As most people who know me will tell you, taking an early morning hike is an essential part of each day for me. It is how I center myself as well as connect with nature in a meaningful way. I had read about the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku while researching ikigai (I’ve previously written about this concerning “life’s purpose”) and it struck me as both familiar and foreign. I’ve just purchased the book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health And Happiness this weekend and it is not only a beautifully constructed piece of literature, but it also highlights what I, and many more I’m sure will attest to - that being outside in nature is good for your soul AND your health, in more ways than one.
I’d like to share excerpts of this book with you and please let me know if this idea of “forest bathing” resonates with you. I’ve created a local (Denver-based) forest bathing group to explore areas of our immediate and surrounding community to get a deeper understanding of the benefits of connecting with nature in this way. Contact me to join this fun group today!
*Excerpts taken from the novel Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health And Happiness by Dr. Qing Li.
We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for centuries. The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air — these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry, help us to relax and to think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.
But what exactly is this feeling that is so hard to put into words? I am a scientist, not a poet. And I have been investigating the science behind that feeling for many years.
In Japan, we practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.
This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.
Never have we been so far from merging with the natural world and so divorced from nature. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. According to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors.
But the good news is that even a small amount of time in nature can have an impact on our health. A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you. Numerous studies I’ve conducted have shown that shinrin-yoku has real health benefits. There is now a wealth of data that proves that forest bathing can:
Reduce blood pressure
Improve cardiovascular and metabolic health
Lower blood sugar levels
Improve concentration and memory
Improve pain thresholds
Boost the immune system with an increase in the count of the body’s NK or ‘natural killer” cells (also known as white blood cells which help eliminate unwanted or hurtful cells in the body)
Increase anti-cancer protein production Help you to lose weight
So how does one go about forest bathing?
First, find a spot. Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.
The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides (the natural oils within a plant and are part of a tree’s defense system). Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.
When it comes to finding calm and relaxation, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – it differs from person to person. It is important to find a place that suits you. If you love the smell of damp soil, you will be most relaxed where the natural landscape provides it. Then the effects of the forest will be more powerful. Maybe you have a place in the countryside that reminds you of your childhood or of happy times in the past. These places will be special to you and your connection with them will be strong.
When you have been busy at work all week, it can be hard to slow down. You may have been rushing around so much you no longer know how to stand still. There are many different activities you can do in the forest that will help you to relax and to connect with nature. Here are some of the things people do: forest walking, yoga, eating in the forest, hot-spring therapy, T’ai chi, meditation, breathing exercises, aromatherapy, art classes and pottery, Nordic walking and plant observation. It doesn’t matter how fit – or unfit – you are. Shinrin-yoku is suitable for any level of fitness.
You can forest-bathe anywhere in the world – wherever there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine or snow. You don’t even need a forest. Once you have learned how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere – in a nearby park or in your garden.
Look for a place where there are trees, and off you go!
Forest Bathing - Five Senses Exercises
Five senses: listen, look, smell, taste, feel
Sound exercises -
Tuning in to the sounds of nature can be hard. We are so used to noise. Even when we are quiet, there is the noise of our thoughts inside our heads. In fact, it is when we are still and quiet that the internal noise starts up. Our thoughts go round and round and it is not easy to quieten them.
Start by slowing down - You need to give yourself some time: it takes time to let go of your thoughts and hear natural silence. Find a spot and sit down.
Focus on your breath - If unwanted thoughts creep in, concentrate on breathing deeply. When you breathe out, let any distractions float away.
Listen in all directions - After a while, the noise inside your head will quieten down and you will begin to hear the sounds of nature. Notice what you can hear. The tap tap tap of a beak on wood? The two-tone notes of a birdcall? See if you can listen further.
Close your eyes to help you hear more intensely - Remaining still and quiet and paying attention to the sounds of nature will open your ears. All you have to do is be quiet and listen. If you listen hard enough, maybe you can hear the voices of the trees talking to each other in their phytoncide language. Start by slowing down…
Sight exercises - Use fractals to make you feel happier
Go to the forest, a park or just into your garden, and find a spot to sit.
Look up at the clouds and the sky, or at the ripples on the surface of a pond. Look at the water trickling in a stream or the way the branches in a tree divide.
Go in close and look at the veins in a leaf or the petals in a flower and notice the patterns.
Soon you will start to see patterns all around you.
Notice your stress levels before and afterwards and see how the fractal patterns in nature can make you feel more relaxed.
When you see how much of the world around you is patterned, you will begin to feel the awe and splendor of the natural world. And that will bring you joy as well as a sense of calm!
Smell/breathing exercises -
Stand with your arms facing outwards. Breathe in through your nose and, as you inhale, slowly raise your arms until your hands meet above your head. Hold the pose for a count of four.
Then much higher and, raising yourself on to your toes, rotate your hands to face outwards.
Begin, slowly, to breathe out while you lower your arms.
When you are back at your starting position, fill your lungs deeply once again with the fresh air of the forest.
Do this three times.
Touch/grounding exercises -
First, take off your socks and shoes and go outside.
Stand on the earth, grass or sand.
You need two points of contact to form an electrical circuit, so it’s best to stand with both feet on the ground. If you are lying down, you can make a circuit with one foot and one elbow.
For best results, stay grounded for twenty minutes every day.
Be careful to avoid glass and try not to stand on grass that has been sprayed with pesticides.
Finding your feelings in the forest -
When you are in the forest, notice your emotional response to being there.
Start by closing your eyes. See if you can feel which way you want to walk. Use your intuition.
Notice all the sensual pleasures of the forest.
What do you feel when you hear the breeze in the trees and the songs of the birds?
What do you feel when you look at the trees around you?
What do you feel when you smell the forest fragrance?
What do you feel when the sun warms your face, or you lie on the ground?What do you feel when you taste the fresh air?
Let time drop away and, with it, all your worldly worries.
What do you feel now?