Forest Bathing – Secrets from South Korea

Forest Bathing

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

Birth
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. 

Childhood
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.

Adolescence
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.

Early Adulthood
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.

Midlife
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.

After Death
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.

Tree Burial Forest
Tree Burial Forest

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.

References:
*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.

Learning:
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.

Request: Please share this article to inspire more people to connect with nature.

You can visit our homepage to know more about our Healing Forest project. We share the best ideas and practices from around the world. To receive a free monthly newsletter with new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to our blog.

Forest Bathing – What, How, Where? A beginner’s guide

The state of our mind, designs the state of our life. In this post we look at the Japanese practice of Forest Bathing – a simple way to relax your mind, revitalise your body, and rediscover your Self. The article answers important questions about Forest Bathing, it’s principles and it’s practice. Fascinating insights from Japan as a society show us why forest bathing has become specially relevant in today’s turbulent times and how we can benefit from it.

*This article is part of our Forest Bathing learning program with beautiful ideas from around the world. Useful downloads are at the very end.

WHAT IS FOREST BATHING?

Forest bathing is the practice of immersing yourself in nature in a mindful way, using your senses to derive a whole range of benefits for your physical, mental, emotional, and social health. It is also known as Shinrin-yoku. ‘Shinrin’ means forest and ‘Yoku’ stands for bathing. The idea took birth in Japan in the 1980’s and proved to be a very effective tool to overcome the ill effects of a hectic life and stressful work environment.

Forest bathing in nature allows the stressed portions of your brain to relax. Positive hormones are released in the body. You feel less sad, angry and anxious. It helps to avoid stress and burnout, and aids in fighting depression and anxiety. A forest bath is known to boost immunity and leads to lesser days of illness as well as faster recovery from injury or surgery. Nature has a positive effect on our mind as well as body. It improves heart and lung health, and is known to increases focus, concentration and memory.

Certain trees like conifers also emit oils and compounds to safeguard themselves from microbes and pathogens. These molecules known as Phytoncides are good for our immunity too. Breathing in the forest air boosts the level of natural killer (NK) cells in our blood. NK cells are used in our body to fight infections, cancers and tumors. So spending time with these tree is a special form of tree bathing.

An intangible outcome of forest bathing is enhancement of emotional intelligence and self confidence which leads to improved relationships and better social health. Something that we know intuitively is now getting scientific proof and validation through research.

Forest Bathing -1

FOREST BATHING IN JAPAN

Japan, the island nation in the far east has a unique culture that has withstood the test of time. It is also a country that has been at the forefront of technological adoption and advancement and is counted among the most developed nations of the world. And yet this progress and development is not bereft of challenges.

Japan is known for one of the most demanding work environments in the world. In fact they have even coined a specific term for death by overwork (Karoshi). The performance pressure from jobs is so high, that there’s very little time left for a personal life. An interesting consequence of this culture is the fact that the marriage rates in Japan have fallen drastically in the last 30 years.

The urban cities of Japan have a hyper digital culture and a peculiar obsession with technology. In the age of internet many Japanese people are spending more time online and having fewer social interactions. It is leading to higher incidents of anxiety and stress. Depression and loneliness are also on the rise.

The country also lies on a seismic fault line, being prone to devastating earthquakes and tsunamis, such that the Japanese have had to face a disproportionate amount of trauma. In Japan, neuropsychiatric disorders are estimated to contribute to 24.6% of the overall burden of disease (WHO, 2008)

Fortunately, over 70% of Japan is still covered in forests. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries came up with the idea of shinrin yoku in the early eighties. Shinrin yoku stands for a forest bath, or enjoying the forest atmosphere in order to relax. Due to the relentless Japanese working culture, the stress levels of Japanese employees was running rampant already then and the forestry department saw a wonderful possibility that would benefit the stress levels of people and increase demand for forest cover needed by the forestry department. And so shinrin yoku / forest bathing was born.The Japanese, who were under the stress of competitive metropolitan life, were lured into the healing atmosphere of the forests to engage in different relaxing activities (Huusko, 2019).

Forest bathing - 2

JAPANESE FOREST BATHING – FOREST ZEN

There is something to be said about the central role that Zen Buddhism plays in Japan. Zen Buddhism encourages the practitioner to learn to gather one’s scattered mind and stabilise one’s attention so that it can be easier to see things more clearly and with a new perspective. When some space is created between our experiences and how we react to these experiences, we are able to respond with greater wisdom and care.

While traditionally, Buddhist monks in India, China and later in Japan, traversed long distances to meditate in nature, in the recent decades the idea of headspace creation has become known as restoration in psychology. The Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1985) and its closely connected Stress Recovery Theory (Ulrich, 1991) state that our recovery from stress starts within minutes of entering a green space. When the physical body has started to calm down – blood pressure stabilises, stress hormones in our blood decrease, muscle tension decreases – the mental health benefits also kick in. We start thinking more clearly, our feelings of vitality increase and our mood starts to lift. The urbanite can now exhale a sigh of relief, as the time needed in nature has been narrowed down to just 20 minutes a day in order to manage our mental health.

