will be very hard to single out a single cause.
Shinrin yoku is a positive step toward maintaining a healthy and reduced stress lifestyle. After participating in Michael’s walk, I realize that I have been practicing shinrin yoku my whole life. I just didn’t have a good name for fooling around in the woods. Hopefully I can keep at it for several more years.