Time in natural environments has been shown to relieve stress, increase immune function, and improve cognitive performance. You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon for yourself. Stepping outside—and away from your busy life—lowers your blood pressure, slows your heart rate, and just makes you feel better.
The medical community is waking up to the connection between time spent in nature and our health. Some doctors have begun writing nature prescriptions for some of their patients. In Japan, the practice of shinrin yoku (“taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”) has become an accepted part of medical care. Doctors realize their stressed-out, overworked patients don’t need a pill, but a good dose of quiet, calm, meditative time in the forest.
Popular in Japan for decades, forest bathing is catching on in the U.S., with an increasing number of leaders trained in guiding individuals and groups on mindful walks through the forest. Many spas have added forest bathing to their menus of rejuvenating services.
Benefits of Forest Bathing
One of the underlying assumptions of forest bathing is that our modern lives bombard our brains with too much noise and overly stimulating digital information. Our bodies respond to this excess of stimuli with stress hormones like cortisol, which have undesirable impacts on health. Chronically elevated stress levels have been linked to hypertension, heart disease, depression, and obesity.
Recent scientific studies have borne out what many have long intuited, that people feel better and think better when they connect with natural environments. All those nineteenth-century efforts to build green spaces in cities and send urbanites to the country for fresh air now have scientific backing. Studies coming out of Japan’s robust investment in forest bathing have shown that these slow explorations of forests reduce cortisol levels, slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and stimulate the immune system, among other benefits.
Studies demonstrate that ‘forest bathing’ reduces cortisol levels, slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates the immune system.
Why do forests have this effect on us? Some speculate that the fractal shapes of nature are more soothing than those of our built environments. Some research also suggests that volatile compounds called phytoncides emitted by trees may play a key role in the health effects on forest bathers.
Still another element of shinrin yoku that busy modern folk benefit from immensely: slowness. Forcing oneself to focus on our surroundings and be mindfully still is the perfect antidote to our hurried, distracted day-to-day lives. Like deep breathing, it calms our overstimulated nervous systems.
How to Practice Shinrin Yoku
While a guided introduction might be the ideal way to begin forest bathing, not all of us live near a certified guide. Thankfully you can still reap many of the benefits of forest bathing on your own. But take note: forest bathing is distinctly different from a hike or a jog in the woods. You’ll certainly derive benefits from these activities, but without the slow focus on nature, you’ll miss some of the most rejuvenating effects of shinrin yoku. To properly take a forest bath, you need to slow down. Some guided forest baths take several hours and cover less than a quarter mile.
You can find guided forest walks in a number of areas around North America using the locator map maintained by The Association of Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. You can also put some of the principles of forest bathing into practice yourself and enjoy many of the benefits that calm, meditative time in nature has to offer.
Find the right place
Look for a secluded spot away from the hustle and bustle of your city, suburb, or town, ideally with plenty of trees. Though not all of us have the luxury of a nearby forest, try to find a place where you can be as removed as possible from the sights, sounds, and smells of modern life.
Rose Lawrence, a Certified Forest Therapy Guide in Sacramento, California, notes that “the main purpose of forest bathing is to cultivate a nature connection that allows you to see all the nature around you,” even “in an urban environment.” She says that “the main thing to keep in mind while practicing is to go slowly.”
To properly take a forest bath, you need to slow down.
Lawrence also recommends a practice called “place tending,” which encourages frequent visits and intimate knowledge of a place near where you live or work. The place can even be your own backyard or a nearby park. Visiting often and touching the trees and plants and noticing how the place changes over time can encourage a particularly strong connection to nature that can carry over into other parts of your life.
Choose a time and duration that’s right for you
Guided walks often take hours, but some daily time in nature can still benefit you greatly. Go longer when you have more time to devote to soaking in the forest. Suzi Minor, a Certified Forest Therapy Guide in Arizona, recommends finding a place to sit and “be still for at least 20 minutes.” But she notes that even very short sessions can have health benefits: “Even taking a 10 minute nature break can be beneficial.”
