“But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest, and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” —Alan Watts
Have you ever practiced total mindfulness in nature? In other words, have you paused to meditate on the unique and profound features of the natural world around you: the bark of a tree, the softest breeze, the tiniest mushroom, a busy insect?
This is the beautiful and profound concept of forest bathing, a Japanese mindfulness practice that has nothing to do with water, but one in which people literally “bathe” all of their senses in the beauty and nature of the woods. The original Japanese phrase for the practice, shinrinyoku, literally means “taking in the forest atmosphere.” It is a chance to smell the pine trees, touch the moss, taste the dewy air.
The Forest Agency of Japan first introduced the concept of forest bathing in 1982 as a way to encourage people to spend more time in nature and to help decrease their stress levels. It is now a popular relaxation practice in Japan where people can enjoy guided walks and even receive free medical checkups in the forest.
Several studies have investigated the health benefits—both emotional and physical—that forest bathing has to offer; the findings are overwhelmingly positive. Dr. Qing Li, president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, has been the pioneer of forest bathing research. He has led several investigations that look into the effects of forest bathing on people’s immune systems, moods, and stress levels.
For example, in one study, Li used the Profile of Moods (POMS) test, a scientific questionnaire composed of 65 different feeling words (friendly, unhappy, considerate, sad, active, etc) in which the participant must answer how weakly or strongly he/she has experienced each feeling during the week. Subjects who had participated in forest bathing showed increased levels of vigor and reduced levels of anxiety, anger, and depression. These findings suggest that habitual forest bathing may help lower the risk for psychosocial stress-related diseases.
In another study, Li found that forest bathing literally increases the body’s natural killer (NK) cells, well-known for their role in fighting cancer. Study participants gave blood samples both before and after they embarked on a three-day, two-night forest bathing trip. The findings showed that after the trip, subjects’ NK activity levels significantly increased and remained consistently high up to 30 days later.
Li attributes part of this NK increase to the fact that participants were breathing in air that contained wood-essential oils known as phytoncides. These antimicrobial compounds emitted from trees serve as protection from insects, disease, and fungus and appear to trigger these natural killer cells in people.
Other research has shown that there is less depression, anxiety, and crime in cities with tree-landscaped environments compared to cities that are mostly concrete. The evidence is overwhelming: nature is vital to our health, and forests are a healing balm for our bodies, our minds, and our souls. It is pretty amazing what standing quietly and mindfully in a forest will do for you.
In the words of Mother Theresa, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence ... We need silence to be able to touch souls.”