If you are looking for a way to unwind and experience nature to the fullest, forest bathing could be your best match. This experience, which involves taking a slow and enjoyable walk under the canopy of a living forest, will not only lower your stress levels, but can also boost your overall physical and mental health.
With the hustle and bustle of modern life and concrete jungles, our need for nature has become greater than ever. You might be intuitively aware of the uplifting effects of nature, as even a walk in the park is enough to help you relax and feel better.
It was this intuitive knowledge that inspired Japanese researchers to coin the term shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere.”
While forest bathing has nothing in common with bathing in the literal sense, its calming and restorative effects can be even better than your favorite bubble bath. In this article, we explain what shinrin-yoku is all about and how you can enjoy this therapeutic experience.
Shinrin-Yoku: The History and Origin of Forest Bathing
We need nature, so it is not surprising that many choose it to escape the busy life of the city and wind down. That is precisely what humans have been doing for hundreds of years. In fact, gardens and parks are our response to the need for nature and greenery.
Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, was first introduced as a concept in Japan in the early 1980s as a way to combat workplace burnout. It has since become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine and it is often prescribed to patients.
Japanese and Korean scientists supported this therapeutic activity with a body of research starting from the 1990s. Their findings received increased attention by scientists and communities from all around the world.
Today, you can find forest therapists and forest bathing groups for all ages organized all around the world, as well as a growing amount of research that supports its benefits.
The Nature of Forest Bathing
Forest therapy is a mindful, slow process, which lets you experience nature with all of the senses. It involves walking slowly beneath the canopy of the forest and exploring it through sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste.
This experience lets you reconnect with nature to the fullest. It lets you wind down and wander aimlessly while you detach yourself from the busy and noisy every-day reality. It does not require effort, and you can choose whether you want to sit or meander. All it takes is being surrounded by trees and a calm mind.
This slow pace of forest therapy is enough to make you feel more relaxed. But there are also the benefits of the clean and fresh air as well as the various essential oils emitted by the trees, generally known as phytoncides. These all serve to boost your mental and physical health in different ways, which we will discuss shortly.
How Forest Bathing Differs from Hiking
Most people associate taking a trip in the woods with hiking.
Forest bathing is different from hiking, however, as it does not involve physical exertion. Hiking, although pleasant, usually challenges you to reach a goal or milestone and then lets you relax once you have achieved that goal. In the case of forest therapy, it is the journey that matters, and the destination is where you currently are – the forest.
Another difference is the ability to zoom in and focus on the little things around you that you would otherwise not notice. While you might be able to experience the forest when hiking, it does not generally provide you with the opportunity to stop, take a look around you and experience the forest environment with all of your senses. Forest bathing aims to explore nature through all the senses and fully inhale its beauty without rushing to your next destination.
The Healing Properties and Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
Forest therapy comes with many physical and psychological benefits. These benefits have been supported by a considerable number of scientific studies as well as anecdotal evidence. However, whatever the benefits of forest therapy, you should not engage in forest bathing as a replacement for prescribed medications or medical treatment, but rather alongside them.
There has been a significant volume of forest bathing research and science. This is well-illustrated by a state-of-the-art study review from the University of San Francisco looked at 64 studies on forest therapy published from 2007 to 2017. The researchers found that forest bathing offers a plethora of health benefits and is excellent for the reduction of the modern-day “stress state” and “technostress”.
Here are some of the health benefits of forest bathing:
People who practice forest bathing have been reported to have better overall cardiovascular health. Some of the effects include increased heart rate variability (HRV) and a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and pulse rate.
A Canadian study has also found that people who live in tree-dense areas report less cardio-metabolic conditions than residents in neighborhoods with fewer trees.
The study review noted above also found that the effects of forest therapy apply to all ages and genders, regardless of socioeconomic background or previous exposure to nature settings.
Improvements in Physiological Disease States
The study review also looked at the effects of forest therapy on specific physiological disease states such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and type II diabetes. The study review found that:
People who suffer from hypertension experience a decrease in the workload of the heart, which helps to manage the symptoms of hypertension.
People who suffer from coronary artery disease experience an improvement in cardiac function after a week of 30-minute sessions in nature.
- Forest therapy also helps patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by reducing perforin and granzyme B expressions and pro-inflammatory cytokines and stress hormones.
- Forest bathing is also good for people suffering from diabetes mellitus type II, as it has been found that the blood glucose levels drop after a few forest therapy sessions.
