A religion as old as Japan itself, Shinto believes that everything has a spirit, from mountains to trees. The Shinto beliefs permeate Japanese culture to this day and influence all things from festivals to the Japanese way of thinking and acting, and especially the centrality of nature in art and literature. Based on the significant role of this ancient religion, as well as the fact that 2/3 of the country in covered in forests, it is easy to see why the Japanese people turn to nature in times of hardship. In the 1980s the Japanese experienced a tech boom which did great things for the economy, but bad things for the Japanese people. The government saw a skyrocket in stress related side effects such as aches and pains, depression, and distractibility. This was also a time when 80% of the Japanese population lived in cities causing a great disconnect with nature. In 1982, Tomohide Akiyama, director of the Japanese Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries attempted to reconnect his people with the forest in a response to this growing disconnect and the negative side effects it brought. He coined the term Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.
You may have heard the term before, but what really is “forest bathing”? It’s not rolling around in a pile of leaves or scrubbing your body with pinecones. Shinrin-yoku refers to the idea of soaking in the natural benefits we gain from being outside. The beauty of Shinrin-yoku is that it is not based on exercise. It’s about taking in the forest atmosphere and allowing for the mindfulness and meditiation that naturally happens when you spend time outdoors. Shinrin-yoku is the tension release of being in a quiet place, the gentle softness of running your fingers over moss, the sweet smell of trees basking in sunlight, the sound of birds singing while recalling that all is connected. It is all of these things, and more.
To find evidence of the physiological effects of forest bathing, scientists have been sending subjects into the woods to take measurements of physiological parameters such as salivary cortisol, pulse rate, blood pressure, and heart rate variability, before, during, and after experiencing a walk in the woods. The results of one study showed that viewing or walking in forest landscapes leads to lower concentrations of the stress-hormone cortisol, lower pulse rate and blood pressure, and lower nervous system activity which typically increases when we feel stress. What this means is that spending time amongst the trees can lower all the ways your body tells your brain that it is stressed out. The forest is a natural anxiety pill! High levels of stress can also impact your immune system, so letting some of that stress go both feels good to the mind and does good for the body. While the concept of nature-therapy began small, Japan went on the spend $4 million researching the effects of forest bathing. We now know that forest bathing can improve sleep quality, mood, ability to focus, stress levels, and more.
In Japan, you can experience Shinrin-yoku in one of the 62 designated therapeutic woods. In all areas of Japan you can find centers specialized in the practice of forest bathing with experts that will help guide you through the art of Shinrin-yoku to ensure you gain the maximum benefits the forest has to offer. Not planning on going to Japan anytime soon? Don’t worry! The magic of Shinrin-yoku doesn’t only happen on the island of Japan. It can be experienced anywhere you can find a peaceful section of nature. There are only two rules to forest bathing: go in silence and go slow. Remember, it’s about taking the time to experience the forest through your senses. Listen to the wind through the leaves, feel the rough bark of the trees, smell the pine needles as they sway in the wind, see the way dappled sunlight streams through the canopy. All these senses will begin to lower your heart rate and soon you will feel the stress leave your body. Try it out sometime and let us know what you think.