Updated: May 6, 2019
Last fall I read a book called Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li. It was my toilet read (I always have a book on the back of my toilet to, ya know, keep me occupied), but it became so much more than that as I learned about the healing abilities of trees and the many benefits of spending time amongst them. Reopening my book today to write this article feels like revisiting a particularly insightful old friend.
I love trees and find them immensely beautiful - I have been known to stop and give them a warm embrace - but this book opened my eyes to the truly mystical abilities trees possess: They are capable of reducing stress, anxiety and depression. They can help us to lower blood pressure, increase mental clarity and creativity, and even regulate our endocrine system. By spending time amongst them we can reconnect ourselves to the natural world that our modern way of living has systematically detached us from. Trees remind us that we, too, are part of nature. To live a healthy, balanced life, we need to step away from it all and return to our roots.
"Between a human and a tree is the breath. We are each other's air." - Margaret Bates
Shinrin-yoku is the Japanese practice of spending time among trees, otherwise known as forest bathing. Being among nature gives us a sense of peace and comfort, a sense of belonging and ease. The dappled light filtering through the leaves, the aroma in the air (phytoncides), the sounds of the wind through the branches, the songs of birds, the chattering of insects. The sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and feelings of the forest have a way of melting away our stress and worries. Being in a place of nature takes us back to rose-colored childhood memories and gives us a break from our busy, technology-heavy lives.
Shinrin-yoku is not exercise as we think of it (no HIIT, cardio, or heavy lifting here), but it has significant health benefits. To forest bathe, all you need to do is leave all technology and devices behind, find some trees, and take a slow, mindful walk. I live in Kansas, so there aren't many forests near me, but there are several parks and nature preserves that feature woodlands. You don't need a huge Japanese forest to practice shinrin-yoku. You can practice it anywhere there are trees, and studies show that doing so is fundamental to our health. "Contact with nature is as vital to our well-being as regular exercise and a healthy diet"₁. Today people spend an average of 93% of their time indoors and most people live in urban areas, so we need to actively seek out nature and be intentional about spending time outdoors and away from technology. Our health depends on it.
Getting 'away from it all' and spending time among nature brings you into the present moment. When you fully immerse yourself in natural surroundings you are able to reduce your blood pressure, lower stress, improve cardiovascular and metabolic health, lower blood sugar levels, lift depression, improve pain thresholds, improve energy, boost your immune system, increase anti-cancer protein production, and potentially even lose weight, among other benefits.₂ These claims have been verified by a number of different research groups who spent time in forests and studied the health changes that happened as a result of practicing shinrin-yoku. The author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness has conducted several of these studies himself.
"Forests are an amazing resource. They give us everything we rely on in order to exist. They produce oxygen, cleanse the air we breathe and purify our water. They stop flooding rivers and streams and the erosion of mountains and hills. They provide us with food, clothing and shelter, and with the materials we need for furniture and tools. in addition to this, forests have always helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases. And, from time immemorial, they have relieved us of our worries, eased our troubled minds, restored and refreshed us. Until recently, however, there was little scientific evidence to support what we have always known innately about the healing power of the forest." - Dr. Qing Li, Forest Bathing
So, how exactly do forests improve our health? I'll highlight a couple of examples:
The abundant negative ions outdoors are said to have "energizing and refreshing effects, and help increase mental clarity and our sense of well-being"₃. Outdoor air has many more negative ions than does the indoor air in our homes and offices, and as such, we feel more energized outdoors. Have you ever noticed when you're stressed, if you step outside and take a walk in the fresh air you feel happier and more relaxed after a few minutes? Hence the saying - "I need some fresh air" - when referring to needing to step outside for a mental break.
Another interesting way that nature has been proven to improve our well-being is through its infinite fractal patterns. "Nature creates beautiful patterns everywhere we look: in the petals of a flower, in the branches of a snowflake, in the spirals of a shell... the bracts of a pine cone to the arrangement of leaves and the way a fern unfolds. These natural patterns are called fractals. They are seen in ocean waves, lightning, coastlines and rivers, as well as in flowers, trees, clouds and snowflakes. A fractal pattern is one that repeats itself over and over again and looks the same at any scale."₄ When we look at fractal patterns we feel relaxed. We evolved alongside nature, so we can process its patterns easily; since we are good at reading and understanding them, they leave us feeling relaxed and comforted.
On a more tangible level, trees improve our health because the more abundant they are, the purer the air we breathe is. Trees are natural air filters. They absorb and trap toxins, carbon dioxide, and particles in the air that decrease our air quality. They release oxygen which, of course, is what our bodies need to survive. Simply put, when trees die, people die. They are a sign of life and they play an important part in sustaining ours.
Dr. Li's book on forest bathing is so eloquently yet succinctly written that it makes a wonderful guide for understanding what shinrin-yoku is and how to incorporate it in your daily life. Simply reading his words puts me in a more relaxed mindset and makes me want to drop everything and head for the trees. His appreciation for and understanding of nature is so apparent that I think it would make even the most outdoors-averse person want to go sit on a forest floor and breathe in the woody essential oils for the rest of the day.
If the concept of forest bathing is a little too granola for you at first, try this as a first step: Go in your backyard (or somewhere close by where you can have some time to yourself), find a tree - any tree will do - and sit under it for a while. Choose a day with mild weather so you can truly enjoy being outside without sweating or freezing. Close your eyes and take deep breaths through your nose. Tune into the sounds you hear around you. Even if there is traffic nearby, can you at least pick out the sound of a bird chirping? Open your eyes, and look up to the crown of your chosen tree. Notice the leaves swaying in the breeze, the play of the light coming through the branches. Close your eyes again and feel the fresh air on your face, the shadows and light playing across your eyelids. Open your eyes, and give your tree a hug. It's amazing how this simple gesture gives you so much! Hugs feel good, whether it's a person or a tree or a dog; hugging a tree has the amazing ability to ground you, too. It gives a sense of peace and belonging to the greater natural world.
I hope you'll give forest bathing a try, and if you need a good toilet read, I definitely recommend checking out Dr. King Li's book. I think connecting with nature is such a key part of a fulfilling life that, sadly, most us are lacking. Disconnecting from electronics and from day-to-day life to surround ourselves with nature not only improves our health and well-being, but also improves environmental health by tuning ourselves into the needs and current state of our environment. We rely on nature for survival, so it is imperative that we recognize and care about its health as much as we care about our own. Now, go hug that tree!
₁ How to Read Nature, page 14
₂ How to Read Nature, page 38
₃ How to Read Nature, page 199
₄ How to Read Nature, page 175