“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” - Robert Louis Stevenson
The Japanese have a practice of spending time in the forest called Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing” which focuses on the physical and psychological health benefits of being out in nature. In today’s modern society where most of our time is spent indoors, we have lost our connection with nature. The only time many people are outdoors is to run errands after work, and then they are frequently distracted by technology (Pokemon Go, running with headphones, phone conversations, texting, etc.). Forest bathing, on the other hand, focuses on just being in nature - no goals, no Fitbit, no power walking, no hiking - just relaxing and taking in the smells and sounds of the forest.
Shinrin-yoku became part of the national public health program in Japan in 1982 through the introduction of topiary as therapy by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The ministry coined the phrase, which literally translates as “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing,” and began promoting the health benefits of spending time in nature. The Japanese, along with scientists in Korea, Finland and the United States, have conducted extensive research to study the physical and psychological effects of forest bathing, and the results of these studies have been impressive. Time spent in natural environments results in lower stress levels, reduced blood pressure, improved memory, boosted immune system functioning, improved mood, increased ability to focus, increased energy level, and improved sleep. These benefits last long after the exposure to nature has ended, up to seven days in one study which followed subjects after a three-day camping trip.
So why does this happen? Aside from the fact that we are untethered from technology and don’t need to respond to the next call, text or tweet, why is nature so therapeutic? It turns out that many trees and plants in the forest emit phytoncides - organic compounds which protect them from germs and insects. These phytoncides have been shown to enhance our immune system by supporting our “NK” or natural killer cells which our immune system uses to fight off cancer and other diseases. So the forest air doesn’t just seem fresher and healthier, it actually is.
“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” - Aristotle
Shinrin-yoku has now made its way to the United States. In 2012 wilderness guide Amos Clifford founded The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) in California with the goal of integrating forest therapy into health care systems as it is in Japan and Korea. The Association offers a certification program to become a forest therapy guide, and their website features an interactive map to help you locate a certified guide in your area. They also offer a “starter kit” which gives you suggestions on how to be more present and aware the next time you spend time in nature. Because I’m curious I’m going to order one, so if you’re unable to reach me, I’m in the forest.
“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.” - John Muir