Shinrin-Yoku: How the Japanese Wellness Practice of Forest Bathing Can Heal Your Body and Soul

An evergreen tree
Photo by Manuel Will on Unsplash

If you think that forest bathing sound baffling, but intriguing, you’re definitely not the only one. As we have already written, the wellness industry has been increasingly trying to fix our minds and souls, and not just our bodies. Some of the approaches are tried and true, others are revolutionary and based on new technologies. There are traditional practices from other cultures. And then there are the ones that might not have occurred to you, but actually make perfect sense.

Forest bathing, or Shinrin Yoku, is a wellness therapy named and perfected by the Japanese. To put it in the simplest terms possible, it is based on spending time in the forest, and absorbing the beneficial influence of the atmosphere.

How the Japanese reclaimed nature

Perhaps it’s because so many Japanese people live in tightly packed metropolises, but the country addressed the need for closer contact with nature decades ago. Way back in 1982, the Forest Agency of Japan proposed that forest walks should be part of a healthy lifestyle. Forest bathing has come a long way since. Its effects have been measured and proven. People regularly acknowledge and use it as a therapeutic activity. In fact, it is one of the nation’s favorite forms of prevention for both physical and mental illness. As more and more people recognized its effectiveness, it gained traction in South Korea too.

The rest of the world is catching up slowly but surely. Shinrin-Yoku is rising from the sea of wellness therapies and traditional medicine practices. It’s no wonder, really. It has everything going for it. First of all, it’s cheap, easy and mind-bogglingly simple. Second of all, Asian cultures have a pretty good track record with relaxation techniques, and we in the western world are starting to listen.

Tree branches

How do you practice? Do you need a swimsuit?

Contrary to what you might conclude based on the name, forest bathing doesn’t involve any actual bathing in water. You can put away your goggles and swimsuit. The dense canopy of the woods will leave you more in need of insect repellent than sunscreen. Also, no need to worry about those extra few pounds that seem impossible to shed. Rather, the term refers to being immersed in the natural world of the forest. For maximum positive effect, the practice combines relaxation and exercise. Shinrin-Yoku is actually the simplest, most natural thing you could do. It just means taking a walk in the forest and letting it work its rejuvenating, relaxing magic on you.

How is forest bathing different from a hike, we hear you wonder. Is this just a fancy name for a walk in the woods? Well, the answer is both yes and no. At its core, Shinrin-Yoku is a walk in the forest. But if we claimed that’s all it is, we would be doing it a great disservice.

During a hike, people strive for an energetic tempo. The goal is to get your heart pumping faster, to use up energy and burn fat. There is none of that frantic quality in Shinrin-Yoku. Physical fitness takes a backseat to mental therapy. You move at a snail’s pace. At first, it might feel strange, even unnatural. However, if you truly allow your body and mind to slow down, take in the surroundings and unwind, you will achieve the true goal of forest therapy.

Remember that the point is not cardio and exertion. Save your wild energy and displays of stamina for CrossFit. Of course, even at a leisurely pace, the walk will do you good. But the main goal of Shinrin-Yoku is not to raise your physical fitness levels. Don’t be afraid to idle, even to stop. Drink in the surroundings with all of your senses. Only then will you enjoy the full effect.

The beauty of the forest

Everyone knows that beauty can have a soothing effect on the soul. Just think of the feeling of serenity that overwhelms you as you watch snowflakes falling. Or the bliss when your favorite song comes on. The epiphany of witnessing a great work of art, or the profound effect of poetry.

Sometimes we tend to obsess about material things, and our own tiny worlds. We forget that nature is the greatest artist of all time. Forest bathing is all about restoring that connection between us and the natural world. It’s not just about spending time outdoors. Rather, it’s about becoming one with the forest. Ideally, you would use the time spent practicing Shinrin-Yoku to leave behind the worries and stress of everyday life. Let all the negativity flow out of you slowly. Walk ever so slowly and let the greenery soothe you. Stop to examine a tiny flower or an interesting leaf. Feel free to bring a blanket and sit, or even lie down.

There is plenty of beauty surrounding us, but all too often we are in too much of a hurry, or too obsessed with our perceived problems to let it sink in. In Shinrin-Yoku, it’s not about the physicality of a hike. It’s about observing a squirrel playing. Noticing a falling leaf. The sound of the leaves crunching under your footsteps. Taking in the heady perfume of the forest air, the scent of the trees, the undertones of the earth and forest floor.

Forest bathing is about disconnecting from technology and being fully present in the moment. Just the pressure of being unable to forget about your worries might cause you additional stress. It’s crucial to realize that there’s no pressure at all. Negative thoughts might start to creep in. That’s okay too. Just push them gently away and keep corralling your unruly mind back to the present. At its core, forest bathing is mindful meditation at its purest.

What do I get out of it?

