Hiking, trail running and rock climbing are healthful and popular ways to spend a day being active in nature. But some medical studies are showing that slowing down in the forest can drop your stress levels, helping to stave off common diseases.
The Japanese practice of “shinrin-yoku,” or forest bathing, is catching on in the United States. A slow approach to nature isn’t an entirely new concept — America did bring the world Walden Pond but health professionals are starting to take it seriously as a medicinal practice. There’s even an organization to support, train and certify practitioners — the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy.
Forest Bathing Basics
One of the most common questions about forest bathing is how it differs from hiking. Think meandering, rather than summiting a peak. “In forest bathing, it’s not about racking up miles or conquering anything,” says Micah Mortali, wilderness group leader and director of Kripalu Schools, a leading wellness and educational center. “You are practicing mindfulness with the intention to receive, passively really, the health-giving properties of the forest. The goal is to experience and be in awe of the simple little things that catch your attention.”
In “A Little Handbook of Shinrin-Yoku,” M. Amos Clifford emphasizes the slow pace of this practice. Forest bathers typically take more than two hours to walk one mile. “It’s not a one-time event,” Clifford writes. “Developing a meaningful relationship with nature occurs over time, and is deepened by returning again and again throughout the natural cycles of the seasons.”
Alisa Miller, a Toano resident who’s finishing her forest therapy guide certification, recommends joining a guided group walk. Hers usually last three hours. “We show you how to slow down and how to open your senses. With the group walks, you get that sense of community because you’re sharing and witnessing each other’s journey. That’s a very powerful thing with forest therapy.” Participants are astonished by how time slips away while forest bathing, she says.
Scientists in Japan have conducted many forest bathing studies. Some have shown promising effects, such as lowering the stress hormone cortisol and decreasing blood pressure and heart rate.
Is it just because participants are getting away from traffic, fast food, computer screens, shopping malls and other constants of urban life? Maybe. But scientists are also looking at trees’ role in healing. Phytoncides—chemicals naturally secreted by evergreen trees—might lower urinary stress hormones and thus improve immune functioning. A study in Environmental Health and Prevention Medicine found that these positive effects lasted 30 days, suggesting that a monthly walk in the forest could have significant health benefits.
Even before this research, many physicians championed the healing power of trees. Note the 1800s sanatoriums located in the forests of New York and Germany.
Try It For Yourself
If you live in the Hampton Roads area, consider joining one of Miller’s monthly public forest bathing walks. But even without guidance, you can still incorporate some of the techniques into your wellness routine.
“Less is more,” Mortali says. “Don’t worry if you don’t have a national park nearby. Going outside anywhere there are trees is a good first step. Humans are soothed by open spaces, so the key is to get outside, connect with your breathing and do your best to stay in the present moment. Let your senses take you where they are drawn. Be like a little kid and just amble along.”
Miller suggests taking 15 to 20 minutes to sit in your backyard. “That spot in the yard can be very powerful.”
So forget your to-do list, put down your phone and go outside. Feel the bark of the trees. Notice the smells of a river, rain, flowers, dirt. Be quiet and listen. People participating in Mortali’s forest bathing workshops often tell him it’s exactly what they needed. “Often they experience a sense of wonder at the simplest things, like a little frog near them while they are meditating, or the reflection of the sunlight on a swift flowing stream, things they might otherwise miss when they are busy getting things done.”