Shinrin-yoku 101: Forest Bathing for Wellbeing

Learn about the health benefits of trading screens for trees. Your mental and physical health will thank you.

By: Steve Larese
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Shinrin-yoku, "Forest Bathing"

Shinrin-yoku (森林浴), which translates as "forest bathing" is the practice of spending time in nature to benefit your mental and physical health. While this concept sounds simple enough, in our ever-digitizing world many people are spending less time outside away from screens than ever. The concept of Shinrin-yoku was first developed in the 1980s by Dr. Qing Li and the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry when doctors began prescribing spending time in nature to help their stressed-out patients. "Interest in Shinrin-yoku is now gaining in popularity in the United States as a way to reconnect with nature for health and many other benefits," says Melanie Choukas-Bradley, a forest therapy guide certified with the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (ANFT), who shares some of the following advice.

Take it Slow

"Forest bathing isn’t hiking. Slowing down so that you can fully absorb the beauty and beneficial effects of your natural surroundings is key to the practice of Shinrin-yoku," Choukas-Bradley says. On forest bathing walks that she leads in Washington, D.C., her groups typically cover less than a mile during a three-hour period. "This gives participants time to breathe deeply, listen to the wind and watch the trees against the sky, hear the birds, frogs and crickets, and smell the earth, trees, leaves and flowers."

You Don't Need A Forest

Choukas-Bradley says that forest bathing can take place in any natural setting — forest, desert, beach, mountain, meadow, city park, garden or even your own backyard. Ideally, forest bathing sessions last several hours, but even 20 minutes outdoors has benefits.

Leave the Phone at Home

The entire forest bathing experience is a form of meditation as participants disconnect from electronic devices, headlines and daily to-do lists. "It’s a great idea to step out of the office or home to spend 30 minutes outside tuning in to nature, but it becomes much harder to do if you don’t turn off your phone," Choukas-Bradley says. "Shinrin-yoku plays an important part in breaking the dependence and background stress of always checking your device."

From: Ryan Reed

Think Small

In addition to taking in the environment as a whole, Choukas-Bradley recommends finding small details that you're drawn to. Focus on a flower, a leaf, a cone lying on the ground or a spider in a web, giving it your full attention, gazing at it without looking away. What about this object stands out for you? What is your relationship like to this object? Is it different now than when you started?

Health Benefits

Shinrin-yoku has been shown to lower blood pressure. A 2011 study conducted by the Department of Hygiene and Public Health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo showed that those who walked in the woods had significantly lower blood pressure and higher levels of dopamine than city walkers, even though the physical excursion was similar.

Immune System Booster?

Another Department of Hygiene and Public Health at Nippon Medical School study found that breathing in compounds released by trees can boost cancer-fighting proteins within the body.

Breathe

Choukas-Bradley says slow, deep belly breathing is the most important component of forest bathing. "When you’re in the forest or another natural setting, your breath links you to all the living things around you. As you breathe in the oxygen the trees and herbaceous plants emit, they in turn absorb the carbon dioxide you breathe out," she says. "In the forest, you breathe, you belong."

Bring the Outside In

If you are in an office or home with no easy access to a natural area, surrounding yourself with plants, nature-inspired art and photography can have a calming effect and offer some of the mental and physical health benefits of being out in nature.

Forest Bathing Getaways

Shinrin-yoku groups are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Check here to see if there’s a Shinrin-yoku club near you, and search for "Shinrin-yoku" or "forest bathing" at Meetup.com. Some spa resorts are incorporating forest bathing into their offerings, such as Sedona, Arizona’s L’auberge de Sedona and Santa Fe, New Mexico’s Sunrise Springs Spa Resort and Connecticut’s Grace Mayflower Inn & Spa.

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