Shinrin Yoku (the Japanese art of Forest Bathing)
The effects of being in nature have been written about, studied and analyzed for years. Henry David Thoreau wrote about it in “Walden”…”I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. To front only the essential facts of life and see if I could learn what it had to teach and not when I came to die discover that I had not lived”. Countless artists have painted it, and possibly just as many songs have been written about it. But, what about the science? Is this a thing that can be measured? Well, kind of, yes.
According to an article in Quartz, the ancient practice of forest bathing is proven to lower heart rate, blood pressure, reduce stress hormone production, boost the immune system, and improve feelings of wellbeing.
What is forest bathing? Exactly what it sounds like, spending time in nature and allowing yourself to feel the presence of the woods…athletic hikes are great, but that isn’t what this is about. Expending effort is counterproductive here, just be with nature.
Humans are attuned to nature, if we weren’t we wouldn’t have survived as a species. Yet our busy everyday lives, spent in office buildings and cars, can be far removed from that basic instinct. We were meant to feel and participate with our environment, and disconnecting from it has created a disconnection within ourselves.
According to Ephrat Livni, from 2004 to 2012, Japanese officials spent $4 million dollars studying the physical and psychological effects of forest bathing. Quing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tolky, measured the activity of human natural killer (NK) cells in the immune system before and after exposure to the woods. These cells provide rapid responses to viral=infected cells and respond to tumor formation, and are associated with immune system health and cancer prevention. In a 2009 study Li’s subjects showed significant increases in NK cell activity in the week after a forest visit, and positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods.
Some of these effects are attributed to the various essential oils (called phytoncide) found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves against insects. That fresh, clean feeling you experience in the woods is in part due to these oils.
Similar tests measuring the physiological effects found that woods bathing lowered salivary cortisol, lowered blood pressure, pulse rate, and heart rate. In other words, being in the forest made its subjects more relaxed, and less inclined to stress once they left the forest.
None of this is surprising really, being in the woods or other natural environment is relaxing, it is healing, we know this intuitively. But we don’t always take the time to do it…you don’t need a lot to reap the benefits, minimum regular contact appears to improve our immune systems and wellbeing. So go take a hike in the woods…it will do your body and soul a world of good.