The Japanese mindfulness practice shinrin-yoku, known in the West as forest bathing, fascinates scientists as much as wellness devotees. Like with anything enhancing our health and happiness, the literature on the theme has blossomed. Probably none of the mostly self-help books merit the work of the author of Forest Bathing and the science behind shinrin-yoku Dr. Quing Li. The vice-president and the secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine and chairman of Japanese Society for Forest Medicine was one of the pioneering scientists involved in the study that opened the Japanese government to recognising traditional respect for forests unimaginably beyond their ecological value.
Proven benefits of forest therapy
In the 1980s his study groups in the beautiful Akasawa forest in the Nagano prefecture proved that about two hours spent in the calm embrace of a forest: boosts the immune system (increase NK cells), lowers blood pressure, blood sugar levels and stress, improves cardiovascular and metabolic functions, supports weight-loss, better concentration and memory, helps with depression, improves the quality of sleep (lower cortisol), increases energy and pain thresholds, even fights cancer. No wonder that the WHO and the Japanese government support shinrin-yoku. In the US, Sweden, Finland and Germany, forest bathing initiatives have expanded the traditional affinity with nature in these countries.
Myself, witnessing interested groups in nativist Japan, after dozens of hinoki wood chips sachets floating in steamy bathtubs at hotels and ryokans, passing by sole, deeply fascinated wanderers in the Swiss Alps, and my own expert-led bath in California woke the kami spirit in my own consciousness. I started to see more in trees than just tall, shade, and oxygen supplying plants. Beyond their refreshing green crowns and mind energising essences from the wood so desired for high quality furniture, trees aroused scientific research yielding unprecedented insights into their life. And this was only the beginning.
It is widely accepted that terpenes like phytoncides protect plants and also conduct the communication between trees as Peter Wohlleben documented in his bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees (my review coming soon).
Longevity and happiness of the island nation fascinates us. Influential Western lifestyle gurus now include ikigai, the Okinawan accent on purpose carried into advanced age, and shizen, naturalness (one of the seven principles of the Zen aesthetic philosophy), into the wellness guidebook for modern, highly-charged society needs. “For Zen Buddhists, sculpture is written in the landscape. The natural world itself is the whole book of God”, adds Li. The Japanese ikebana, flower arrangement that reflects each changing season in its most authentic form using foraged wild flowers, leaves and branches in a simple form resembling the plants set up in nature.
Nativism is the essence of the Japanese culture. In the South, the Yakushima island is home to the world’s oldest trees. One of them believed to be between two and five thousand years old even got a name – the Jomon sugi tree (Japanese cedar) is revered as a god. Spiritual pilgrimages like Kumano Kodo (I hiked a part) on the Kii Peninsula South of Nara is still a serious pursuit. Past emperors proudly absolved the weeks-spanning trail as a trophy to their ancestral celestial heritage. The animist tradition of the Japanese inherently revers nature as a godly might. Zen buddhists see in nature the ultimate good that has to be cared for. Shinrin-yoku was destined to be born in the island country where forests still cover over 90% of the land.
Professor Li teaches at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. Stressed students make for fertile mental and physical health samples willing to participate. As a countryside refugee into the urban Tokyo, the author above all connects with the majority of the world’s population making the same transition. If you want to live in the greenest city (state) in the world then Singapore is by far the number one home for you. Li inserts more intriguing statistics in the book that capture attention, rise interest and perhaps inspire change.
What is shinrin-yoku?
Humans have lived in forests ever since evolution’s hominid progression towards urban beasts living in cement and glass structures. Today naturalists escape to the forests on weekends, while others simplified their life by moving into the branched out shelter out in the wild. Driven by the healthful and restorative powers of the evergreen treelandia, biophilia, “the concept that humans have a biological need to connect with nature” is not new to me. Growing up in a small town forever imprinted my cravings for the green, and the calm away from cityscapes. Scientists from the west-to-east hypothesised and researched that “this affinity for the natural world is fundamental to our health”, writes Li.
