Forest Bathing

Your guide to forest bathing

What is forest bathing?

Forest bathing is an English translation of a Japanese term, shinrin-yoku. Both of these words come from Middle Chinese terms - sim-lim, meaning forest, and jowk, meaning bathe. As such, the term is quite literal and should not be misinterpreted as taking a bath or a shower in a wooded setting. In fact, a forest bath is a type of nature therapy whereby people simply enter a forest, a wood or even a copse to spend time in a different sort of environment from their everyday experience. However, nature therapy does not end with shinrin-yoku because related practices, such as earthing and horticultural therapy, all play their part in it. What makes shinrin-yoku distinct from these other forms of nature therapy, however, is that it takes place under the canopy of woodland. The reason people do it is to enjoy an improved psychological and physiological state after their time 'bathing' in the forest.

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 Who invented forest bathing?

No single person can be said to have invented forest bathing. After all, people have been moving in and out of the woods, into clearings and on to more densely wooded areas since prehistory. One of the rulers of ancient Persia, Cyrus the Great, is said to have begun modern gardening as we know it today to improve the mental outlook of his subjects as early as the sixth century BCE. He effectively made the first urban park to allow people to escape city life for a time. In the ancient Greek world, some early physicians pointed out that it was nature that provided the best remedies against ailments. However, it was not until the twentieth century that Japanese academics began to study the practice of shinrin-yoku that bathing in forests began to be better understood. Li Qing, a doctor at Nippon Medical School in Japan, spent over a quarter of a century gathering data on people who included frequent walks in forests to escape urbanity into their healthy habits, and found they enjoyed numerous benefits.

How is forest bathing good for stress?

One of the chief benefits that Li Qing discovered was that spending time wandering around a forest and being closer to nature was that it lowered stress. This might sound like a very straightforward assumption to make, but before his study was first published in 2018, there was no quantifiable evidence to support this idea. What has been discovered is that people who take part in walking sessions in woodland will frequently produce fewer stress hormones, such as cortisol. Some people think that it is not bathing in a forest that produces this reaction, however, and that there may be a placebo effect at play or that simply by taking time out of the usual day-to-day experience of urban life, people feel more relaxed. That said, the evidence seems to suggest that forest bathers can experience an advantage that people doing other things to relax don't always enjoy, so it can absolutely positively influence stess management.

Where is good to go for forest bathing?

Anywhere where there is a canopy of trees is ideal for bathing in. You can find this environment in surprisingly small spaces where there are not that many trees. For most people, a forest that is natural – rather than one that consists of trees that being grown in uniform rows as a crop – is best. In the West, this would mean ancient woodland would be ideal. However, simply strolling under an avenue of trees can help to create the same sort of effect. People who live in the countryside will often enjoy more convenient access to woodland. For city dwellers, getting out of the urban environment for a while and enjoying nature where there is plenty of dappled shade from a canopy of trees can have an almost instantaneous effect on the outlook and levels of happiness. Open plan city parks, where trees are dispersed rather than growing alongside one another, don't tend to offer the right sort of environment, however.

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How can you lead forest bathing?

If you want to lead a group of forest bathers into a wooded area, then it is best to stick to pathways that you can navigate over more easily rather than picking your own route, which may end up in you getting lost. Before embarking on your walk, make sure you have a route planned that everyone in the group can stick to without leaving anyone behind. No one wants to feel stressed when forest bathing because they feel they are holding the group up. Make sure everyone in your group has water and suitable clothing in case it rains, and then ask everyone to turn off their mobile devices temporarily. Walk through the woods, encouraging your group to listen to the sounds of nature and to look up from time to time. Slow progress is ideal for bathing, so don't feel like you are on a hike that is a race. Sit down occasionally and lead some mindfulness or deep breathing exercises.

Why is forest bathing good for health?

As mentioned, one of the psychological effects of shinrin-yoku is that it tends to reduce stress hormone production, which helps our mood and overall mental well-being. Fewer stress hormones also tend to have beneficial effects on physiological health. For starters, it should help to lower your heart rate, which means less blood pressure. In turn, this can also have a positive impact on immune response and other aspects of physical health, such as cardiovascular health and respiratory function. Some people also claim that illness recovery can receive a boost from this type of nature therapy. Other studies have noted that pain reduction is often noticed among people who suffer from chronic pain or discomfort. Exposure to the sun through the dappled shade of a woodland's canopy can also boost Vitamin D production, something that some city dwellers are known to suffer from.

What are the other benefits of forest bathing?

In 2007, a British university published a paper which stated that any country walk – not just ones that included time spent in woodland – was found to reduce the instances or severity of depression in over 70 per cent of participants. Interestingly, the researchers noted that as few as five minutes spent outdoors in nature could have this effect. What's more, they found that mood, self-esteem and motivation all received a boost from this sort of activity. In the case of forest walks, most subsequent studies have found that this effect can be even more profound. Although there is no way to prove a causal link between bathing in a forest and the better mental health outcomes that are noted in numerous studies, one theory suggests that it is evolution that is at play. In this explanation, simply spending time in forests – which would probably have been early man's preferred habitat – makes us feel better at a very deep level.

