The idea that spending time in nature is good for our health is not new. Most of human evolutionary history was spent in environments without walls. Our bodies have adapted to living in the natural world.
But today most of us spend much of our life indoors, and/or tethered to devices. Even in a pre-COVID world—a time with no lockdowns, restrictions or threat of infection, many of us still spent the majority of our time indoors. A study by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) found that the average person spends 93 per cent of their life indoors; that is, 87 per cent in a building and another six per cent in some type of automobile. So the fact is, we spend only 7 per cent of our time outside.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada also conducted a study in which 75 per cent of respondents reported finding it “easier” to stay inside, referring to rain, snow and insects as deterrents. Considering we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, unsettled weather or bugs may be the least of our worries, and truly, any encounter with nature would prove beneficial, especially now.
Enter the practice of forest bathing.
Most parks and conservation areas are once again open, so this is the opportune time to discover the well-documented benefits of the Japanese practice of “shinrin-yoku”. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” Therefore, shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses. Not to be confused with hiking, forest bathing is not undertaken with the primary goal of physical exercise.
“It’s an immersive, meditative and intentional walk in the woods,” says David Motzenbecker, certified forest therapy guide. “It’s taking in all the forest air with all your senses.”
Here’s the science: With each breath of that forest air, phytoncides are inhaled, which are airborne chemicals naturally released by plants to protect themselves from disease. When people breathe in these natural chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK, known to boost immune function. Other documented benefits include lower blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mood and increased energy levels.
In Japan, shinrin-yoku is so highly regarded that the government has designated special trails for the practice. Each one offers loosely targeted health benefits.
So how does one practice forest bathing? Wherever the trees are, just go be still in nature. Take it in, observe the forest around you in one location for 20 to 30 minutes. In this spot, connect, hear and feel the different textures and notice the different colours.
Experts highly recommend using a certified guide to lead you.
The role of a guide is not identifying flora and fauna, but rather facilitating the contemplative experience, offering participants “invitations” to interact with the forest in a meaningful and healing way. Karen Chaplin, who leads a Mississauga Facebook group called Forest Wanderer—Shinran Yoku Mississauga, is working towards certification from the Global Institute of Forest Therapy and offers frequent guided walks, often leading her participants to discover parts of the city they never knew existed.
“We get to places that are deeper than those you’d explore by yourself,” she says, “spots with no human distractions.”
The stresses of life are dangerously high right now.
“We have nurtured ourselves to be in an incessantly low-level state of fight or flight,” Motzenburger explains. “Our nervous systems… our bodies were not designed to be in that constant state of stress. It’s bad for us.”
A forest bath can help relieve that tension. In the midst of this unprecedented chaos, this may be just the thing we all need right now.
To learn more, listen in to Anwar Knight’s Podcast, The Big Blue Marble: An Antidote For Chaos: Forest Bathing.
Benefits of Forest Bathing Meditation
- Learn to switch off unwanted thoughts.
- Feel less angry, anxious and sad.
- Increase self-worth and confidence.
- Overcome fear, self-doubt and a wavering mind.
- Avoid stress and burnout.
- Get better sleep and rest.
- Strengthen the ability to control cravings, give up addictions.
- Find peace and happiness in the present moment.
- Build empathy. Improve relationships.
- Find answers for important questions and decisions.
Tips to Remember Before You Go
- Leave behind your phone, camera or any other distractions, so that you can be fully present in the experience.
- Leave behind your goals and expectations. Wander aimlessly, allowing your body to take you wherever it wants.
- Pause from time to time, to look more closely at a leaf or notice the sensation of the path beneath your feet.
- Find a comfortable spot to take a seat and listen to the sounds around you. See how the behaviour of the birds and other animals changes when they become used to your presence.
- If you go with others, make an agreement to resist talking until the end of the walk, when you can gather to share your experiences.
Karen Chaplin, Forest Wanderer
Global Institue of Global Therapy