Forest Bathing

The Japanese Tradition of Shinrin-Yoku

Forest walk, Rishiri Island (利尻島) Hokkaido, Japan. Photo by Nathaniel Altman.

Communing with trees is an ancient Japanese tradition that has been an essential part of both Shinto and Buddhist spiritual practice for centuries. In Japan, trees have long been viewed as sacred, and are considered essential for physical healing, emotional grounding and spiritual development. Yet communion with trees only became part of a national public health program in Japan in 1982, when the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the phrase shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and declared it a form of medical and psychological therapy. It is also called forest therapy in the West.

Japan is one of the few countries in the world where scientists have studied the effects of forest bathing. Experiments on the effects of shinrin-yoku were conducted by the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, where scientists measured its physiological effects on 280 subjects in their early 20s. These indluded salivary cortisol (which increases with stress), blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate variability. Measurements were taken during a day in the city and compared those to the same biometrics taken during a day with a 30-minute forest visit. The researchers found that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments. The parasympathetic nerve system controls the body’s rest-and-digest system while the sympathetic nerve system governs fight-or-flight responses. Participants involved in the study were more rested and less inclined to stress after a forest bath.

Trees can help heal the spirit as well. Another Japanese study on forest bathing’s psychological effects involved 498 healthy volunteers, who were evaluated twice in a forest and twice in control environments. The subjects who spent several hours with trees showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores, along with increased energy overall. “Accordingly,” the researchers wrote, “forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes.”

Forest bathing can help improve physical, psychological and spiritual well being in the following ways:

You do not need to go to Japan to enjoy the benefits of forest bathing. Many have found that even a walk in a local park can be of tremendous benefit on both physical and psychological levels. The key to a successful forest bath is to simply relax and enjoy the natural environment. Leaving cell phone at home, dedicate an hour or more to simply being open to what the forest has to offer. According to Dr. Qing Li in his book Forest Bathing, "The art of forest bathing is the art of connecting with nature through our senses. All we have to do is accept the invitation. Mother Nature does the rest."


Three New Books for Further Study

Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, by Qing Li, M.D. (Viking Press, 2018). Qing Li is an Associate Professor at the Nippon Medical School. The President of the Society of Forest Medicine in Japan, he is among the world's foremost experts in forest bathing. Forest Bathing is a lavishly illustrated, easy-to-read and thoroughly enjoyable book that has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Your Guide to Forest Bathing by M. Amos Clifford. (Conari Press, 2018). Mr. Clifford is the founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. A long-time student of Buddhism, he trains people in the art of forest bathing throughout the world.

Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing by Yoshifumi Miyazaki (Timber Press, 2018). Dr. Miyazaki is a professor, researcher and the deputy director of Chiba University’s Centre for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences in Japan.

Some Useful Links

Shinrin-yoku. A nonprofit organization that offers guide training and information about forest bathing. Those who join their mailing list receive a free forest bathing starter kit.

Society for Forest Medicine (Japan). The goal of this professional organization is to promote research on forest medicine, including the effects of forest bathing trips and the therapeutic effects of forests on human health. 

International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine. A scientific organization that works for the advancement of nature medicine as well as contributing to health, welfare, and integrated medical care. In addition, INFOM aims to generate global influence through international cooperation. INFOM currently maintains a database of forest medicine scientific findings involving human stress reduction and the increased activation of human natural killer (NK) cells related to natural forest environments.

Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Founded by M. Amos Clifford, it offers general information and training for forest therapy guides. Those who join their mailing list receive a free Forest Therapy Starter Kit.


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