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Does forest bathing help with the immune system?

Some people point out that trees have certain antimicrobial essential oils that they release quite naturally all the time. By spending more time in close proximity to trees, some people will receive a boost to their immune system. Although there is no clear scientific link between these oils and their effects on people's immune responses, research is ongoing in this area. Where improvement in the immune responses of forest bathers has been noted already may come down to the fact that they are feeling more relaxed. When we are feeling more rested, less stressed and more at one with our natural environment, the positive effects on our immune systems should not be underestimated. Some studies have focussed on the levels of adrenaline in forest bathers before and after their walks. Generally speaking, it falls away after a session which may account for the perceived upturn in the immune response.

Will forest bathing catch on in the West?

Forest bathing has already caught on in certain parts of the West despite shinrin-yoku being a Japanese concept first and foremost. There are many cultural aspects of nature therapy that strike just as much of a chord with westerners as they do Japanese people. To begin with, increasing urbanisation in much of the West has led people to seek out something in life that they are lacking, just the same as has happened in much of Japan in the post-war period. Equally, woodland often features in European folklore. Although the deep, dark wood can be seen as a threatening place in some folk tales, generally speaking, the heroes of such stories fare very well in them. However, outside of North America, the scarcity of available woodland to bathe in is one of the limits that may restrict how widespread the practice can become.

Which books on forest bathing are worth reading?

Considered to be one of the seminal works on forest bathing, Li Qing's 2018 publication, 'Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing' has been translated into many languages and has gone through several editions. Dr Ling's book explains the concept of shinrin-yoku in ways that people who have no prior experience of Japanese culture will find accessible, while he also goes on to explain much of the science behind the practice. In this book, the academic summaries much of his research and provides personal anecdotes, so it is not too dry a read. 'Walking in the Woods: the Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation' by Yoshifumi Miyazaki is also an accessible read, focussing on making deeper connections with oneself through nature. Penned by Sarah Ivens, 'Forest Therapy: Seasonal Ways to Embrace Nature for a Happier You', is another good self-help style of literature.

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How often should you go forest bathing?

This depends on the individual concerned and how close they might happen to live to a suitable forest to bathe in. Simply put, if you have a wooded area in your neighbourhood that you can gain unfettered access to, then walking in it every day will be of great benefit to you. However, this is not a practical reality for many. In plenty of urban centres, people will now make use of the green spaces they can enjoy. If possible, spend at least some of your time outside under the canopy of the trees there are in the local parkland. However, for the full bathing experience, it is best to head out of the city to woodland at least a few times a year. Many people find it to be so beneficial that they start to increase the frequency of their shinrin-yoku sessions without feeling like they are making a big effort.

Is forest bathing different from ecotherapy?

In the majority of people's eyes, ecotherapy is a form of nature therapy that is formalised in some way. Forest bathing on your own or with acquaintances could not be said to be formal, but if you signed up to an organised strip led by someone experienced, then it would be possible to say the forest bathing session was a type of ecotherapy. Ecotherapy is a wider term that is used to describe any type of therapeutic treatment that is done outside and within a natural environment. Consequently, there isn't one way you could define it, and that's why some people use the term interchangeably even though walking around an area of woodland and simply enjoying it is a very unstructured way of gaining a therapeutic result.

When is it best to go forest bathing?

Again, this is something that depends on personal preferences. If you want the solitude of the experience, then head into the woodland at a quiet time of the day. Avoid weekends when trails and pathways can be busier. Any time of the day – or night – will have an effect. That said, many people enjoy the unique light you get under a canopy on a sunny day when the leaves overhead only filter out some of the available sunlight. It is this mesmeric, dappled effect of swaying leaves that is not possible to replicate in other natural environments, such as on the coast or on high mountain passes. Spring, summer and autumn are all good times of year to enjoy the leaves on the trees, but it is quite possible to enjoy shinrin-yoku in the middle of the winter months, as well.

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Forest bathing in summary

To conclude, it should be said that forest bathing is something that everyone can enjoy. You do not have to be particularly mobile in order to get under the boughs of a few trees to enjoy the shelter and psychological comfort that they often afford. Many people who bathe in a forest or patch of woodland will enjoy making progress through it from clearing to clearing, but you can have just as much of a positive effect by simply sitting still in an area and making much slower progress. Indeed, lingering – much like enjoying a soak in a bath – is part of what makes shinrin-yoku such a well-named therapeutic activity.

You can enjoy forest bathing with your family and friends, while walking your dog or get a great deal out of the experience when you are on your own. However, one of the keys is to try and empty your mind and avoid the distractions of modern life. Allow yourself to enter into the spirit of the bathing experience and try to live in the moment. Some people will try a little meditation to help in this regard, but if this is not for you, then do not worry. Simply being at one with nature for a while can bring about a raft of well-being benefits. Whether you forest bathe because you find it spiritually rewarding, benefit from improved mental health outcomes or simply feel physically better as a result of it, you will be among a growing number of people who enjoy this form of nature therapy today.

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