Shinrin-yoku emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a form of nature therapy especially promoted for weary people seeking respite from hectic urban living. It was then only the beginning of the tech industry’s boom, and yet too many people were already suffering from the so-called tech burnout. So the Japanese government urged its people to take to the forests to escape for a while from the stress of the city, and there were many such forests in Japan to seek temporary refuge in, for more than two-thirds of the country still had forest cover.
Owing to strong demand among a populace reeling from burnout, the ubiquity and accessibility of forests and woodlands, and a remarkable culture partly pillared upon close relationship with nature, shinrin-yoku was immediately embraced by the Japanese. The practice swiftly grew in popularity and has since then become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
But while the words shinrin-yoku and forest bathing are fairly new terms, the concept of visiting forested and wooded lands, or natural environments in general, for recreational and therapeutic purposes is not a novelty. People from across the world, and across different cultures, have been engaging in such a practice for many long centuries. Indeed, famed figures from the past, even from ancient history, have remarked at the potent and wondrous effects to mind and body of slow and leisurely walks in the forest, or of spending mindful time in nature in general.
For instance, the legendary Persian King Cyrus the Great (c. 600-530 B.C.), who is renowned for many things, not least of which is his love of gardens, is said to have had built in his capital of Pasargadae lush gardens filled with fruit trees and flowers to foster a sense of calm in the otherwise crowded Persian city.
In the 16th century, the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) wrote: ‘The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.’
In the 1800s, the so-called forest cure (or the open-air treatment) surfaced as an effective treatment to tuberculosis. In the belief that nature, high altitude, and fresh air, along with good nutrition and exercise, could prove helpful in curing tuberculosis, the German physician Hermann Brehmer (1826-1889) established the first ever tuberculosis sanatorium within a mountainous and pine-clad valley in Silesia, Poland. His mode of medical cure produced highly successful results, surpassing any previous treatment.
Encouraged by the efficacy of the forest cure, one of Brehmer’s patient, Peter Dettweiler (1837–1904), who later became his assistant, continued his work, and Dettweiler in turn established his own sanatorium in the deeply-wooded Taunus Mountains near Frankfurt, Germany. At the same time, the American physician Edward Trudeau (1848-1915) built the first sanatorium in the USA in the forested Adirondack Mountains of New York. Both sanatoriums were built in like fashion to Brehmer’s model, in a scenic natural locale replete with fresh montane forest air, and both produced results more excellent than hoped for.
The great American poet, essayist, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was also a keen naturalist and environmentalist; his writings on natural history have contributed to modern-day environmentalism. Of his many works, none is perhaps more notable than Walden, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings and which makes a point about the importance of closeness to nature. Thoreau wrote that he could not preserve his ‘health and spirits’ unless he spent a minimum of four hours a day ‘sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements’. Health, to him, was a ‘sound relation to nature’, and to ensure health, such a relation ‘must come very near a personal one’, for, he argues, ‘sympathy with nature is evidence of perfect health’.
The Scottish-American John Muir (1838-1914), a most famed author, naturalist, and environmental activist, among other things, staunchly resisted the clear-cutting of forests, referring to them with reverence as ‘places for rest, inspiration, and prayers’. He tirelessly exhorted city dwellers to experience nature, for, he wrote, ‘everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul’. He spoke without fail of the ‘healing power of Nature’, which could heal all scars, ‘whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts’.
Still, it was the Japanese who institutionalized forest bathing (not to mention gave a name to it), and it was them who brought the very practice into global attention. And more important, they did so at a time when the whole world appears to be most disconnected from nature than at any point in history.
Our lamentable sundering from nature is evidenced by a number of indicators. One such indicator is the loss of global forest cover. Forests are the primary embodiments of nature, the most distinct and widespread representations of wilderness. Forest habitats alone already account for around 70% of the world’s plants and animals. Unfortunately, however, we are losing an average of 28 million hectares of forest every year since 2016 – that’s equivalent to one football field of forest being cut down every single second! If this rate of deforestation continues, we are bound to lose all of our rainforests before the end of the century!
Another indicator is the level of urbanization. For more than a century, industrial cities have been held as the antithesis to nature and wilderness (and environmental protections as barriers to economic success), and despite the increasing interest – and investment – in so-called ‘green cities’, this perception continues to hold sway. By 2050, the United Nations (UN) projects that 68% of the world’s population, close to seven billion people, will live in urban areas, particularly in highly-dense cities. Without conscious, definite, and widespread integration of nature into urban planning and development, our affinity with nature will only deteriorate in the coming years, and can lead to irreversible loss and damage to the natural systems we depend on.
Urbanization, while a relatively new phenomenon, already have had broad and sweeping impacts on the way we live, particularly on how much time we spend indoors. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average American now spends an estimated 93% of his or her time indoors: 87% in enclosed buildings and another 6% in enclosed vehicles. The average Briton, meanwhile, now spends approximately 90% of his or her time indoors – that’s around 22 hours each day. Another research among thousands of participants from Europe and North America have discovered that one out of six respondents practically never venture outside anymore.
