Forest Bathing: Time in Nature as Therapy
Core - Edition Nº19
Imagine yourself walking through a forest. Listening to the pitch-perfect bird songs and the mesmerising sway of the string of trees as they’re gently tuned by the wind. Imagine the sunshine filtering through the leaves as you feel nature’s fresh oxygen flow through your lungs and heart. It’s rare to catch a break from urban life—many people now consider it a luxury. But at the same time, nature is a perfect and simple solution to take time away from our always-on culture. That’s why people love forest bathing.
About forest bathing
Living in green spaces can help you feel more energetic, in good overall health, and, importantly, have a better sense of meaning and purpose. Whether it’s merely a trend or a genuine mindful practice in your eyes, shinrin-yoku (translated to “taking in the medicine/atmosphere of the forest”) has been popular for decades as Japan’s eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and solution to reconnecting with the country’s forests and trees.
During the early 1980s, the Forest Agency of Japan began advising people to take more walks in the woods for “better health”. It was believed—but unproven at the time—to reduce stress. Early researchers did find that 40 minutes in a cedar forest granted lower cortisol levels (our stress hormone) compared to 40 minutes of walking in a lab. “I was surprised”, researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki said. “Spending time in the forest induces a state of physiological relaxation”.
Dr Qing Li, a professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, found that trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides that spur “healthy biological changes in a manner similar to aromatherapy“. Walks or overnight stays in the forest induce changes in our blood associated with cancer protection, better immunity, and lower blood pressure. “The quiet atmosphere, beautiful scenery, good smells and fresh, clean air in forests all contribute to the effects”, Li said.
Forest bathing is a time to leave your phone at home or in the hotel. It’s a digital detox. A moment to head to the nearest forest and let your mind, body and soul wander through the trees and elements to which we are connected. Nature is a space for you to appreciate the surroundings and soak in the essence, to stop for a moment. Breathe in clean, fragrant air, and connect with the soft green moss carpeting the shaded stones.
The beauty of the stillness around you influences your mind to help you forget the constant punishing motions of the city. It’s a sensory experience without the overload.
The (many) benefits
We’ve known this for centuries. Nature makes us feel connected. Whole. The sounds, the scents, the sunlight—they give us a true sense of comfort. Nature eases the burden of stress and worry from our shoulders. It helps us think clearly and slow down.
Time has granted us a better understanding of how shinrin-yoku has real health benefits. How does one maximise the experience? Well, the key to unlocking all the benefits of the forest is through connecting to it with your five senses. Nature needs to know that your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet are engaged. Connect with it: let the bird song chime through your ears. Align your breathing with the whistles of the wind. Enjoy the various colours of the leaves. Dip your fingers and toes in the cleansing stream. Lie down for a moment. Now you have connected with nature.
An obvious benefit of time in nature is getting away from screens. But also turning away from rumination, worry, and overthinking. It’s our way to recharge and appreciate the peace of mind—or peace from our mind.
Forest bathing is mindfulness in motion. We achieve this through different forms of meditation but also during everyday living. Forest bathing means heightening your senses, suspending judgement, and focusing on what’s in front of you. One research study looked at six studies on forest bathing between 2010 and 2020. Their results found that weaving mindfulness with shinrin-yoku may be specifically important to at-risk groups and populations, including students, veterans, or people experiencing mental health issues such as stress, depression, loneliness or social isolation.
How to get started with forest bathing
When you’ve been busy at work, training, and being social all week, it can be hard to slow down and stop your mind from racing at 1,000 miles per hour. Forest bathing is a simple remedy to help you relax and replenish your energy stores. Regain control of yourself. It’s cost-effective, and you can use any nature space and go at your own pace.
To make things clear: it’s not a one-time quick fix or panacea. It’s a practice to consistently embed in your lifestyle. Research in England shows that weekly activity in nature (at least 2 hours) will benefit your health and well-being. It doesn’t matter where you do it or how you break up the hours; what’s important is that you do it regularly.
Forest bathing requires a different mindset. A growth mindset. You’re going on a meditative experience. You’re strolling through nature in a forest and taking your time. You’re connecting with nature through all five senses. You are not glueing yourself to your phone with your head down as you walk through the park.
Returning to nature is about observing and asking yourself how you feel. Look at the small details. Sit quietly and don’t worry about your to-do list or issues related to daily life. Stay as long as you can. Smile. Don’t worry about how fit—or unfit—you are.
“Forest bathing is no more complicated than simply going for a wander in your local woods or park,” says the National Trust. Here are their top tips for getting the most out of your next (or first) forest walk:
Pick a quieter time of day: early mornings or evening walks are ideal if you can get out then. Depending on your schedule, you could try weekday afternoons too.
Turn off your electronics: it’s only an hour or two. It’s unlikely the world will end if you’re away from your phone during that time. Let your mind switch off and avoid negative distractions.
Take your time: this is very meditative if you let it be. Wandering slowly through the trees or settling on a log for five minutes can be a perfect time to notice the things about nature you never thought about before.
Use all your senses: the same way you tune a guitar, tune all your senses in line with the vibrations of your environment. When did you last touch a tree trunk and feel the coarse texture of its bark, or notice the way your deep breaths feel in the middle of the trees?
Pay attention to your breathing: being healthy, happy, and clearing your mind comes down to taking yourself back to your centre through good breathing. Try this technique: close your eyes and follow a 4 4 4 pattern: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and then exhale for 4 seconds. It’s a military technique designed to quickly reduce stress in tough situations and calm your mind.
Stay as long as you feel comfortable: nobody expects you to spend five hours in the forest from the start. Even though two hours is the recommendation, just 10 minutes at a time can suffice. It’s about consistency more than anything.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Time. As more people move further from nature and more towards city life, it’s more crucial to step back and evaluate the harm this can do. Nature is our medicine. We don’t need to look for complicated solutions that fool us into thinking they work better. The space you need is out there, waiting for you. So look for the trees, and reconnect with one of the best remedies there are.
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.