What does forest bathing have to do with a remedy for loneliness and low self-esteem? Let us go on a forest bathing trip in South Korea to find some clues. Through this article we hope to inspire you to bring some of these ideas into your own nature walks and forest bathing routines.
Forest Bathing is the art of immersing yourself in nature to rejuvenate your mind, body, energy and to activate nature’s healing benefits. For those unfamiliar with the concept here’s our article from Japan that explains: What is Forest Bathing?
Living in a city creates many hidden challenges for our health. South Korea has developed innovative systems to counter these harmful effects. Many of these Forest Therapy concepts remain relatively less known due to a variety of cultural and language barriers. We will introduce you to some of the enriching ideas and share how you can benefit from them.
Life in Korean Cities
About 85% of South Koreans live in urban areas. The country has seen rapid urbanisation and advancement in technology. It has one of the world’s highest Internet speeds and is at the cutting edge of the latest broadband revolution.
Florence Williams, author of Nature Fix states: Perhaps no one has embraced the healing effect of nature with more enthusiasm than the South Koreans. Many suffer from work stress, digital addiction, and intense academic pressures. More than 70 percent say their jobs, which require notoriously long hours, make them depressed, according to a survey by electronics giant Samsung. Yet this economically powerful nation has a long history of worshipping nature spirits. The ancient proverb “Shin to bul ee—Body and soil are one” is still popular.
A big social trend seen in South Korea is the rapid decline in number of marriages as well as birth rates. According to Statistics Korea in 2017 nearly one third of all households were single person households and almost 90 percent of them are exposed to a feeling of loneliness.
Culturally, South Korean pop culture has become enormously popular all over the world, but what is less known is the high aspiration levels created by the Media frenzy. Completely surrounded by subliminal messaging and advertising, many people get caught in a self defeating trap. The quest for living the dream life can take a toll on anyone’s self-esteem. *Today, South Korea is widely considered as the “plastic surgery capital” of the world, boasting the highest number of cosmetic procedures per capita worldwide.
Watch a glimpse of the life in Seoul, the capital of South Korea and notice a few of the social nuances mentioned above, in this beautiful video by Brandon Li.
Forest Bathing in Korea
Running along the length of Korea are the timeless Baekdu-Daegan mountains. Covered in lush forests filled with aromatic Hinoki trees, they provide a comforting escape from the rush of the city lives. For millennia these mountains have stood as sentinels, calmly watching the flow of time and the journey of humans.
They influence the weather, the ecology, and the water systems, which support agriculture and feed the entire nation. The wise elders in ancient times named them energy spine mountains. They believed that Baekdu-daegan continuously fed essential life-energy throughout the land of Korea. Its unimpeded clear flow was considered necessary for the birth and growth of heroic and virtuous citizens, and thus for the health, strength and prosperity of the Korean Nation.
These enchanting mountains hold a vast network of hiking trails that are also great for forest bathing and forest therapy. The intriguing, interesting, beautiful part of these trails is the way they weave through and connect Korea’s nature, culture, rural life, and food.
Korea’s Healing Forests
Today these mountains and forests are the inspiration for the ambitious National Forest Plan. Its goal is “to realize a green welfare state, where the entire nation enjoys well-being.”
Over years of research the Koreans were able to scientifically establish the multiple healing benefits of nature. What’s commendable is how they were able to put this knowledge into creating systems and spaces for forest bathing and forest therapy. To reach a vast spectrum of people, the forest welfare program was divided into 7 distinct stages based on the human life cycle.
In this section we give you a glimpse of the different sections and highlight the benefits of forest bathing for our lives.
Forest Bathing Benefits Across Ages
One of the biggest benefits of forest bathing is the relief it can provide from anxiety, panic, and worry. Having the lowest fertility rate in the world, the South Koreans hold the expecting mothers-to-be in high regard. By creating special pre-natal classes and forest meditation sessions in nature, they not only help the parents ease their anxieties and worries but also establish nature as a space where families can bond with each other.
