I realized recently that, by intuition, I have long practiced what is now called “forest bathing”. I hate the name but I believe strongly in the benefits. Go to a forest frequently. It is one of the best places I know to hangout. Decades of research has shown this practice to have significant benefits of health and well being.
In Japan it is called “shinrin-yoku”. “Shinrin” means forest and “yoku” means bathing. It is defined as a short, leisurely visit to a forest. Researchers say it is a type of natural aroma therapy. The idea developed in Japan and has been practiced there since the 1980’s, Perhaps it is a little easier and more accessible there since forests occupy 67% of the country. But the benefits seem to transfer anywhere.
Somewhat more descriptively shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses. I like this better. Maybe I’m too literal, but “bathing” is really only used in a metaphorical sense. I relate better to the idea of taking in the forest through our senses.
One of the main researchers in Japan, Dr. Qing Li, says “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.”
According to the Wall Street Journal the US Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average American spends 93% of his time indoors. Nielsen Research says that in 2019 the average adult spent 11 1/2 hours a day consuming media. And half of 18- to 29-year-olds surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they were online “almost constantly”.
This unbalanced lifestyle can lead to serious consequences, from overweight and poor posture to depression and anxiety. During the Covid lock downs it has probably gotten even more extreme.
The good news is that 2 hours or less of wandering is a forest a couple of times a week is shown to increase the number of “natural killer” cells in a person. These are a powerful defense against cancer and other toxins. It is thought that the natural oils released by the trees creates a natural aromatherapy that triggers this.
There are some very positive physical reactions to being in the forest, but there are also many important emotional and psychological benefits. One scientific study reported “The forest bathing significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, anxiety, fatigue, and confusion.”
I am not trying to present scientific research here. Go investigate that yourself. I just want to encourage you to give it a try and see if there is benefit to you. It is to me.
I will quote Dr. Qing Li again, because I would not state it like this: “The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.”
That’s kind of over-the-top new age for me, but it is proven by decades of research and practice and by my own independent experience. This has been my practice for a long time and I always look forward to it and get benefit from it.
Do you have to do anything special? Not really. As a matter of fact less is better. The purpose is not exercise. No running, that increases stress instead of reducing it. A leisurely stroll will do. No goals or plans are required. Just being out in nature does it. Let your body tell you. Follow your nose. One very important requirement, though – UNPLUG. No phones, no music, no email, no interruptions.
This will be hard for you Type A’s. It’s not a competition. Don’t chart your progress or try to better your performance each time. No destination is required. Just wander and enjoy nature. You don’t even have to be fit.
About 2 hours of forest wandering will give you time to unwind, relax, de-stress.
I coined that term as far as I know. I mention this because the research shows that being in a forest (the denser the better) and on natural surfaces has by far the most benefit.
But over 60% of us live in cities. There are no forests close by, only the occasional park. Is this the same? No. Being out in real nature is best and gives the best and fastest results.
So should you not go out wandering until you get a chance to journey to the forest? I say no. go out anyway. Don’t give up good just because you can’t have best.
My own anecdotal results are that there are benefits to wandering in a city if you do it right. Again, your mindset makes much of the difference. Unplug. Go out looking around, seeing everything in a new light, like for the first time. Make it a time for refreshing, not just exercise. Destination is not important. What you see is not important as long as you let yourself really look around and see. Be delighted by little discoveries.
Even in the city it is possible to go out wandering and come back more refreshed and de-stressed.
Let yourself go
Try to get to a forest regularly. That’s the best. When you can’t, wander urban “forests”. Let all your senses come into play. Explore. Take a break from your electronic masters.
And even when you’re not out wandering, turn off the TV, unplug from media. Start to use your mind on your own. Read. Practice music or art. Learn something new. Talk to family and friends. Move your body.
I believe there are excellent health benefits from forest bathing. I highly encourage you to research it and give it a try. Or several tries. But many of us could improve our lives just by cutting down on media consumption, using our bodies and senses more, and becoming more independent and self-directed.
This is highly unusual in this blog series. Up to now I have not used the words “photography” or “camera” or “art” (well once) in this article. Art is about much more than technique or media. Our mental and physical well-being determines a lot of what we accomplish. We live in an unhealthy world. Please take care of yourself. Forest bathing is one good way to start.
As I write this it’s a beautiful day in Colorado. We had about 5 inches of fluffy last night. It’s lovely – much better than driving in it late last night. The temperature is a balmy 25 F, which sure beats the sub zero spell of a few days ago.
I just got back from a walk in a local natural area near my studio. Not what the forest bathers would like since it is only sparse trees here, mostly deciduous. But at least I have lakes and a river. It was great to be out in it. One point where I depart from the forest bathers is that I always bring my camera. Not to make it a serious photo outing, but I believe it encourages me to look closer and see more.
My point is, just do it. I try to nearly every day. Yes, I was out walking when it was -10 F. I don’t necessarily recommend that, but if you dress properly it’s not bad. For me, the benefits are great. Even if you are stuck in a city most of the time do something. Go find a tree and introduce yourself to it. Thank it. But unplug and get out.