I recently overheard people talking about a new fad called “forest bathing,” From the name, I just assumed it meant taking a dip in a lake in a forest, right? Not at all, actually.
In fact, this new environmentally friendly trend is all about connection with and immersion in nature to obtain a meditative state. In short, it’s a mindfulness technique. Where did this practice come from? Is it really beneficial? How do you get involved? Here’s the nitty-gritty on forest bathing!
What is Forest Bathing and How to Take Part
To begin, I can tell you what forest bathing is not. It’s not about walking. It’s not about hiking. It’s not exercise, either. And, it’s definitely not about bathing. So, what exactly is this new trend and how does one partake?
What is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing is actually a mindfulness practice that began in the 1980s in Japan. Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese term for forest bathing, translates as “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing,” and this practice has actually “become a cornerstone of preventative health care and healing in Japanese medicine.” The practice involves releasing your mind, thoughts, and worries in order to allow your feet to meander unhindered within a forested or natural area. Health benefits stem from the belief that “if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved.”
How to Forest Bathe
While forest bathing is still somewhat new here in the states, the practice is quickly growing, especially in urban areas. In fact, there are now Forest Therapy Guides — certified through the Association of Natura & Forest Therapy — who are trained to take you through a natural area and guide you into a meditative state by closing your eyes, smelling, feeling, and listening.
With that said, you don’t need a guide or even a friend or partner or significant other. In fact, forest bathing might be the perfect activity to take part in on your own. In a wonderful Time Magazine article, the criteria of forest bathing are laid out simply:
“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.”
Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
The health benefits of leading a mindful lifestyle have recently begun to be thoroughly researched. The findings show that mindfulness through meditative acts decreases stress and anxiety, increases clarity of the mind, boosts the body’s ability to heal, and can even limit or decrease symptoms of depression. When it comes to forest bathing, there is a “robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest.” Here are some of those health benefits!
Better Immune System Function
This one is actually pretty amazing! Certain species of trees “give off organic compounds that support our ‘NK’ (natural killer) cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer.” Specifically, natural killer cells, which are also referred to as K cells, killer cells, and NK cells, “are a type of lymphocyte (a white blood cell) and a component of innate immune system.” Studies have shown that the practice of forest bathing actually increases the levels of natural killer cells, therefore boosting the immune system’s ability to deal with certain cancers.
Decreased Depression Symptoms
Forest therapy, another term for forest bathing, was researched for its effects on mood. One of the many health benefits found through this research was that the practice actually reduces symptoms of depression. One specific article published in 2017 in the Environmental Research and Public Health journal, stated that “21 studies showed significant improvement in depression” and “8 out of 11 non-equivalent control group design studies reported significant improvement in depression scores.”
With that said, it’s important to note that these studies did not look at the long-term effects of forest bathing.
Increased Energy Levels
Forest bathing is attributed to “production of the hormones Dopamine and Cortisol” which “play a major role in stress reduction and hence greatly contribute to better moods.” And, this is not just for those healthy adults. In fact, “the results after taking people with anxiety, high confusion levels, and depression through a forest bathing trip showed that the moods of the individual significantly improved helping them deal better with their conditions.”
We talked earlier about those mystical trees boosting our immune systems, yet that’s not all trees can do. Other natural compounds — such as D-limonene — secreted by trees have also been found to reduce inflammation. Specifically, D-limonene has been shown to “reduce lung inflammation as well as breathing problems such as asthma and COPD,” which refers to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or chronic lung diseases.
Improves Clarity of Mind
If you’re looking for an activity that helps get those creative juices flowing or dredges out all that mind-muck that has you bogged down, forest bathing is the activity for you! In fact, therapeutic research has discovered that “just looking at pictures of the forest considerably increases the ability to focus,” therefore taking a walk in the forest will do much more! Not only does forest bathing impart clarity and the ability to focus, but it has also been shown to increase “attention span as well as good concentration.”
Forest Bathing and Environmental Awareness
It’s obvious that spending some mindful time in nature is incredibly beneficial to our bodies and our minds, yet it also has been shown to have another great side effect. Forest bathing has been linked to a more mindful and urgent awareness of environmental issues.
In that same Time Magazine article, the author, Dr. Qing Li, noted that “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.” Therefore, a fad like forest bathing may be that breathe of fresh air to get us outside. Plus, this isn’t marketed as a form of exercise, but a form of meditation and mindfulness, making it even more appealing to those looking for a relaxing little getaway.
One example of this can be seen in the 19th century when people designing and living in urban areas became more “aware of the connection between greenery and health.” During this period of time, “city parks and green spaces were [thoroughly] developed.” Basically, the more time you spend in nature, the more you personally recognize and prize the health benefits, which in turn bolsters your connection, awareness, and desire to keep green spaces thriving.
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