Leave the city behind and take a walk in the woods.
As a reaction to buzzing smartphones and late nights at the office, many are turning to the Japanese art of “shinrin-yoku” (forest bathing) to relax.
The practice, which first emerged as a term in the 1980s, encourages you to leave the skyscrapers behind and commune with nature. By taking a walk through greenery, it’s believed you’re health and mind can improve.
This year, forest bathers are seeking out patches of green close to their homes, from city parks to nearby forests, to practice this form of ecotherapy. You don’t have to trek for days to feel any benefits — all you need to do is switch off your phone, go for a stroll between the trees, and absorb your surroundings.
A study released in Scientific Reports earlier this year found participants who spent just two hours a week in nature were healthier and had higher psychological well-being than those who remained indoors. The research team also found the practice helped participants think more clearly.
The benefits of forest bathing
While the forest bathing method may seem simple, it’s also effective, according to researchers at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo.
During their eight-year-long study, the team found that when you spend time in nature, it will not only lower your blood pressure but also your stress hormone levels and heart rate.
The Japanese government was so convinced by the researchers’ findings, they made shinrin-yoku part of the national public health program in 1982. There are now more than 60 shinrin-yoku trails across Japan, giving people the chance to bathe in nature.
In a 2010 article, physician and immunologist Dr Qing Li found trees release natural oils into the air, called phytoncides, and “‘bathe’” in them in order to protect themselves from tumorous growths.
“A forest bathing trip involves visiting a forest for relaxation and recreation and breathing in these phytoncides,” Dr Li wrote.
Forest bathing around the world
Forest bathing groups are popping up throughout Europe and the U.S., with the first Forest Bathing International Conference held in California in 2019.
Shinrin-Yoku LA founder Ben Page was one of the first to launch a forest bathing group in the U.S and recently joined with Airbnb to offer forest bathing walks in one of the most stressful cities in the country – Los Angeles.
While forest bathing appears to be a simple therapy, Page said that people can be so immersed in their fast-paced, digitized world, they often struggle to slow down, turn off their phone, and just sit under a tree.
“Many people find this stressful,” he said.
“They don’t feel as if they can give themselves permission to relax or just enjoy the simple pleasures of their senses.”
When Page takes first-time forest bathers on a stroll through the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, he encourages them to walk in silence, listen out for sounds, or look for movement in the nature that surrounds them.
“We invite participants to simply be present without worrying about time or what’s coming next,” he said.
This carefree moment in the sunshine may be simple, but Page said it’s effective.
“A lot of people who come on my walks note that they feel a resurgence of feelings that they experienced as children; feeling like being in awe of a beautiful tree or feeling giddy playing with water,” he said.
A how-to on forest bathing
While Japan’s forest bathers are more adept at connecting to nature, the U.S. version of the program, devised by Californian wilderness guide Amos Clifford, had to include a how-to guide.
The founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy said in a country where the average person spends 93 percent of their time indoors, it’s not hard to see how a walk in the woods would be beneficial.
“I think there is a need for people to reconnect with nature,” Clifford said.
“It’s highly accessible, doesn’t take a lot of time, and people can learn how to do it well with just a few guided sessions.
“On a three-hour walk we only go about a quarter-mile, so there is no pressure to be athletic.”
Forest bathers who join Clifford for a walk through the Californian countryside also forage for plants along the trail, which are then brewed to create a natural tea, creating a sensory connection enjoyed while on the walk.
Accessible forest bathing in Berlin
Clifford’s approach has been so successful, he now trains other guides across the globe, including Berlin-based yoga instructor Annette Littmeier who hosts sessions for stressed-out city dwellers in the German capital.
The forest therapy guide said even in the bustling city of Berlin she was still able to take city slickers back to nature.
“Since a lot of people in Berlin don ́t own a car, it was important for me that the site is easily accessible by public transport,” she said.
The site is south of the city and surrounded by meadows, allowing for “very relaxed” walks that encourage bathers to gain insights into their daily lives, Littmeier said.
“One elderly lady said that after closing the eyes for a while and opening eyes again, her view fell on dry leaves which reminded her how she feels: old and dry,” she said.
“But then she saw that some of the leaves were still green, which reminded her that there is still life in herself.”
It’s clear forest bathing is more than just a walk through the woods – it’s a therapy that incorporates quiet contemplation.