Photo credit Sachiko Asano - Nathaniel Whitmore teaches about plants at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. 

Forest bathing

Introduction to shinrin-yoku

A Japanese ancestry

The term 森林浴 “shinrin-yoku,” forest bathing, was coined by Tomohide Akiyama, the then director general of the Japanese Forestry Agency in 1982. In that year, the agency held a recreational event in the forest in Nagano prefecture, where Japanese cypresses over 200 years old stand together. Yoku (浴)means “to expose to” and “to shower” in general. Japanese people were already using Yoku in many contexts; kaisui-yoku (sea bathing), nikkou-yoku (sun bathing), and moku-yoku (sacred bathing). “Shinrin” means forest, hence the name shinrin-yoku.

Years later, in 2004, shinrin-yoku was recognized as a natural therapy after it was proved that chemical constituents from trees give positive effects on the mind and body. It is said that the first physiological experiment with shinrin-yoku was performed in 1990 in Yaku-shima, Japan with five male college students as test subjects. Starting from that, forest medicine has become an established branch of research in Japan through numerous indoor and field experiments. (“Forest Medicine Research in Japan,” by Center for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences, Chiba Univ.)

Usually, these experiments observe the concentration of cortisol in saliva, heart rate, blood pressure and pulse rate before and after shinrin-yoku. Cortisol is a hormone that regulates a wide array of body functions; it is released during stress, and is one reason why stress can disrupt many of these systems. Shirin-yoku has been observed to reduce cortisol levels.

The benefits of shinrin-yoku have been described as improving the balance of the nervous system. It promotes health naturally through the body’s self-healing abilities when it is in a peaceful, relaxed state. Shinrin-yoku benefits the autonomic nervous system, endocrine system and immune system, all very crucial physical systems for maintaining both our physical and mental health.

Shinrin-yoku comes to America

The term “shinrin-yoku” seems to have been introduced to the United States around 2012 by several authors. Since then, shinrin-yoku has been swept up by the media and seems to be steadily gaining momentum in public awareness. Amos Clifford started the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy after learning of shinrin-yoku and developed a training program largely based on the practices and studies associated with shinrin-yoku. Clifford has attempted another East-West bridge by publicizing some of the Japanese research and promoting the concept of shinrin-yoku, while also organizing trips to Japan and Korea. He developed a training program that offers nature-therapy guide certificates.

Tourist businesses, including locally the Lodge at Woodloch, have become attracted to shinrin-yoku as a novel offering to help guests appreciate the beauty and benefit of the natural wooded surroundings. Articles abound touting the benefits of shinrin-yoku, yet American readers may still wonder what it is or if there is a certain protocol followed.

Stop and smell the pine cones

While the broader practice of shinrin-yoku has no fixed guidelines, walk leaders or organizations may follow certain time ranges or practices for the session. Shinrin-yoku is not an energetic speed-walking or rigorous hike. Rather than invigorating the heart like strenuous exercise, shinrin-yoku provides cardiovascular benefits by the relaxing and unwinding effects of a leisurely stroll with stops to look closely at plants, to gaze at distant tree lines or clouds, or perhaps not to look at anything while focusing on the breath.

Taking in the aromas of plants, both from what is already in the air and perhaps by cracking a stem of birch or pine or some other aromatic plant; and other sensations of the outdoors, like the feel of the breeze or the sun, are used in shinrin-yoku as opportunities to enjoy the outdoors while boosting the immune system and reducing the effects of stress.

When I [Nathaniel] first learned of shinrin-yoku, I thought, “Of course it is healthy to be in nature!” The fresh air, the wind in the trees, the singing birds, the cascade of flowers through the seasons, the sun, the clouds, the babbling brooks—all these things bring a sense of wonder, beauty and awe to the beholder. Some might say that it is essential to full enjoyment of life to experience these things with a peaceful mind. Certainly, it is a remedy for the modern, stressful, schedule-based, computer-run lifestyle.

Of ions, rain and waterfalls

One factor that might help explain the effectiveness of forest bathing is that the ionic charge in a forest is generally believed to be more health-promoting than the electrical charge of machines and urban environments. In particular, moving water is said to generate a health-promoting ionic charge. This is something that has been experienced by beach-lovers near the waves of the ocean and those who seek out waterfalls alike. In fact, everyone has experienced the ionic charge of the rain, even if you haven’t sought out waves and waterfalls. Because of the peaceful qualities of listening to a running stream or gazing at the ripples on a lake, it is ideal to practice shinrin-yoku near the water. How fortunate we are that our own region is so rich in two resources so important to this practice—trees and water. And there are no co-pays or deductibles.

When coming in contact with the majesty of nature, people often say: “My troubles are such a tiny matter in front of the big picture of nature, just like a dust mote in the whole universe.” The idea is part of Shintoism, the native religion of Japan, that nature lets us live. Nature acts upon us in many ways, and we have always lived among nature. Looking through the forest, compared with staring at screens, benefits the eyes through intricate depth perception and the visually rich landscape. It also relaxes the mind along with the brow tension and the stiff shoulders—and possibly even headaches and high blood pressure—that result from too much sitting at a desk. People are still turning to nature as a way of health, and shinrin-yoku is offering some guidance on how to do so, as well as an opportunity to reflect on our need to.

[Nathaniel Whitmore (wathakes@gmail.com, 845/418-6257, www.nathanielwhit more.com) is an herbalist who leads walks in the forest teaching people about wild plants and the outdoors. He maintains a practice at Worker Bee Community Acupuncture in Milford and Honesdale, PA, and teaches throughout the region and in New York City. Sachiko Asano (sachiko@herbarhythm.com) is from Japan and lives in New York City. She studied herbalism at ArborVitae School of Traditional Herbalism.]

 

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