Forest Immersion: Shinrin-Yoku as Novasutras Practice

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

~ Rachel Carson

Basics and History of ‘Forest Bathing’: Shinrin-Yoku

The Japanese term for what English-speakers usually call ‘Forest Bathing’ is shinrin-yoku. The emphasis is on being ‘bathed’ or immersed in the sensory experiences of time in the forest. A forest bathing experience can be short (15 min stroll) or long (10-day retreat). Usually shinrin-yoku involves mostly walking slowly through a wooded area, incorporating plenty of chances for standing still or sitting while you appreciate the details of the beauty around you, taking time to re-connect with the natural world. It is definitely not intended to involve a lot of strenuous activity. In a forest bathing practice, it is important to reduce or avoid ‘efforting’ — you should take your time, savor your experiences, and not be in a hurry to get somewhere or meet some fitness goal.

Japan made shinrin-yoku part of its national health program in 1982. Doctors prescribe forest bathing as a remedy for a variety of ailments, complaints and conditions. Since its beginnings in Japan, forest bathing programs have sprung up all over the world. The health benefits of forest bathing practices have been quite well studied, with decades of research in Japan. Other studies of the effects of exposure to nature support the conclusion that it has extensive and diverse benefits for physical and mental well-being (details and references below).

Meadow and trees, Big Basin, CA - Photo by Erik S. Peterson

Incorporating Shinrin-Yoku as a Novasutras practice

In Novasutras, in addition to the simple practice of befriending and regularly visiting a tree, we also practice guided meditations as a way to help people learn to unite scientific understanding and spiritual connection, intellect and intuition, in Nature. These meditations have benefits even when circumstances do not allow you to immerse yourself in Nature. However, they can also be helpful just before your shinrin-yoku experience, to deepen your connection with all other beings in loving-kindness, with the complex wonder and sacred beauty of the universe, with what we call agaya and ubuntu in Novasutras.

Among many indigenous peoples, recognizing and greeting the beings you encounter (ideally by the name of the species) is a way of showing them your respect, a way to honor them (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass). This meditation — Walking in Agaya and Ubuntu — can prime you for this aspect of your forest immersion experience, inviting you to visualize greeting organisms with blessings, with a specific wish for something they would appreciate or enjoy. You are also invited to imagine that all the beings you encounter are reciprocating this blessing in their own way, sharing in an exchange of ubuntu and agaya.

Sun over tree canopy, Big Basin, CA - Photo by Erik S. Peterson

A Forest Walk is more than a walk in nature; it’s a sacred activism to rebuild a regenerative culture; the kind of culture Indigenous people knew; the kind of culture that perhaps our own ancestors knew. When nature becomes personal again, we will begin to heal ourselves and our relationship with nature. Then, our real work can begin.

~ Linda Lombardo

As you spend time in the forest, slow way down and engage every sense as fully and appreciatively as you can. How does the breeze feel and sound in different places? Where are the birds that you hear? How is the scent of each tree and shrub distinctive? What is the texture of the ground under your feet? (Remember to proceed with extreme caution, and only touch and taste those plants that you know to be safe.)

Tree Bark, Big Basin, CA - Photo by Erik S. Peterson

Also take the time to deeply feel and express your love and gratitude for the amazing and diverse organisms you encounter. Try to imagine what their way of living on this Earth is like. How does it feel to be a tree or a butterfly? What does a squirrel or a shrub care about most? Sharing loving-kindness and appreciation for beings around you will help you become a more effective, mindful agent for positive change, ubuntu and agaya in the world.

Scientific Evidence of Health Benefits

Research supports numerous health benefits attributed to forest bathing (particularly for ‘lifestyle-related’ disease), including:

  • Cardiovascular: lowers blood pressure, pulse-rate, heart-rate variability,
  • Reduces blood glucose
  • Improves immune function – lasts for >1 month
  • Slows cancer growth (B cells, CD4+ T cells, CD8+ T cells, natural killer cells, intracellular anti-cancer proteins increased)
  • Raises parasympathetic nervous activity and lowers sympathetic nervous activity
  • Lowers stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol)
  • On the Profile of Mood States POMS test:
    • decreases scores for anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion
    • increases scores for vigor, comfortable, relaxed, and natural
  • Improves ‘body image’ / appreciation

Some of these benefits have been shown to last for weeks, following just one forest bathing practice of a few hours.

How does forest bathing work this amazing health magic? It appears to come through several channels, each of which has some positive effect when isolated, but none of which are as powerful as the full experience of time spent in Nature. One of the most important parts of the experience seems to be smell, not only getting out of urban air pollution, but actually inhaling the chemicals that give pine trees and other plants their distinctive aromas (especially phytoncides like α-pinene). Exposure to natural lighting has been documented to provide numerous benefits. Other studies have shown that listening to the sounds typical of a forest (such as birdsong, wind in the trees, and babbling brooks), or even the sensory experience of touching wood can be of benefit.

There may also be wellness benefits derived from the variability of experiences when in a forest. Out in Nature (especially in wooded areas), lighting, temperature, the speed and direction of the wind all change from moment to moment. This is almost the opposite of what we do with our indoor spaces, where we keep the sensory experiences fairly consistent from day to day, hour to hour, and minute to minute.

Another way we humans may benefit from exposure to complex habitats like forests is that it may improve our microbiome. Healthy people have a wide variety of microbes in and on them (since bacteria are much smaller than human cells, and are so widespread, we generally have more non-human cells than human cells that we carry around with us as part of “our body”). Healthy, diverse microbiomes are associated with better digestion, reduced tendency to inflammation and allergies, and better resilience when encountering harmful, disease-causing microbes (‘germs’). Microbiota diversity is much higher in natural settings than indoors, leading to more diverse personal microbiomes for those who spend time in Nature.

References

Learn more about shinrin-yoku through the articles, videos, and research publications listed below.

General Interest Articles

  • Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning ~ Outside Online
  • ‘Forest Bathing’: How Microdosing on Nature Can Help With Stress ~ The Atlantic
  • The Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ is scientifically proven to improve your health ~ Quartz.com
  • Want a better body image? Try nature ~ Quartz.com
  • Your Brain on Nature: Forest Bathing and Reduced Stress ~ Mother Earth News

Videos

An HMO’s infographic recommending forest bathing and related exposure to nature.
Processes and experiences of a forest therapy expedition group in Los Angeles.
An overview of some of the science supporting the health benefits of forest bathing and interview with one of the leading experts in shinrin-yoku research.

Academic Research Publications

All photographs in this article were generously donated for use on the Novasutras website by Erik S. Peterson © 2019. All rights reserved.

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