Having a bad day? Go take a hike! Literally…Taking a walk in the woods has been known by many cultures as a wonderful way to de-stress. In fact, Shin-rin yoku, or “forest bathing,” is a common practice in Japan since the 1980’s.
Until very recently, it was taken for granted that walking in nature would provide respite from everyday pressures of life. And now, research has provided validation for the healing effects of this practice.
The Japanese government alone has spent $4 million in forest bathing research since 2004.1 With long workdays, extreme pressure in the workplace and school system, Japan has the third highest suicide rate in the developed world. Previous studies have shown that exposure to nature enhances mood and focus, relieves anxiety and depression and even increases empathy.
The Japanese researchers have focused on measuring the physiological effects of nature. They have found that forest walks contribute to lowered blood pressure and heart rate, decreased production of the stress hormone cortisol, and a decrease in sympathetic nerve activity. In addition, there have been reports of better mood and lowered anxiety. Studies with children show a decrease in hyperactive behaviors and improved focus and attention.
There is quite a bit of logic to back up this research, as well. For millions of years humans have evolved in the natural world. We spent most of our days outdoors hunting, farming, and building, and we lived in structures that were comprised of natural materials. Our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies have adapted to this intimate connection with nature. We developed our spiritual ideologies while experiencing the wonder of nature. We were “in sync” with nature in a very real way.
However, evolution has not nearly caught up with the technological advances in the last two hundred years. The average American spends 90% of their day indoors2 and those indoor environments are comprised mostly of manmade materials within an airtight construction. Our work spaces are often devoid of sunlight, fresh air and nature views.
The lack of nature in our lives coupled with our obsession with technology contributes to modern stress. While we are certainly connected to the internet, we are, indeed, truly disconnected. Yet, we have an inherent affinity for communing with the natural world. This term was coined “biophilia” by psychologist Erich Fromm in the 1960’s. Biologist E.O. Wilson and Yale Professor Stephen Kellert popularized the idea in several books they collaborated on in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. They purported that a strong connection with nature is required for humans to fully mature into well-adjusted, creative adults.
“The human mind is a product of the Pleistocene age, shaped by wildness that has all but disappeared. If we complete the destruction of nature, we will have succeeded in cutting ourselves off from the source of sanity itself. Hermetically sealed amidst our creations and bereft of those of the Creation, the world then will reflect only the demented image of the mind imprisoned within itself. Can the mind doting on itself and its creations be sane?”
― Edward O. Wilson, The Biophilia Hypothesis
“Bathing” in the Forest
Shin-rin yoku, a term coined by the Japanese government in 1982 was inspired by the ancient spiritual practices of Shinto and Buddhism. An important part of the practice is to immerse in nature using all of the five senses.
Our sense of smell and taste is heightened in forests due to phytoncides, which are volatile organic compounds found in plants. These are the essential oils of pine and eucalyptus, and other woods. The smell of soil after rain or the scent of leaves decomposing under foot all contribute to the healing experience.
The sound of a variety of birds, the wind rustling through the leaves, a stream splashing over rocks and forest creatures scattering about contribute to the sensation of our experience.
The variety of the color green is staggering in a forest scene – from the bright limes of fresh new buds to the silvery sage and deep pines – and the sacred geometry apparent in every leaf and branch, our visual senses are saturated with the healing experience.
The diversity of textures in nature include stone, moss, tree bark, leaves, clouds, sand, ice and snow, water, berries, fresh wood, decomposed wood, mushrooms, lichens, and thousands of plants. All of these textures provide the yin and yang of smooth and sharp, soft and hard, billowy and solid.
So next time you look at a wooded path, remember that this is medicine – the best and most ancient medicine available still to us. Take a hike - be it 5 minutes or a full day – you will reap the benefits that nature provides.
2 “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality”. U.S. EPA/Office of Air and Radiation. Office of Radiation and Indoor Air (6609J) Cosponsored with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, EPA 402-K-93-007.