Ideally, she says, people would spend quiet time in nature every day, but she emphasizes the importance of choosing something that works for you without adding stress to your life. Her mantra: “More Nature, Less Stress.”
Haida Bolton, a Certified Forest Therapy Guide based in British Columbia, believes that “the more you immerse yourself… the deeper the effect.” When your schedule permits, she recommends at least “two hours a week, 30 minutes a day or three consecutive days of two hours each day every month.”
Take only what’s necessary
If you’re going to a secluded area, you’ll want to pack necessary supplies, like a small first aid kit and something to drink. Many of us now feel we need a cell phone for safety reasons, so if you choose to take one, just be sure turn off the ringer and commit to keeping it in your bag. Resist the urge to take pictures until you’ve completed your bathing experience.
Shinrin yoku is not a hike or a powerwalk. The point of forest bathing is to slow down and let your senses experience what’s around you. Sitting down and feeling the earth beneath you is encouraged. Find a place to be still and observe.
Notice small details
In our busy lives, we’re often too distracted to notice what’s around us. When we stop and pay close attention to details, like the pattern on a flower petal or the rustle of leaves, we connect with the wonders of nature. Christy Thomson, a Certified Forest Therapy Guide in Indiana, explains that the goal is “NOT to think, but to feel the sun, hear the wind in the trees, feel the breeze.”
Look up at the leaf canopy and pay attention to the light coming through. Look down and notice the plants carpeting the forest floor. Stop and examine the patterns on leaves, tree bark, and stones. Watch for animals and birds.
Use your nose
What scents do you detect? Stop and explore the different smells of the forest. What does a maple twig smell like? Can you smell the soil, scents on the breeze, the different flowers in bloom?
We often don’t notice all the varied sounds birds make. Follow the conversation the cardinals, chickadees, and crows are having all around you. Listen to the ebbs and flows of sound made by leaves as the wind rustles them.
Stop to touch the different tree barks and leaves as you pass. Note the roughness of the maple bark and the relative smoothness of the birch. (Be sure to familiarize yourself with plants in your area that are not safe to touch: poison ivy and wild parsnip are not going to add to your wellbeing.)
Find a good place to sit and take off your shoes if you like. Feeling the earth under your feet may have other benefits as well.
Engage your sense of taste
Use caution with this one. Guided forest walks sometimes include teas prepared from forest plants, but don’t go tasting plants if you don’t know what they are or whether they’re edible. But opening your mouth to taste the air that passes you or to catch a raindrop can help you engage the sense of taste as well. If you’re so inclined, get a good guide to wild edibles, and consider enjoying some foraged snacks or brewing some pine needle tea to bring with you on your next walk.
You can try these steps alone or bring a friend or two if you prefer. Some people feel more comfortable having company in unfamiliar places or when trying unfamiliar things; you can help remind each other to keep the pace slow. Consider bringing the family along and help your kids buck the trend of indoor childhoods. Our kids can also benefit by connecting regularly to nature.
Bringing the Practice Home
Even on days when you don’t have time for a leisurely stroll in the woods, applying the principles of forest bathing to your daily life may have profound effects on your well-being. Wherever you happen to be, take your eyes off your phone and look around you. Stop to look closely at plants and insects and smell flowers you pass, even on busy city streets. If you have a choice, pick the route to your destination that permits more such opportunities. Walking to your bus by way of a park rather than a crowded commercial street, for instance, should have a positive impact on your stress levels and mood.
Connecting more with nature, wherever you happen to be, may well make you happier, healthier, and more at peace with the world. More nature, less stress indeed.
Pin for later:
- National Human Activity Pattern Survey, by Neil E. Klepeis et al., Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology (2001) Volume 11, 231–252.
- Vitalizing Effects of Being Outdoors and in Nature, by Richard M. Ryan et al., Journal of Environmental Psychology (2010) Volume 30, Issue 2, 159-168.
- The Benefits of Nature Experience: Improved Affect and Cognition, by Gregory N. Bratman et al., Landscape and Urban Planning (2015) Volume 138, 41-50.