Forest bathing is not your regular stroll, a foraging adventure or mindless bouncing through the woody kingdom. You are not going anywhere. During a very slow walk (about 2.5km in two hours) you experience the surrounding space through all your senses. Frequent stops are encouraged. Touching the bark, tracing the paths of tendrils coiling around trunks seeking the sunlight, spying on the ants’ highways, rubbing the essential oils off the pine needles, cocooning in the hum of a babbling stream and wind whistling through the branches, deciphering the birds sonatas, even tasting the forest bounty like herbs and berries when in season (and you are hundred percent sure they are edible!), enrapture you entirely. Your body’s activities change when your mind is at peace. Find practical details and helpful prompts on how to reap the benefits of shinrin-yoku in the book.
Where to forest bathe?
The book is clearly written and pictorially guides you how to practice shinrin-yoku in safe wild forests, in urban areas and even how you can bring some its benefits indoors to your home and workplace. Did you know that certain succulent plants absorb toxins from paint, textiles, cleaning products, dust and other unhealthy companions on our interiors?
Broadly, you can go to any quiet forest to enjoy its benefits, but there are some more exceptional tree springs to bathe in. Ancient, undisrupted coniferous forests wield more healing power not because of some shamanic energy, but scientifically measurable realities of their existence. The Akasawa forest in the Nagano prefecture is one of the author’s favourite shinrin-yoku escapes and also the initial home of the scientific study.
The most beautiful forests in the world might inspire your next holidays. Switching from by Instagram ruined sights to technology-free, mindful time in the calmest places on the Earth may benefit the entire global population. Through connecting with nature, we care more about it, and protect its heritage. Further, “Trees can make you feel richer and younger.” a lofty promise, but increased energy, and the clean spritz of oxygen inject more zest into your mind and body. In the book, maps of forest therapy bases in Japan and around the world guide your imagination to travel more green. Suggested trails in these shinrin-yoku centres are highlighted in the book so you choose the best circuit for yourself.
Forest Bathing by Dr Quing Li is a beautiful book. Serene photos of trees, forests, landscapes and beautiful sceneries from Japan, allure with an aesthetic pleasure, engaging more senses in the process.
I attended a guided shinrin-yoku gathering at Los Angeles Arboretum. Starting early in the morning before the weekend crowds ventured in, the green spaces belonged almost entirely to us. People from all walks of life – a student, safari guide, producer, writer, from India, Sweden, Czech Republic, France to locals participated in the revelatory mindful activity. At the end, the American Chinese expert guide prepared tea with snacks to comfortably discuss our experience. Each of us shared the opening of our mind when some of us learned unexpected things about ourselves.
Are all trees the same?
The attributes and propensities of some trees such as their leaves’ surface moderating profoundly the surrounding microclimate and production of their specific essential oils differ vastly. Deciduous, leafy forests are usually less aromatic than coniferous trees, therefore it is recommended to forest bathe in the evergreen scenery of the Northern Hemisphere. Hinoki (Japanese cypress), Sawara, Nezuko and Asunaro cypress, Hiba (white cedar), Koyamaki (Japanese umbrella pine), western spruce, fir, pine, cedar, and all other needly trees reportedly provide more benefits.
The experiments were conducted in cooler conditions, but the author acknowledges that higher temperatures extract more oils from the plants into the air so summer afternoons are more efficient and potentially the humid rainforests closer to the Equator can benefit us more. More research needs to confirm this.
As the majority of the global population is moving to cities, shinrin-yoku gains even more essential role in our wellbeing and health. As the research of Dr Li and other scientists and foresters like Peter Wohlleben highlights, it is crucial for longevity and human health to spend time in the green forest, far away from the urban noise, pollution, and the scentless concrete buildup of roads and structures. The Forest Therapy Association of the Americas also highlights the necessity to reintegrate better with our surroundings: “Forest therapy is a good example of how our own health is dependent on the health of our natural environment.” With the Amazon rainforest ablaze and the record numbers of precious German woodlands crushed by heat and lack of water this year, the forest enters into a grim future. Climate change is real and with less forests, we have less oxygen, more greenhouse polluters in the atmosphere, unstable weather, so we better alert our communities to make protection of trees and planting more of them an urgent priority.