The art of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese practice that brings mindfulness and relaxation to time spent in nature. Shinrin-yoku imparts wonderful health benefits and a new way to deepen your relationship to the great outdoors.
In essence, forest bathing is to immerse oneself in the atmosphere of the forest, to deeply take it all in through each of your 5 senses. Forest bathing takes place at a slower pace; it's not hiking, biking, cardio exercise, or trail running. It is the simple art of just being present and mindful in nature and noticing your surroundings. There are decades worth of scientific studies that prove spending time in nature imparts numerous health benefits and stress relief.
The modern practice of Shinrin-yoku originated from Japan when a national health program for forest bathing was introduced in 1982. Research on the benefits of exposure to nature in Japan began in 1990 and accelerated by 2004. Dr. Qing Li, the Chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, and others have proven through rigorous scientific study that time in the forest can be as powerful as modern medicine. Peer-reviewed studies and Dr. Li's own work reveal that exposure to the forest can boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, stabilize blood sugar, lower adrenaline and stress hormones, all while improving the symptoms of depression.
SHINRIN-YOKU IS LIKE A BRIDGE. BY OPENING OUR SENSES, IT BRIDGES THE GAP BETWEEN US AND THE NATURAL WORLD.
- DR. QING LI
Recent analyses clock 7.5 hours of daily screen time on average for US children aged 8-18 (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation). Adults fare slightly better, but in summary, this adds up to over 100 full days per year spent in front of a screen for the purpose of entertainment (not school or work). Thus, there is ample opportunity for all of us to ditch technology and head outdoors.
The body reacts in a positive manner when we step outside. For millennia, people lived their lives outdoors and it is a relatively recent phenomenon within the scope of humanity that we've switched to sheltered lives. We simply belong under the sky and we need to make better efforts to honor our human origins. The health benefits are immense and highly motivating when contrasted with the detrimental side effects of prolonged screen time and over-exposure to social media.
Benefits of Forest Bathing derived from scientific data as summarized by Dr. Li:
Dr. Li stresses the power of regular exposure to trees. Forests offer a higher concentration of oxygen in addition to phytoncides. These natural chemicals are emitted by trees to protect them from bacteria, insects, and fungi and they are in highest concentrations among evergreens such as pines, cedars, spruces and conifers. Studies conducted by the doctor found the activity of anti-cancer proteins increased, the levels of stress hormones decreased, and sleep duration increased. The clear benefit of spending time among trees has been documented by numerous scientific studies.
1. Find a Spot
Steel yourself and ditch your phone, electronics, camera, etc. To be present in the forest, you'll need to avoid the temptation to turn to technology. You'll be walking, sitting, and moving slowly without distraction. Find a spot, it can be a trail, a patch of forest in the neighborhood, a quiet park, or a local grove of trees. Your aim is to move slowly and find a spot that sparks joy or wonder. Your heart rate should be low as this isn't a cardio workout but a time of quiet reflection. Finding a spot will be a deeply personal endeavor. Some may find the sound of water running over rocks to be the ultimate scene, for others, it may be in the cool quiet after a rainstorm when the scent of the damp earth lingers in the air. Carefully consider which location will bring you the greatest sense of ease and happiness.
2. Unlock Your Senses
The goal here is to fully experience the forest with all five senses. You are letting the forest in! Let nature wash over you and focus your attention on your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands, and feet. Your primary focus should be relaxation, to dwell and immerse yourself in the experience of the present moment. You're here to appreciate natural beauty and slowwwwwwwww down.
Are there birds chirping in the trees? Can you hear leaves rustling? Try noticing any and all sounds in the environment surrounding you.
It should go without saying it is not advisable to taste random plants, mushrooms, or berries. To experience taste, I like to take a few pine needles, break them in half, give them a good inhale, and gently taste them with my tongue, taking care not to poke myself. A brief amount of research can teach you about local flora and foraging. You could also grab some tea leaves from a local tea shop to make tea from species of plants found in your region. Take a deep, open-mouthed breath. Can you taste the earth or the scent of the trees around you in the air?
Feel the texture of tree bark or trace the edges of the leaves around you (though do be sure you can identify poison ivy or oak before you go petting random plants). Dip your hand in a nearby water source or lie on the ground. Feel the texture of the grass or leaf litter underfoot. What do you notice?
Notice the colors, the light, the shadows. You'll be surprised about the amount of nuance you can observe in the nature around you with even just a couple of minutes of focused attention. Foster childlike joy and delight in uncovering these small details. How many shades of green do you notice? Are the veins on nearby leaves shaped like lightning or straight, ordered, and geometric?
Dr. Li found many benefits arise when we inhale and expose ourselves to the chemicals released by trees and plants. Does each species of tree smell differently? Take a leaf or needle from a nearby tree or plant and crush it between your fingers. What smell is produced? Admire the vast differences between the odor of each species. Does the earth smell? Does the tree bark emit odor?
3. Cultivate Presence
You don't have to be a masterful Zen meditator to derive benefit from your visit to the forest. Try some simple breathing exercises if meditation feels too intimidating.
Inhale for a count of 1-2-3 while paying mind to the scent of the forest around you
Pause for a count of 1-2-3-4
Then exhale at a slower rate than your inhale for 1-2-3-4-5-6
This slow and measured rate of breathing sends a physiological message to your body that all is safe and there is no need to fight or flee. This present and mindful state soothes the body's parasympathetic nervous system and aids relaxation. You'll also cultivate a state of mind that is more able to observe and delight in your surroundings.
If walking, do so at a very slow pace. Travel with intention as you take time to notice things around you. Stop to smell a flower or touch tree bark. Stoop down low to see if you can spy any bugs nestling in the leaf litter or a mushroom poking out of a rotting tree stump.
You can also practice tai chi or easy yoga poses. Notice how your body feels and be present with the sensations.
A dedicated forest bathing practice offers a wonderful perspective. To witness the seasons, the natural unfolding of life and death, and the multitude of living creatures around us humans can put things in a broader context. Challenges at work, loss, grief, heartbreak can all be soothed with a trip to the forest. Shinrin-yoku can offer spiritual immersion for those seeking to connect more deeply with nature, the place we humans actually belong.
For further reading, be sure to pick up Dr. Qing Li's fantastic book: Forest Bathing, How Trees Can Help You Find Health & Happiness.
Find the RELATED ARTICLES section below for trail recommendations and ideas on where to enjoy forest bathing in Utah.