How exactly does Shinrin-Yoku work? What are its benefits, and are they measurable, or just wishful thinking? Shinrin-Yoku works, without a shred of doubt. That’s definitely not something we could say about every wellness fad out there. While some forms of therapy never really leave the grey area, the Japanese (and not just them!) have thoroughly researched the wellness benefits of forest bathing. The conclusion is unanimous and overwhelmingly positive. The beneficial effects of Shinrin-Yoku on our physical and mental wellbeing have been proven through studies time and time again.

Forest bathing helps with a genuinely surprising number of health problems in a real and measurable way. It benefits the cardio-vascular system. Of course, the walk itself, however slow, counts towards your weekly cardio quota. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of physical activity.

However, in the long run Shinrin-Yoku lowers blood pressure and heart rate not just because of the exercise, but also because our mind calms through meditation. Stress hormone production drops. Studies have shown that blood sugar levels decrease effectively in people suffering from diabetes. Others determined that substances released by the trees have significant tumor-fighting properties. They also boost the entire immune system and promote our general health.

When it comes to mental health, years of practice in Japan have show excellent results. Forest bathing is excellent when dealing with intense emotions, chronic stress, anxiety disorders and depression.

This all contributes to a general feeling of wellbeing and balance. The best part of all is that these positive effects don’t evaporate when you return home. In fact, tests have shown that the health boost lasts around a week. That means that a couple of hours spent in nature once a week could lead to a permanent improvement in your overall health. In short, the time spent forest bathing will leave you in harmony and serenity, feeling restored mentally and physically.

Okay, I’m sold! What do I need?

Unlike many wellness practices that leave you broke, Shinrin-Yoku is basically free. It doesn’t require any special equipment. Some wellness centers in the US and other countries offer guided forest bathing. The experience is wonderful, but also relatively expensive. If you can afford one of these guided tour, give them a go. But money is definitely not an obstacle. All you need is a practical outfit and comfortable shoes. Choose breathable fabrics and clothes that provide good coverage. Depending on the season, you might need insect repellent. Don’t forget to bring a light snack and a bottle of water. Finally, a blanket is always a welcome addition. You can use it to sit and rest, or lie down and observe the sky peeking through the lush canopy overhead.

Do I have to go to Japan?

A trip to Japan is obviously high up on the bucket list for a lot of people. If you’ve got time and money to burn, by all means use Shinrin-Yoku as an excuse to go. Truth be told, of course you don’t need to go to Japan. Actually, you can probably scrounge up a forest just a short drive away. Some people may wonder whether any old forest would do. The answer is a resounding yes. All you need is to leave the city behind.

Of course, some forests are better for this particular purpose than others. It’s not really about the geographic location of the forest. Find a forest that is beautiful and thick. There’s no need to put yourself in danger of getting lost, but try to find a patch of the woods that hasn’t been too spoiled by civilization.

Very hot and humid locations, including swamps and jungles might not be ideal for forest bathing. The trick is to feel completely comfortable and at ease. Hot air, strong sun and stifling humidity don’t really fit the bill. Forests in temperate climates are the gold standard.

Some types of trees release certain substances called phytoncides into the air. These fragrant substances add extra benefits to the already superior forest air. The fresh air enriched with natural oils from the trees turn Shinrin-Yoku into a powerful natural aroma-therapy session.

If possible, you should try to take your walks in woods rich with these types of trees. The trees that give off the most phytoncides are oak, cedar, pine, locust and tea-tree. It’s not a coincidence that these trees all have a wonderful scent. Breathing in these substances has a great relaxing effect. But not only that, inhaling the clean forest air mixed with phytoncides can have a wonderful effect on your respiratory health too. These substances protect the trees and surrounding growth from bacteria, fungi and parasites. They can have do the same for your lungs too. The phytoncides hinder the growth of harmful organisms and soothe the respiratory system like a balm. Stop and catch a breath. It will do you good.

Seek out these forests for maximum wellbeing

Cedar is an evergreen known for its rich scent. It is native to Asia and the Mediterranean, but today there are cedar forests in the US as well.

Oak forests were used in some of the Japanese field studies. The results showed that a mere 20-minute walk lowered stress hormone levels. They also determined that the tactile feel of oak wood and leaves lowers blood pressure and evokes a positive emotional response in people. Oak trees grow almost everywhere, throughout temperate climates, but also in the Mediterranean, and even in subtropical areas.

Finally, pine grows almost everywhere on the northern hemisphere, even in warmer climates where you don’t normally expect evergreens. The health benefits of pine are long established in traditional medicine. Its needles and bark are known to boost respiratory health, circulation, vision and immunity.

Don’t put off or dismiss forest bathing. We are a generation of doers, and just stopping to touch a leaf and observe an ant goes against our instincts. However, that is precisely why it’s vital to allow ourselves the luxury to unplug and slow down. Go to a forest. Let yourself feel happier and freer. Soon you will notice new energy flowing through you. Maybe your sex drive increase. Your intuition will deepen. If you choose to practice with a friend or a group, you will probably establish a profound connection. And finally, you might find what we are all, ultimately, looking for: peace.