Those of you who know me personally are aware of my deep love for the great Outdoors. I dedicate as much time as possible to hiking and climbing in the mountains, often spending nights out in the woods. I especially enjoy the beautiful forests of the Northeast, from Harriman State Park, just north of New York City, to wilder upstate regions like the Catskills and Adirondacks.
Frankly, I’m attracted to these areas because I enjoy the physical challenges of hiking and climbing. Even more, though, I appreciate the profound effects that spending time in these forests has on my mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. If I could pick only one therapy for myself, it would be forest medicine. Being in the forest always puts a big smile on my face.
Since the early 1980s, shinrin-yoku has evolved from a culturally rooted practice in Japan to a well-researched healing modality now widely recognized and encouraged in many other countries around the world. Shinrin-yoku literally means forest bathing. Much of the scientific validation originates with Qing Li, MD, PhD, a physician and professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, and also one of shinrin-yoku’s most ardent advocates. Dr. Li is the chairman of the Japanese Society For Forest Medicine. (If you’re interested in reading a scientific review, take a look at this 2017 article.)
Like other animals, we humans evolved in the forest—a rich, diverse and nourishing environment that provides food, shelter and medicine. We all know how good it feels to take a walk in the forest, hearing the leaves rustle, the birds chirp, the brooks gurgle, the sunlight penetrate through the canopy, the cool, fresh air after a rain, the scents of a wide range of trees and plants closer to the ground. How do you feel when you spend time in a forest or your local park?
Here are three take-aways from Qing Li’s wonderful book:
Proven health benefits
Shinrin-yoku can reduce blood pressure, lower stress, improve cardiovascular and metabolic health, lower blood sugar levels, improve concentration and memory, lift depression, improve pain threshold, improve energy, boost the immune system, increase resilience to cancer, help you lose weight, etc. These findings are supported by extensive clinical research. What’s not to like! Just try to imagine a pharmaceutical drug with all these benefits and no side-effects.
Ways to practice shinrin-yoku
Bring all your senses to the experience. Being in the forest can affect your health and wellbeing on many different levels. Your brain responds positively to the sight of color, shape and structure of nature; the sounds of the forest can help slow your heart rate and allow your brain to relax; oxygen and fragrance from essential oils of the trees rejuvenate your metabolism; negative ions in the air and grounding yourself on the earth restore your energy levels; even your “sixth” sense benefits from the experience, allowing you to feel more connected and supported. You remember that you’re an integral part of nature.
Bringing shinrin-yoku to your everyday life
Most of us today live in cities and spend much of our time indoors, thus depriving us of the constant immersion in and connection to our natural forest environment. Make time regularly, daily if possible, to be outside in a park near you, or in your garden, and absorb the healing energy trees in your environment can offer you. Bring the forest inside, too. There are many ways to add aspects of the forest to your home or workplace. Start by growing plants that can improve the air quality inside. Hang pictures of your favorite forests on the walls of your rooms. Play sounds of the forest, the gurgling of a brook, the breeze rustling the tree tops, birds chirping in spring. Use essential oils of forest trees, especially various pines, in a diffuser. Eat organic foods growing in or near the forests of your region. Adjust the lighting in your home or office to reflect the natural rhythm of day and night and the four seasons.
Think of other ways how you can make the surroundings in which you spend so much time more like the natural environment of our ancestors. Observe how this makes you feel. You might notice your stress levels decrease and your sleep quality improve. You may even start wondering if you shouldn’t get out into nature—actual forests—more often. Maybe even join me on one of my backpacking excursions up north.
© 2020 Christiane Siebert