Across many of the forests of Korea you will find ‘Children’s forest playground’. Open spaces in nature where children can interact and play safely in the ambience of the forest. Taking this a step further is the establishing of Forest Kindergarten with trained faculty who can guide children in the beautiful art of learning with nature.
Time in the forest also led the children to report feeling happier, less anxious and more optimistic about their futures, according to a study by Prof. Dr. Park Bum-Jin. Many Koreans have been so intensively urban for so long that they can feel out of place in the woods. “Children and the younger generation don’t really have experience in nature; so many of them think of the forest as dirty or scary. If we don’t change their mind-set now, there will be no chance.” he says.
Nature offers equilibrium between technology and human interaction. It creates avenues for healthier outflow of teen anxiety, energy and aggression. An interesting experiment was the “Happy Train” which delivers school bullies to a national forest for two days so they can learn to be nicer. Why does it work, you ask? It’s because no one teaches us humility and respect better than nature.
By incorporating regular programs under the theme ‘Education in the Forest’ many schools are helping their students understand the natural world and its magical creatures. Given the craze for video games in South Korea, there are also some digital detox programs for preteens. The aim is to spark awe, wonder, and fascination with the beauty of the natural world. In the confines of nature, the mind can truly open up and unlock the doors of creativity.
All across the country there are a network of forest hiking trails within easy reach from the urban centers. Bukhansan National Park near Seoul, the capital, attracts millions of visitors every year.
These hikes offer a break from the noise, pollution, and crowds of the city but also allow the hikers to raise their moods as well as energy levels through a range of activities. Testing one’s strength and endurance on a hiking trail is a great way to build resilience.
Nature makes us realize that unlike the promises of a plastic surgeon, there are no cosmetic quick fixes for the challenges of life.
Green Gym is another activity which is increasing in popularity these days. Green Gym was developed by The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) and Dr. William Bird from UK. Green Gym is a wonderful concept about improving the local green environment through light physical activities such as tree planting, pruning, and vines removal. It brings people together to connect with nature as well as with each other.
The benefit-cost analysis of Green Gym shows that 1 pound of investment creates 4.02 pounds of social value. Green Gym activities emphasise not only the improvement of green spaces in the community but also on strengthening social communication and connections among the local residents.
Given how effective forest bathing is against the ill effects of stress and burnout, it is no wonder that many people are turning to nature for their breaks and holidays.
With two-thirds of Korea made up of forests, it is easy to escape from city life and revert back to the laws of nature, seeking out a new life by tasting the peaceful serenity of the great outdoors.
Korea has 37 state-run national recreational forests scattered across the nation. Many of them are designated by the government to create recreational facilities where citizens can fully appreciate all that the woods have to offer.
In a typical recreational forest, like the Jangseong Healing Forest, hundreds of visitors come through every month, including three to four groups per day geared to some kind of healing, from cancer patients to kids with allergies to prenatal groups and everything in between. Depending on the program, participants may do activities like nature bathing, guided forest meditation, woodcrafts and tea ceremonies. But the heart of it all is walking in the Hinoki forest.
The aroma released by these trees to ward of microbes and pathogens has an added benefit for humans. Breathing in these compounds known as Phytoncides increases the count of Natural Killer – NK cells in our blood which is our body’s defence against cancers and tumor cells.
Seniors – Late Adulthood
Creating access to nature for its senior citizens is one of the most important goals of any society. Spending time in nature works wonders for their mental health as well as physical immunity. With more time on their hands, simple activities or walks in nature allow the elders to avoid loneliness and depressive thoughts.
South Korea is creating a network of healing forests across the country. In addition, the Forest Agency is building an ambitious $100 million forest healing complex, complete with addiction treatment center, ‘barefoot garden’, herb garden, suspension bridge, and 50 kilometers of trails.
In the traditional Korean philosophy of a holistic world-view and cycles of life and death, a unique ‘National Tree Burial Forest’ has been created. It is an eco-friendly way to send off the loved ones.
The ashes and remains of the body provide life to a seed that will be nurtured to grow into a tree. Over time, these trees of pine, oak, wild cherry and many other local species will become part of a healing forest. Providing a space for future generations to immerse in forest baths and contemplate their own journeys in the circle of life.
