Forest bathing isn’t the kind of bath where you strip down and hop in a tub. It’s about basking in nature, in greenery — and you can wear whatever you want.

Forest bathing is a literal translation of shinrin-yoku, a term coined by the Japanese government in 1982 to encourage urbanites to immerse themselves in nature. The benefits of forest bathing go beyond than the romanticism of Thoreau’s Walden Pond or the activism of John Muir. These days, we’ve got hard science to support the claims of health benefits we’ve been hearing for years.

It’s where we belong.

Throughout human evolution, we’ve spent up to 99% of our time in natural environments. Nowadays, over 70% of people in the United States live in urbanized areas, and we’re spending less time in nature than ever before. Nature-based recreation in the U.S. has declined up to 35% in the past 40 years. More than ever, concerted effort is required to bring nature into our cities and to bring ourselves into nature.

It relieves stress.

Forest bathing has a positive impact on many markers of stress. It decreases blood pressure, anxiety, and stress hormones. When we feel relaxed we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of our fight-or-flight response. We turn down the parts of our brains associated with executive functions like organization, planning and problem-solving, while engaging the parts of our brains associated with pleasure and empathy.

You tap into the healing power of nature.

Living in cities, we often feel disconnected from nature. Forest bathing helps us connect with the natural world as part of it, rather than being separate from it. It brings about a sense of groundedness or interconnectedness that comes from what Hippocrates referred to as the vis medicatrix naturae, or healing power of nature. Forest bathing is just that – an opportunity to tap into the inherent healing power of nature — from encouraging a healthy microbiome to breathing oxygen-rich air.

You unplug.

Don’t be fooled — if you want to get the most benefits of being in nature, you need to leave those headphones at home. True forest bathing requires the use of all five senses.

It’s a spiritual practice.

Inspired by Buddhist and Shinto practices, forest bathing naturally engages you in non-directed attention and mindfulness meditation. Opening your senses to nature helps you develop intuition. You experience awe, wonder, and transcendence. You become more receptive and reflective, allowing for increased self-awareness and personal growth.

Natural beauty is a source of inspiration.

If you want to be creative, connect with creation. Nature has inspired authors like Henry David Thoreau and Jack Kerouac, painters like Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keefe. Eve Ensler recently discussed how a tree saved her life. Today’s authors continue to go to the forest, retreating to the woods for quiet inspiration and concentrated writing time. Although artist retreats may seem like nothing more than an extended working holiday, research supports the idea that forests evoke creativity. In one study, people improved their creativity scores by 50 percent after 3 days in nature.

Trees actually have special healing powers.

Japanese researchers believe that at least some of the positive health effects of forest bathing come from the smells of the trees themselves. Many trees, especially evergreens, release aromatic chemicals called phytoncides that have been shown to open airways and increase immune responses to illnesses and cancer. Trees also have healing properties not associated with their smells like willow, witch hazel, ginkgo, and yew.

We can learn from trees.

Trees are some of the oldest living things on our planet. There are even a few trees, the bristlecone pines, that live to be over 5000 years old. Trees are wise, resilient, and adaptive.

Five steps to forest bathing.

See the trees, the plants growing under foot, the fungi, moss and lichen. Look up, down and all around for animals hiding under rocks, in burrows, and on tree branches. Notice the colours, shapes and textures.

Hear the rustling of leaves, the bird songs, or running water. Listen for the subtle sounds.

Feel the ground beneath your feet, the strength of tree trunks, the softness of leaves, or the prickliness of pine cones.

Smell the fresh air and the evergreens. Get close and smell the flowers.

Taste pine needle or gingko leaf tea. (Be sure to accurately identify any plant you are going to taste.)

About the writer – Cyndi Gilbert, ND, is a naturopathic doctor and plant whisperer. Her medical practice in Toronto is focused on women’s health and mental health. She is the author of The Essential Guide to Women’s Herbal Medicine and a member of the teaching faculty of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.


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