Even in mainstream culture, our growing detachment from nature is apparent. One research indicates that beginning in the 1950s, there has been a rapid decline of references to nature in cultural products, specifically in English songs, fiction books, and films. This discovery is cause for concern, not only because it implies foregone benefits from engagement with nature, but also because it points to a withering relationship between humans and the natural world.
At a time when we are most detached from nature than ever, and are now suffering the ill effects of it, shinrin-yoku offers us a way to reconnect with our natural surroundings. But how does one really do it?
Shinrin-yoku is an art. As such, it is subjective; there is no one definite way to do it. It differs from person to person, from need to need. In Japan, for instance, where shinrin-yoku is mainstream and more than two-thirds of the country is forested, forest bathing is often conducted in a regimented manner, complete with guided walks and doctors on hand to offer general health assessments.
But it is also very much possible to forest-bathe all by yourself in complete DIY fashion. Doctor Qing Li, an authority on shinrin-yoku who has extensively studied and written several works on the matter, recommends a number of useful tips on how best to carry out forest bathing. The first tip is to find to suitable location – a forest or a woodland, preferably, or if there is none within reasonable distance, then any place where there are trees will suffice. In extreme cases, even urban parks and home gardens will do.
The next tip is to leave your phone or camera behind. It is best not to be encumbered by technological devices that can only distract you from committing your full attention to the moment. If these cannot be left behind, then turn them off and refrain from bringing them out unless needed.
The third tip is to experience the forest through all your senses. Let the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and even the tastes of your surroundings fill you. Gently touch a leaf and marvel at its shape, its texture, its greenness. Peer at a flower, wonder at its resplendent beauty, and imbibe in its redolence. Draw close to a tree and run your fingers slowly along its bark; be awed by the tree’s size and stature, and ponder upon its age. Behold the warm, mellow sunlight filtering through the foliage, and watch as it dapples with yellow light the forest floor. Listen to the melodies of birds flitting in and out of the branches above you, to the whispering breeze rustling the canopy. Hear the soft murmurings of a forest brook, and dip your fingers and toes into its cool, clean, and clear waters. Breathe in the free and fresh air, and taste its fragrance.
The fourth tip is to take your time. Walk slowly, wander aimlessly. Shinrin-yoku is not about haste, not about moving from one point to another. It doesn’t matter if you get nowhere. You are not going anywhere. Tarry in the forest awhile, and let go of your worldly cares, even if only for a moment. Lay down on the ground and rest, for, as Muir said, ‘there is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill’.
While shinrin-yoku is an art, there is an ever growing body of scientific literature that affirms its physiological and psychological benefits. One research in South Korea found that a forest therapy program was effective in relieving pain and associated psychological and physiological symptoms among individuals with chronic widespread pain and depression.
A study in Japan proved that even just 15 minutes of forest therapy, specifically walking around a forest environment, can already induce a state of physiological relaxation, as evidenced by decreased levels of salivary cortisol, a typical stress hormone; decreased pulse rate; and decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressures, among other indicators.
Another experiment in Japan discovered that a 17 minute-long walking session through a forest elicited several hours-long physiological relaxation effects (indicated by a decrease in pulse rate, serum cortisol levels, and salivary cortisol levels; and reductions in urine adrenaline, among other variables) among the hypertensive participants.
Yet another study in Japan found that participants who were asked to join a forest bathing trip afterwards demonstrated increased numbers of natural killer (NK) cells, which are critical to the innate immune system, and whose functions include responding to virus-infected cells, infections, and tumor formation. Researchers believe that phytoncides – the substances emitted by plants and trees poetically known as the ‘aroma of the forest’ – were partly to credit for the resulting increased human NK activity.
These and more empirical studies have contributed greatly to the incorporation of shinrin-yoku in the Japanese national health program.
In the West, however, where forest bathing is still taking root, parallel studies on the health effects of shinrin-yoku are still scarce. But Western research on the psycho-physiological benefits of nature in general is plentiful. One such study, spearheaded by King’s College London, indicated that exposure to natural features – such as trees, sky, and birdsong – while in urban areas had lasting benefits on mental well-being.
Another study also conducted in England involving 20,000 participants showed that individuals who spent at least 120 minutes a week in nature, specifically in greenspaces (local parks, etc.), reported consistently higher levels of both health and well-being than those who reported no exposure.
Of course, these are only two of the many studies on the benefits of nature to our health. But to cite these two references is no different from citing a thousand, for all these studies only serve to confirm what we already intuitively know – that nature is good for us, as it has always been, and always will be.
We are growing farther and farther apart from nature, and it is exacting a terrible toll on us. From a whole range of physical, mental, and emotional diseases, to global warming and climate change, we are paying a heavy price from straying from nature. And in this context, shinrin-yoku offers as a way to return to the wild, to reconnect with the natural world. And as we learn to love forest bathing, may we also learn to re-love the forests, and in turn, learn to re-love nature as a whole. For shinrin-yoku is a healing art, not just for ourselves, but for nature, too.