Meditation is difficult when you try, easy when you don’t.

The simple act of sitting and focusing on your breath can be quite difficult if you are not in the proper frame of mind. Keeping your thoughts in control or maintaining your awareness on one particular object is a very challenging task for beginners. A large number of people give up meditation due to a frustrating experience in their initial attempts. That’s why the role of a good teacher becomes so important in this journey of learning mindfulness and meditation.

However, when you are immersed in a forest bath it becomes easier to reach a peaceful state of mind. By paying attention to our senses and moving in the forest mindfully we can not only get all the benefits of meditation for our mind, but also boost our immunity and create good health for our body. It’s because we are guided by the greatest teacher of all – Nature.

BENEFITS OF FOREST BATHING MEDITATION

  • Learn to switch off unwanted thoughts.
  • Feel less angry, anxious and sad.
  • Increase self worth and confidence.
  • Overcome fear, self doubt and a wavering mind.
  • Avoid stress and burnout.
  • Get better sleep and rest.
  • Strengthen the ability to control cravings, give up addictions.
  • Find peace and happiness in the present moment.
  • Build empathy. Improve relationships.
  • Find answers for important questions and decisions.
Forest Bathing exercise

FOREST BATHING NEAR ME?

You can practise forest bathing in any safe nature space. The main principles are to go in silence and go slow. Use your senses to find things in nature that bring you peace and happiness. Through nature connection activities and sense exercises, you can alter your mood and energy levels resulting in a host of benefits. Recommended time for forest bathing is at-least 2 hours a week.

STAGES OF A FOREST MIND

Attention: Beginners and young children start with simple activities which focus on objects in nature to hold our attention and slow us down. By directing and controlling our attention we are training to control the direction of our thoughts and feelings.

Awareness: Once we are able to reach a calmer state of mind, we can grow our awareness. In the depths of the forest, one can sense the cycle of transformations that all life goes through. Things that we were. Things that we are yet to become. Just like a seed in the ground. Like a child in the womb. Growing our awareness is growing our connection to all life.

Answers: Our mind gets a much deserved rest so that it can apply itself with renewed energy and come up with surprisingly creative solutions. It begins to ask the right questions rather than simply seeking answers. The forest provides the light to spark new insights and learning which can give us a deeper understanding of life. It is the beginning of a journey into self discovery.

Not everyone has an access to a forest in their backyard. In fact most people who live and work in cities will have to travel a fair amount to get close to the woods. But nature is all around us. You can consider trying out tree bathing and the sense based exercises in any urban park near you.

For people who are unable to go out into the urban parks, or are restricted due to disability, the sense based nature therapy activities can be carried out even in the confines of the their house. Just bring elements of nature indoors. You can use your creativity to build the nature connection even in a closed enclosure.

Forest Bathing works best as a form of prevention and a way to retain a healthy mind and body. It is not a replacement for medical advice or counselling for those who are seriously ill. However under a trained therapist, Forest therapy can be an important part of their treatment as well as recovery. Many people keep coming back after one time “exposure” (Iwasaki, 2019).

Forest bathing has shown positive results across age-groups – from children to the elderly. It’s extremely helpful for parents as well as working professionals. As a company welfare program, forest bathing can be used for employee recreation, new employee training, and mental health management. However, as Prof. Dr. Iwao Uehara points out, it may not work for people who feel uncomfortable in the outdoor environment.

FOREST BATHING BENEFITS

Forest Bathing Benefits

Our mental health is a very precious gift. For most people, the real value of our mind only becomes clear when things fall apart. Once a person becomes affected by any mental health issue, the road to recovery can take a lot of time, effort and money. Finding the right help and guidance is not easy and on top of that there is still a lot of social stigma attached to mental disorders.

A large portion of the human evolution has taken place in nature. Nature connection is intrinsic to our behaviour, and is inscribed into our genetic code. It’s only during the last 200 years or so, that we have reduced our interaction with the outdoors. Going back to nature can bring us to a heightened state of sensory awareness and a feeling of alert calm. It is akin to a feeling of returning home and gives spontaneous rise to peace and happiness.

The story of Japan teaches us that material wealth and economic progress are not enough to create a healthy, happy life. To create health and happiness one needs to prioritise them over materialistic pursuits and actively work towards achieving a balanced life. And this whole process of giving form to a beautiful life, starts by listening to the state of your mind. After all, the state of your mind, designs the state of your life.

REQUEST: Please share this post with folks who might benefit from it.

We are a small group of friends trying to find new ways to reconnect people with nature. Our aim is simple. Helping people heal. Helping forests heal. You can subscribe to our free monthly newsletter at this link.

*This post is part of our Nature Calm course with forest arts, games, meditations from Japan and other parts of the world. The course is free for all school teachers and is available on a pay-as-you-like basis. It is a great resource filled with multiple ideas that also cover the art and science behind healing through nature.

FOREST BATHING QUOTES AND GIFTS

Download some forest bathing quotes and meditations at this link.