I’ve always loved my weekly escapes to Ijams Nature Center or the Great Smoky Mountains for a hike through the woods. I’ve never been an endurance hiker; in the woods I must stop and smell the pine, feel the textures of the moss, and take in all of the details of my surroundings. Sometimes, I bring a book and a blanket to rest under a tree or close my eyes for a moment of contemplation. I always feel different when I get back from these quick adventures, rejuvenated and ready to take on the days ahead. I notice an appreciation and understanding of nature, and the connection of all living things, that sometimes gets lost in my daily routine.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned there is a term for my weekly escapes. It’s called “Forest Bathing” or shinrin-yoku. In Japanese, shinrin means forest, and yoku, although it has several meanings, refers to a “bathing, showering or basking in”. Together, they broadly mean “taking in, in all of our senses, the forest atmosphere.”
This means of mobile meditation has been recognized by the Japanese government since 1982 and has been endorsed by the Forest Agency of Japan as a means of improving the quality of life. The practice can be a natural way to combat stress, anxiety, and emotional illness and this holds true for Tokyo, Manhattan, or Knoxville, Tennessee.
Qing Li is the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, which was founded in 2007. He has extensively studied the effects of forest bathing. He found that participants’ feelings of stress, anxiety, or anger decreased after walking through the forest; and their perceptions of energy and motivation had improved. Li also found in other studies that blood tests taken before and after forest bathing trips showed a significant boost in natural killer cells, which play a vital role in the immune system’s ability to fight off illness. Li hypothesized that forest bathing allows participants to breathe in antimicrobial and immune-boosting properties from the trees and greenery of the ecosystem. Basically, forest bathing is nature’s medicine.
I’m glad to know that the positive emotions I experience after walking in the forest are beneficial for everyone, that it isn’t just me on my weekly journey! Walking in nature has been associated with heightened physical and mental energy and anyone can do this. To give shinrin-yoku a try, choose a spot based on physical ability and convenience - it does not have to be done in a national park or idyllic setting. A nearby wooded park will do just fine. Do not choose a route that is too strenuous: it is recommended that in 3-4 hours, you should walk no more than 3 miles. Rest when needed and take your time. Find a spot where it is pleasant to sit and read for a while or simply let your self look out into the trees and admire. Make sure to bring water or green tea and while it is recommended to follow a forest bath with a hot spring bath, a shower or soak in the tub is just fine when you return home.