The psychological benefits of shinrin-yoku are perhaps the most easily felt ones. As we have already discussed, spending time in nature is enough to make you feel calmer and more relaxed, and we know this intuitively. The effects of forest therapy, however, go even deeper than the surface level changes we tend to feel. Researchers have found that forest bathing:
- Reduces psychological and emotional distress
- Reduces acute and chronic stress
- Lowers subjective feelings of hostility
- Lowers depression
- Lowers anxiety
- Improves sleep and fights insomnia and other sleep disorders
- Improves the general sleep/wake cycles
- Helps with addiction
- Lowers pain and improves pain management
- Boosts emotional confidence
- Boosts self-realization
- Boosts emotional health
- Improves psychological well-being
Forest therapy has also been found to have positive effects on the autonomous central nervous system, some of which can occur even within the first 5 to 7 minutes of each nature experience. Forest bathing helps to regulate various hormones in the body, while decreasing lymphocytes and boosting the body’s natural killer (NK) cells that are part of the immune system. It also helps the body detox from alcohol, drugs, tobacco, and even processed foods.
The exposure to nature and its relaxing effects also improve the ability to focus and think creatively, boosts energy levels and vitality, and gives you an increased sense of happiness.
How the Experience Feels
Regardless of whether you decide to practice forest bathing alone or with a guide, the experience is something you will want to live out every day. We do not often have the opportunity or ability to turn on all our senses and be fully present, which, as a mindfulness technique, can be very liberating and calming.
The experience of forest bathing can be further enhanced when done with a guide. You will receive invitations to interact with the forest in a meaningful and healing way. Forest therapists are trained to help you become deeply immersed in the experience. They will help you through the process and invite you to use all of your senses.
It is generally best to leave behind (or at least turn off) any devices and focus on what is around you, giving yourself time and space to experience it to the fullest extent. You can also enhance your forest bathing experience by spending some of your time engaged in forest meditation. Find a quiet and comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and breathe deeply while you focus intently on the sounds around you. You can even use the opportunity to detox by drinking water and enjoying in mindful hydration before and after your meditation session.
Some forest therapists offer a tea ceremony either at the beginning or the end of the session. This part of the experience highlights the edible plants of the forest, such as lemon balm, licorice root, or a hemlock tree’s citrusy new spring growth, explains Carolyn Ali, who has taken part in such forest therapy sessions.
How to Forest Bathe on Your Own
It is also feasible to engage in forest bathing on your own. Of course, as noted above, it may be helpful to use a guide, who can help facilitate the process and control the pace, allowing you to experience it more completely. However, if you prefer to enjoy this mindful experience alone, there are a few guidelines you might want to follow:
- Leave behind or turn off any electronic devices to be able to relax completely and enjoy the sensory experience to the fullest;
- Find a trail and start moving slowly, taking in nature from the very start;
- Do not rush anywhere – explore even the tiniest of details, such as the insects, the tree bark, and the leaves moving in the wind;
- Take long, deep breaths, and extend your exhalation to calm your breathing;
- Do not hesitate to sit down or stand still – take everything in and contemplate your surroundings. How does it look? How does it smell? How does it feel when you touch it? How does it sound?
- Observe your own feelings: how does the environment make you feel?
- Think about the things you are observing and avoid thinking about to-dos or your daily struggles;
- Stay as long as you want to, and do not rush to get anywhere. If you want to reach a different part of the forest, make sure you explore everything on the path toward it. As noted above, the focus of forest therapy is on the journey (exploring the forest) rather than the next destination.
The Importance of Ensuring Proper Hydration While You Are in the Forest
Although forest bathing is a slow and peaceful activity, your body will still need essential hydration. There is an art to drinking water, and staying optimally hydrated helps you keep your muscles moving and avoid getting overheated (especially when the weather is hot).
Additionally, the detoxifying effects of forest bathing are prone to using up some of your body’s water reserves. As a result, drinking enough water is essential to replenish your body's reserves and help you feel more energetic and relaxed.
A copper water bottle is a great way to stay hydrated when forest bathing. Copper is an essential mineral, and copper water (also known as “tamra jal” in ayurvedic medicine, and also commonly known as “copper infused water” or “copper charged water”) can have excellent health benefits. For example, copper is anti-bacterial, acts as an effective anti-oxidant, improves immunity, supports good health, prevents aging, eliminates toxins and free radicals, and stimulates the brain. Furthermore, when water is stored in a copper bottle it absorbs copper ions which can in turn be beneficial in replacing lost electrolytes and creating natural alkaline water.
So, don’t forget to take your copper-infused water to enrichen your experience for the greatest benefits! If you are searching for a high quality copper water bottle, try the Copper H2O handcrafted copper drinking bottle that is made from 100% pure copper and is of exceptional quality.
The Bottom Line
Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, or forest therapy is something many cultures have been practicing for centuries. Even a relaxing stroll in a tree-dense park can make all the difference for those who cannot escape to the forest very often.
Do not forget to visit nature regularly! It can help you let go of the stress of your busy urban life, and it can boost your health in many ways. Whether you choose to practice forest bathing with a forest therapist, with other company, or alone, it is important that you never rush and miss the opportunity to fully use your senses to take everything in.
About the Authors: This article was collaboratively written by our team of researchers and writers with the benefit of all available scientific studies and other relevant literature. Our team of researchers and writers include experienced health researchers including a qualified medical professional. Please note that information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.