There is a strange feeling of goodness when you are out in nature and get a refreshing feeling. For many centuries humans have known this, and our ancestors have evolved their lives around Forests and Trees. The sounds of the Forest, sunlight playing through the leaves, the scent of the Trees, grasses, soil, the clean and fresh air — these essences of Forest give us a sense of comfort and sometimes ‘otherworldly’ feelings. They ease anxiety, worry, stress, helps us get into a state of timelessness, and make us relax and think clearly.
Simply being in nature can improve mood, give back vitality, recharge energy, make us feel refreshed, and rejuvenated. But scientists have wondered what exactly is this feeling that we experience while in the Forest, which is so hard to put into words? Can science explain the reasons behind this feeling?
What is Forest Therapy?
Forest therapy is rooted in the Japanese culture for a very long time, and they call this ‘Shinrin-yoku’, which is often translated as “Forest bathing”. But it is not about taking a literal bath in the Forest; the term refers simply to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of the Forest through our senses.
This is not hiking, or exercise, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, re-establishing the connection with nature as a part of nature through our senses of hearing, sight, taste, smell, and touch. Japanese explain Shinrin-yoku as a bridge. We bridge the gap between our physical bodies and nature by opening our physical senses, and then nature bridges us to a mystical, spiritual world.
According to clinical psychologist Scott Bea, the intention behind Forest therapy is to put people in touch with the ‘present moment’ in a profound way. Using all the physical senses actively in the Forest, our brain stops the continuous process of recalling, anticipating, ruminating, and worrying, which enable us to tap into the present moment. This is another form of practice of mindfulness, being in the present moment; this is all about sensing and noticing things that are happening without judging and evaluating.
The importance of Forest therapy in the modern world
In this modern time, day by day, we are disconnecting ourselves from nature. Most of us living in the cities are almost so divorced from nature that we do not see living green most of the time in a day. World Urbanization Prospect projected that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population would live in cities. According to a study published in 2001, the average American spends 93% of their time indoors. According to the experts, among all other reasons, this is one of the important reasons that we are witnessing an epidemic of depression and anxiety.
But the good news is that even a small amount of time in nature can greatly impact our mental and physical health. Japanese scientist Qing Li who has conducted numerous studies on this field, suggested that a two-hour Forest bath will help you unplug from technology and slow you down. This will bring you back in touch with the present moment and destress and relax you. Besides the positive effects on mental health, Forest therapy also has numerous health benefits.
How Forest therapy can affect our health
Usually, most people think that taking in the sights and sounds of the Forest can help you relax. But it is not just our brains that get a boost. There is scientific evidence that Forest therapy is good for our physical bodies, too.
One study showed that Forest therapy reduces cortisol, a stress hormone in our body. Another study found that Forest therapy positively impacted blood pressure and adiponectin, a protein that helps regulate blood sugar levels properly.
Although the focus of Forest therapy isn’t on physical exercise, regular practice can help us lead a less sedentary lifestyle, too. In one of the latest studies, ecologist and Ph.D. researcher from the Department of Landscape, University of Sheffield, Jake M Robinson, with his research team, showed how Trees are constantly protecting us from another invisible world around us by filtering the microbial communities in a provided airspace, which reduces the risk of exposure to microbes which cause diseases.
So, the study clearly shows us that the air in the Forest we breathe is full of healthy microbes communities, which can also boost our immune system.
How to practice forest therapy?
First, find a spot. Make sure you have left all kinds of electronic devices behind. You are going to be roaming slowly and, most importantly, aimlessly. You do not need any devices to do this. Let your instincts of the body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. If you feel like following your nose, sights, or any other curiosity, you can happily do that. And take your time with it. It does not matter if you do not get anywhere or do anything. You are not going anywhere anyway. You are savoring the essence of the Forest in the form of sounds, smells, and sights and become engulfed by the Forest.
According to Qing Li, the key to unlock the power of the Forest is in our five senses. Absorb the Forest through your hands, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Observe the vast happenings going on in the Forest. Realize that there is much more going on than what we usually can observe in the Forest at both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. Be aware of the happenings around you through your senses. Look at the different shades of greens, observe the patterns of leaves, branches. Listen to the breeze rustling in the leaves of the Trees and the birds singing. Smell the fragrance of the Forest, dive deep into the natural aromatherapy the Forest is offering. Touch different textures of the trunk of the Trees, grab earth with your hand, observe, dip your fingers or toes in a stream, lie on the ground. Do whatever you feel like doing. Drink the flavor of the Forest and release your sense of joy and calm. Through calmness, you have connected with nature and established the connection with nature; now, you become ‘one’ with Mother Nature.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to finding relaxation and calmness – it differs based on individual choices. That is why it is important to find a place which suits you. If you love the smell of damp soil, you will be most relaxed where natural landscape provides it. Then the effects of the Forest will be more powerful. Maybe you have a place in the countryside that reminds you of your childhood or of happy times in the past. These places will be special to you, and your connection with them will be strong. In a way, nature is just a medium that will help you connect to your core self which can only be found in the present moment.
Here are some of the activities people usually do while on Forest therapy— yoga, walking, eating in the Forest, meditation, breathing exercises, hot-spring therapy, T’ai chi, aromatherapy, art classes, and pottery, Nordic walking, and Plant observation. It does not matter physically how fit – or unfit – you are. Forest therapy is suitable for any level of fitness at any age.
Although the occasional Forest therapy outing may help you unwind for a few hours, you need to regularly engage with Forest therapy to bring the benefits into your daily life. This is a form of meditation; and consistency matters. According to Dr. Bea, It is like taking a piano lesson; if you never play the piano after the lesson, the lesson would not make much of a difference.
He suggests finding ways to make mindfulness a part of your daily life, even if you can not practice Forest therapy every day. Finally, if you realize the necessity of Forest therapy, you can do it anywhere in the world where there are Trees, in any season. You do not even need to be in a Forest, but once you have learned the process, you can do it in your garden or a nearby park.
- Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Nakadai, A., et al. (2007). Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International journal of immunopathology and pharmacology, [online] Volume, 20(2), p. 3–8. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/03946320070200S202 [Accessed 9th August 2021].
- Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Kumeda, S., et al. (2016). Effects of Forest Bathing on Cardiovascular and Metabolic Parameters in Middle-Aged Males. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine, [online] Available at: https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/2587381 [Accessed 9th August 2021].
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