This article explores forest bathing and why this practice may be beneficial to our health.
“We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
How to take a forest bath: You just feel it
A few weeks ago, friends asked me my plans for the weekend. I eagerly exclaimed, “I’m going to take a forest bath with my new puppy!”
Confused, perplexed, and picturing us skinny dipping in sulfur, they asked me to elaborate.
“Well, you go to the woods, and you feel it,” I replied, not actually knowing what exactly a forest bath was myself.
“So do you swim in something? Or do drugs?” they asked with genuine curiosity.
“No, no, you just feel it,” I reaffirmed and added, “It’s the latest thing that white people have appropriated from Japanese culture.”
I was only half serious, but they seemed satisfied with this answer.
What really is forest bathing and why is it suddenly becoming so popular among upper-middle class white Americans? In truth, the concept seems stupidly simple, yet it is one that is forgotten from our modern urban tethering to technology, traffic, and an incessant buzz of activity. Forest bathing is the idea of stepping into nature with the simple goal of being. In a recent article in TIME, Dr. Qing Li, a Japanese medical doctor author on forest medicine, explained the process:
“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.”
Forest bathing is called Shinrin-yoku in Japan, which translates to immersing ourselves in the forest atmosphere. In the 1980s, Japanese city-dwellers began the practice with the intent to counter the rising epidemic of death by overwork, or karoshi. Blending mindfulness with wildlife immersion was theorized to act as a preventative medicine that could take us back to our roots in the natural world.
Do we need empirical evidence to support forest bathing's benefits?
Thirty years after the origin of the term, we have research to back up the theorized health benefits of forest bathing. A review published in 2017 of 143 studies on forest bathing supports forest bathing’s potential health effects on the cardiovascular, respiratory, and immune systems. Among these studies that were reviewed, one found that as little as 20-minutes of a single session of forest bathing can increase NK cells, which are a specific type of white blood cells that protect our bodies from viruses and formation of tumors.
A few studies suggest the mechanism of forest bathing’s health impact is through our connection to plants. Japanese scientists have shown that inhaling a tree-derived compound called phytoncides reduces circulating levels of stress hormones and enhances the activity of NK cells.
Personally, I feel that the scientific evidence on forest bathing is trivial compared to the intuitive sense that coexisting with Mother Earth is deeply healing. Many of my fondest memories as a child involved playing in the living world. I used to do something quite similar to forest bathing when I was a five-year-old. When my brother would play soccer, I would sneak away from the fields and into the woods, meandering around until I found a clearing to sit. Perched down on the damp soil, I would close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the mourning doves cooing and the wind whispering through leaves of the oak trees.
I remember feeling the contrast of the shade and the sun that peeked through the leaves to kiss my skin and smelling the moist earth around me. I would sit for what would feel like an eternity for my innocent mind. Sometimes I would imagine that I could become invisible, camouflaged into the greenery of the woods. Other times, I would imagine I would levitate if I breathed lightly enough. In any case, I would never make it to the end of my brother’s match before crawling out of the clearing to be found by the chaotic world once again.
A transcendental nature experience
A decade later, in the same small town, I realized how disconnected I had become from my curiosity for the natural world when my high school English professor took our class outside for what also could be labeled a forest bath. Our professor, however, called it a transcendental nature experience.
Transcendentalism is the philosophical and social movement from New England in the 1800s that was built on the belief that society had corrupted of the purity of the individual. The movement emphasized intuition over empirical evidence, individualism over reliance on society, and a return to the holistic power of nature. Transcendentalists saw Mother Nature as a tool to access spirituality and a way to return to our inner child. For example, as the notorious transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson states in his essay titled Nature:
“The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. Nature never became a toy to a wise spirit. The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.”
For our own transcendentalist exercise, we walked as a class down to the edge of our school grounds, where the cleanly-cut blades of grass met the brief patches of deciduous forest. We were under strict guidance to avoid journaling, using our phones, and talking to one another as we opened our eyes to nature for twenty minutes. I tried to be an eager student, but my multi-tasking mind instantly disliked this assignment. I found it extremely difficult at this age to not form to-do lists in my mind as I watched the veins of a browning leaf with glazed-over eyes. As a teenager, this practice felt neither therapeutic nor enlightening.
How to reconnect to the woods
Fast forward another decade, and I am making slow but steady strides to leap back onto the bandwagon with nature lovers. When I brought my puppy to the woods a few weeks ago for our “forest bath”, what actually transpired was a trail run rather than a session of sitting in a clearing and “feeling it”. Yet I felt certain that I still drank in the nectar of New England’s woods through my moving meditation.
According to Dr. Li, my approach to forest bathing was fine for a novice. He states that if we attempt a forest bath without a guide, the following activities are acceptable:
“…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.”
Universally accessible, immunity-boosting, and enlivening to the senses, forest bathing – or simply spending a few hours in nature every now and then – may be a simple yet profound anecdote to the stress of our modern world.