Many of us know a universal truth: that being close to nature feels profoundly good. It is healing and calming to our body, mind and spirit. There’s no surprise that even the most logical and scientific among us seek out nature’s restorative influence. Tall trees, babbling streams and busy wildlife have always had curative effects against our toxic, man-made environments. A growing trend for more than forty years in Japan – the meditative practice of forest bathing – may just be the key to helping us heal. Here’s what we learned about it.
Meditation, Hiking and Disconnecting
Shinrin-yoku, which roughly translates to “forest bathing,” began sometime in the 1980’s in Japan. Growing urban populations recognized that spending upwards of 80% of our daily lives indoors, surrounded by people and connected to media, could be linked to a decline in health. Doctors, who were keenly invested in wellness practices focusing on preventative care, began to suggest spending more time away from the city and taking long walks in the woods. Not quite meditation and not exactly hiking, this form of exercise is more about connecting with nature and disconnecting from everything else.
Real Nature and Real Benefits to Our Health
Most medical practitioners have long touted the benefits of daily exercise like walking and hiking. An afternoon jaunt through the city or a stroll around the neighborhood can reduce stress hormones and lower blood pressure. But in a 2011 study comparing walking and physical activity in urban environments to forest environments, the participants in the latter group showed greater reductions in both blood pressure and heart rate. There’s something about being surrounded by a canopy of trees, listening to birdsong and breathing fresh air that allows our body to naturally relax. As we do, we seem primed to enter a healing state. What exactly happens in the forest that isn’t happening when we exercise in other environments?
Nature’s Healing Power
Spending time in nature certainly feels meditative and medicinal. In fact, the National Parks Service has launched the Parks Prescription Project to encourage collaboration between public land agencies and medical providers. So, there must be science-based evidence to back it up, right? Researchers are looking into specific chemicals released by trees and plants, like phytoncides, which were found to boost the immune system. More studies are looking into the positive impact that spending time in nature has on our mental health. (Simply hearing birdsong during the Covid-19 lockdown reportedly lowered anxiety in one study.)
Now, the Japanese government is endorsing shinrin-yoku into their health program, as it is believed to counter stress-related illnesses such as depression, anxiety, gastric ulcers and even strokes and cancer. Doctors in both Japan and Great Britain have long included non-medical therapies in a growing movement called “social prescribing.” Beyond time outdoors, these therapies can consist of gardening, volunteering, arts and group activities. As our society spends more and more time isolated, indoors and exposed to various stressors, spending time in the woods, walking among the trees, could be the antidote to our modern maladies.
Tips for Having the Best Experience
Forest bathing asks very little from those of us looking to give it a try. Like regular forms of meditation, it’s best to approach it with an open mind and heart—and without the distraction of
electronic devices. For those of us fortunate enough to have access to the outdoors, there is very little to invest other than time and energy (and maybe a good pair of hiking shoes). But for those of us who are deeply embedded in more urban environments, seeking a quiet city park, nearby trail system or even a calm horticultural center is a close alternative. Here are a few basic tips for getting started:
- Turn off devices and tune into the sounds of nature – Birdsong, the wind through the trees and even the sound of silence set the stage for calm.
- Slow down and breathe – Take time to pause. Consider sitting down for a spell. Smell the various trees and flowers growing around the forest.
- Open eyes, open heart – Unlike resting meditation, we should take in all the sights and notice the beauty changing around us. We’re more likely to relax taking in the rich hues of green and blue.
While we may not be able to completely unplug from our digital world, a walk in the woods (or a garden, even) does call to us. More and more, our desire to turn off the tunes, go on silent mode and see nature in prime time grows.
– Mary Oliver, When I am among the trees