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Practicing the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku

by Timber Press on October 15, 2018

in Natural History

Forest bathing can deepen a reverence for nature, and we can all take away simple, empowering lessons that help us reconnect with nature on a daily basis. We hope that the scientific facts peppered throughout the pages of Among Trees offer you insight, the prompts help you expand your practice, and the pages to record your observations inspire you to make shinrin-yoku a regular part of your wellness routine.

We know intuitively that being in nature makes us feel more relaxed, positive, and happy. What the science behind the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku has shown is exactly how and why. As our global migration into cities continues to accelerate, people are recognizing that urbanized and artificial societies are detrimental to human health in many ways, and that we have a demonstrable need to be in regular contact with nature. Our primal connection to forests has developed over the course of our own history. Homo sapiens has spent 99 percent of its existence among trees and living out in nature—it’s only during the most recent 1 percent of our history that we’ve moved into cities. As scientists have begun to study the ramifications of this, they’ve discovered that spending time in or near nature is actually critical to maintaining our overall health. We are not, as we so often try to convince ourselves, separate from nature. We are a part of it, and our nervous and immune systems have evolved to function at their best when we are near plants in particular.

Modern life has so many distractions we often forget to simply look up and admire the majesty of trees and the subtle cues of changing seasons they offer. Making even a small effort to do so, however, often has what seems like a disproportionately positive effect on our mood or sense of well-being. Only recently, scientists have begun to ask why and to search for measurable indicators of the effect plants and forests have on our physical bodies. The results are astounding. After only a short forest bathing excursion (even just fifteen minutes), scientists have recorded lowered blood pressure, a reduction in stress hormone production, slower pulse rates, longer sleep cycles, and an increase in parasympathetic nerve activity (indicative of relaxation), to name a few. These benefits will often endure for several days after the trip has ended. For this reason, “forest therapy” is quickly—and rightfully—taking its place among other trusted forms of alternative medicine, and advocates in many countries are working to establish dedicated forest bathing centers in wilderness areas and to have this type of therapy covered by national health-care systems.

All it takes to achieve these amazing physiological changes is to simply walk in the forest with a goal of giving it your full attention—or, as some would put it, waiting to receive the gifts it will give you in the form of increased awareness of the life and energy pulsing all around you. Forest bathing guides have developed dozens of exercises designed to help us make close and careful observations of the forest around us—some of which appear in these pages—but they all share walking slowly through the forest and simply committing to being present in the moment and open to receiving new sensations as a base.

On some forest bathing excursions, we might be awed by the sheer mass of towering trees above, and on others fascinated by evidence of the smallest forms of forest life those giants make possible. All observations are of equal merit. There is no right or wrong way to forest bathe, no one technique. It’s too intensely personal; the forest is such a complex ecosystem that everyone will be attracted to different aspects of it. The single most important intention to set for any forest bathing trip is to allow yourself the space to register how the experience affects one or more of your five senses. It’s an interaction in the most profound sense, and you should allow yourself to feel like an active participant in the life of the forest. For example, we inhale phytoncides dispersed by the trees and in turn boost our natural killer (NK) cell production, and they gladly accept our carbon dioxide in return. We belong among trees, which, sadly, is a fact we have to remind ourselves of in the modern era.

Sometimes we’ll have the luxury of dedicating an entire day to a journey deep into the heart of a vast forest or national park, on others we’ll count ourselves lucky to be able to sit quietly for ten minutes in a pocket park in a bustling city. The beauty of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku is that, once we use its core principles to learn to connect with nature in a new and deeply reflective way, we can experience its benefits virtually anywhere. Once we’ve learned to appreciate the joyful pattern light makes when shining through leaves high in a thick forest canopy, for example, we can take a “microbreak” and turn away from our computer monitors to look at how even a potted plant on an office windowsill looks when backlit by a single ray of sun, with surprisingly similar results for our mental state and physical health. While we may not be able to immerse ourselves in a fragrant grove of hinoki cypress or ponderosa pine every day, we can surround ourselves with diffused essential oils or even a bouquet of roses or orange blossoms and still decrease prefrontal brain activity—that is, relax. Forest bathing is intensely restorative because it provides us with things we’ve actually evolved to rely upon, such as beneficial bacteria in dirt that boosts our immune system, and the ability to passively detect “fractal-like” patterns in natural formations that calm brains often switched to stressful fight-or-flight survival mode.

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