What’s commendable is the vision that S.Korea has about integrating nature into their lifestyles. Chungbuk University offers a “forest healing” degree program, and job prospects for graduates are good. It’s a cradle-to-grave operation: Programs include everything from Forest Welfare Experts, Forest Interpreters, Kindergarten Instructors, Forest Trail instructors, Forest Healing instructors and much more. The intention is to implement multiple forest therapy programs so that they can maximise the healing effects of nature, across their entire society.
*Prof. Dr. Bum-Jin Park, Director – Lab of Forest Environment and Human Health, Chungnam National University, South Korea.
** Ted article by Florence Williams
Forest Legend from South Korea
Many Korean legends have Dokkaebi in the stories. Dokkaebi, also known as “Korean goblins”, are nature deities or spirits possessing extraordinary powers and abilities that are used to interact with humans, at times playing tricks on them and at times helping them.
One of the legends is about an old man who lived all alone. One day a Dokkaebi visited his house. Surprised, the kind old man gave the Dokkaebi an alcoholic beverage and they had a drink together. The Dokkaebi visited the old man often and they began to have long drinking sessions. One day, the man took a walk by himself in the woods near the river and discovered that his reflection looked like the Dokkaebi. With fear, he realized that he was gradually becoming that creature. The man made a plan to prevent himself from becoming a Dokkaebi and invited the creature to his house. He asked, “What are you most afraid of?” and the Dokkaebi answered, “I’m afraid of blood. What are you afraid of?” The man pretended to be frightened and said, “I’m afraid of money.” The next day, the old man killed a cow and poured its blood all over his house. The Dokkaebi, with shock and great anger, ran away and said, “I’ll be back with your greatest fear!” The next day, the Dokkaebi brought bags of money and threw it at the old man. After that, the Dokkaebi never came back and the old man became the richest person in the town.
The company we keep will slowly change what we become. In an age of rapid urbanization, the city lives are influencing and modifying our very human nature. The thing we should be afraid of losing is our mental, physical, and social health. Thankfully, the forests offer us a healing sanctuary and a space to remember who we are: A part of nature.
Forest Bathing Insights
Take two songbirds whose home ranges are a few trees apart as an example. These birds are likely to encounter one another relatively frequently. By contrast, if a highway separates them, then they may never encounter one another.
A large part of our behaviour is shaped by our environment. It is influenced by the spaces where our social interactions take place. Over time, repeated behaviour transforms into habits, which build up our personality. This is the way our inner nature works.
City environments and the fast pace of lives are changing the way we live and interact with each other. Living and working in our enclosures we manage to create our own private islands of isolation. Our chances and reasons for interaction with other people become dependent on screens. And these screens lead us to commercial advertisers who prey on our insecurities and poke our inadequacies so that we can aspire to achieve their ever-changing version of a perfect life.
In many ways, the hectic, high-pressure lifestyles in South Korea remind us of the direction in which societies across most parts of the world are moving. If we were to reflect on the lessons learnt, we realize the true value of incorporating nature into our day to day routine.
The forests help us break free from the anxieties of our overstimulated minds. They recharge our energy to face the challenges of the gruelling city lives. They grant us the wisdom of accepting our imperfections and finding fulfilment in the small gifts of life that nature has to offer.
Returning to nature is a great way to boost not only our mental and physical health but also our social health and self-esteem.
Stay wild. Stay connected.
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I live in the United States where I work as a designer and spend time in the outdoors backcountry skiing, backpacking and hiking in my spare time. The architecture firm I work for focuses on design and sustainability. We have been leaders in this field for some time. The concepts around healing forests have become a part of our thinking about interior and exterior spaces.
I plan to travel in the fall of 2022 to South Korea for two months and would like to make connections when anyone working in the healing forest space. I would be happy to volunteer. I only speak English, although I am busy learning Korean. Please let me know if you have information or would like to connect and share information.
Did you travel to SK? I‘m also interested in forest-contacts in Korea. I teach forest-bathing and resilience training in nature in Germany and training to become a nature coach and would love to visit SK forests 2023. Irina