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.

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.

Connecting with 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. Being in nature 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.

An intangible outcome of nature connection 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.

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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 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).

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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 phenomenon of headspace creation has become known as restoration in environmental psychology. The Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1985) and its closely connected Stress Recovery Theory (Ulrich, 1991) state that our psychophysical 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 one´s mental health.

*For an in-depth article on the healing forests of Japan visit Katriina Kilpi’s article on Natureminded.

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 in nature 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 MINDFULNESS AND 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.

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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 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. Tap on the banner below to know more.

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 “treatment” (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.

END NOTE: Please share this post with friends who might benefit from it. You can download 4 Nature Calm meditations at this link.

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 monthly blog posts 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 Therapy in Japan and its Possibility for the World

In this month’s guest post we explore the Japanese concept of Shinrin-ryoho 森林療法 which translates as Forest Therapy. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, we recommend you go through our article on Introduction to Forest Bathing first.

This note is contributed by Prof. Dr. Iwao Uehara. Iwao UEHARA means “A big rock on the upper field”. Dr. Iwao is a professor at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and president of The Society of Forest Amenity and Human Health Promotion in Japan. He is also the founder of Forest Therapy (Shinrin-ryoho) in Japan since 1999. Prof. Iwao’s goal is to promote health of forests as well as human beings. 

What is Forest Therapy and its Healing Effects?

Forest Therapy (Shinrin-ryoho) is promoting the health of both forests and human beings! Forests and the trees within them have many healing properties. They promote our health, prevent illness, provide relaxation opportunities, and a rehabilitation environment, can be a treatment place for disabilities, peaceful counseling space, and so forth. When we arrive in the forest, we sometimes pay more attention to oneself and one’s life. Walking and exercise in the forest also change our attitudes and perspectives. Trees also have many fascinating aspects for medical, art, and care utilization.

However, some forests are also ill, depressed, and having stress like us human beings. So, forest therapy is attempting to heal forest and human beings together. Working in the forest to improve it’s health, can be a very therapeutic experience.

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Examples of Forest Therapy and Forest Amenity Programs

There have been many examples of forest therapy and forest amenity programs in Japan.

First of all, Forest Walking. Walking is the simplest rehabilitation method and whole body exercise. Walking can prevent lifestyle related disease. In addition, individuals walking in the forest enjoy the landscape, fresh air, and natural environment.

Next, relaxation. It is quiet and peaceful in the forest. Relaxation in the forest inspires natural peace in our body and mind. It adjusts our nervous system balance too.

Third, rehabilitation. For clients after an operation, accident, and preparing to reintegrate with society, forest walking & working is one possible rehabilitation program.

Fourth, treatment and occupational activities in the forest. Carrying logs & branches, clipping trees & clearing weeds, and planting trees are typical examples of occupational therapy.

Fifth, counseling. Counseling in the forest makes clients relax and sensitive. Forest amenities like landscape aesthetics, wind, fragrance, birds singing sometimes give useful hints to solve our problems and provide an ideal setting for traditional counseling approaches.

I hope you will design your own healing or health promoting programs using forests and trees as a setting and as inspiration.

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Case Studies of Forest Therapy

There have been already many invaluable case studies utilising forest amenities in Japan.

By experiencing forest activities for a long term and repeatedly, some clients with mental, psychological, and physical disabilities showed positive treatment effects! Their communication has also changed positively. Some experimental studies suggest that forest walking can reduce stress hormone, enhance immune function, and balance nervous system. Recently, some case studies of patients with Dementia found that they improved their communication ability greatly.

Occupational activities such as carrying logs or planting trees with teamwork are also used as one of the forest therapy exercises. Especially, for people with mental disabilities or memory disabilities, these activities are proving to be effective and restorative.

In addition, trees and forest have been sometimes worshipped as natural gods in Japanese culture. Such forests always provides counseling space for the people who have psychological problems.

Trees also have great possibilities for healing. For example, some trees provide medicine, herb tea, and fragrance which have certain healing effects. Forest therapy includes drinking and eating natural amenities, too. Cherry blossom tea is used for celebration in Japan. Berry tea is effective for decreasing high blood pressure.

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PHYTONCIDES: A fascinating find is that evergreen trees secrete certain scents and oils to protect themselves from a host of microbes and pathogens. These chemicals are called Phytoncides and they act as a defense system for the trees.

As we walk in the forests, we breathe in these Phytoncides, which produces some interesting results. Some of these smells relax our brain while others uplift our mood. Inhaling aromatic plant chemicals also increases the antioxidant defense system in the human body.

There is also a known association between higher amounts of phytoncide in the air and improved immune function. Specifically, higher levels of airborne phytoncides cause increased production of anticancer proteins in the blood as well as higher levels of the frontline immune defenders called NKC or Natural Killer Cells. When exposed to viruses (e.g., influenza, common cold) and other infective agents, the NK cells step up to protect the body.

In many ways we are now getting scientific proof for something we have known intuitively for ages. Over time this common wisdom was drowned out in the cacophony of consumerism.

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Possibilities of Forest and Tree Amenities in the world

Many people recently prefer to enjoy and exercise in the nature. There are beautiful green parks, mountains, and forests all over the world. Also, there are many fairy tales and local folk culture concerned with trees or forests. Therefore, world forests have a big potential for forest therapy programs everywhere. Let’s reconsider your familiar forests and develop the possibilities together!

In case you have any questions for Prof. Iwao Uehara, please add them in the comments section. Your questions and answers by Prof. Iwao will add to our collective knowledge.

For more information on his work please visit.
研究室HP www.geocities.jp/ueharaiwao/
みんなの森ブログ http://blogs.yahoo.co.jp/ueharaiwao
日本森林保健学会 http://forest-and-human-health.jp/

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FOREST THERAPY vs FOREST BATHING

Forest therapy is always conducted by a certified professional. It involves having knowledge of psychological counseling as well as the ability to handle patients with different types of mental health problems. It is most effective when carried out on a one-to-one basis or in very small groups of people with similar issues.

*There are a few courses around the world which give certification in forest therapy. The course fee can go up to 1000’s of dollars and needs a background in Psychology. Please enroll for one if you are serious about counseling people with mental health issues. Make sure your course covers all the different psychological aspects of forest therapy.

Forest bathing, on the other hand, can be done by anyone. It is simply a more mindful way of being in nature. You do not need any certification for forest bathing. Unlike a yoga course or any other body-based training, the real benefit in forest bathing comes from being in the forest and not from the instructor. The role of a forest bathing guide is to act as a forest friend and help people find their own connection with nature.

If you only wish to lead people for mindful nature walks and forest bathing walks, our healing forest learning program should give you a host of ideas and activities to do so. Also, there are multiple books available on the topic to grow your knowledge base. The best way to improve your skills is by leading people on different nature walks. However, there are a few people who have devised their own unique methodology for nature connection. If you are inspired by their work, first join a walk they lead and then you can choose whether to attend their training program (Typically the price range for such training courses are about a few hundred dollars).

You can write to us for course recommendations based on your location and interest.

End note: This page is part of our learning program. The aim of this article was to give you a scope of forest therapy and clarify some important queries around this emerging field. You can proceed to the next learning session here.

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Bonus: Here’s a link to download the forest bathing film, forest exercise images and also 2 blank templates that you can use to create your own forest activity. (using sites like Canva). http://bit.ly/hfl-forestbathing

Subscribe to our monthly blog posts at this link.  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.