Research is confirming something most people know intuitively: we feel better when we spend time in nature, whether working in a garden, sitting on a beach or riverfront, or taking a walk in a park. The effects of time in nature and forests in particular have been studied in Japan for more than 30 years in a practice the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries termed ‘shinrin-yoku’ in 1982. It has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
Shinrin-yoku translates as “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing” and refers to “the process of soaking up the sights, smells and sounds of a natural setting to promote physiological and psychological health.” In addition to lowering blood pressure and stress-induced cortisol levels, forest bathing is good for the immune system, increasing the number and activity of natural killer cells.
It has been gaining media attention in this country the over the past couple of years — one article noting “in the United States it is where yoga was 30 years ago” — and was recently introduced at Do Ngak Kupnhen Ling (Tibetan Buddhist Center for Universal Peace) (DNKL) on Route 107 in Redding.
A group of nine, including me, was led by Redding resident Jennifer Salkin, a marriage and family therapist, and also a board member at DNKL, who said she learned about the concept from a National Geographic article about 18 months ago. Her reaction was, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for and didn’t even know it. How wonderful to learn it already exists, and has an organization supporting it — the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy.” She took the association’s guide training, which began with a weeklong immersion session in the Berkshires, and was pleased with the response to the initial offering, which was followed up with a second session in September.
In a note sent to participants before the first session, she described it as a leisurely walk of about ¾-of-a-mile on the grounds of DNKL, “focusing on our senses to develop an immediate connection with the environment. This is a very relaxed, slow, and mindful way of walking” and should last two-and-a-half-to-three-hours, concluding with a shinrin-yoku tea and a small gluten-free snack.
Before the July 30 walk began, Jennifer emphasized that there is no right or wrong way to do forest bathing, and along the way there would be several “invitations”—“We avoid the word ‘exercises’ so people don’t think something has to be done a certain way,” she explained later—and opportunities to discuss reactions to the invitations, but participation was not required in anything.
We began in a circle, doing some deep breathing and first focusing on something of our choice in the nearby pond for several minutes, just observing. We then closed our eyes and listened for sounds, envisioning what they might be. We next began walking slowly in silence with the invitation to be aware of movement.
In the discussion afterward were remarks of observing a bird birds, or the way a breeze rustled leaves as it moved along a stand of trees or the prayer flags strung between poles on the grounds, as well as bees flitting on clover and bushes.
The final invitation was to select a tree or a bush and just study it for 10 or 15 minutes. I was drawn to a half-dead tree that looked like it had blown over in a storm but was supported in part by other trees and itself supporting other forms of life — vines, fungus, insects.
In summarizing the experience afterward, everyone said they enjoyed it, felt more relaxed and would do it again. One woman commented, “I had no idea what I was in for, and no idea of how much I needed it.”
In a later conversation, Jennifer said while anyone can practice forest bathing on their own, “paying attention to what your intention is,” the guides see themselves as akin to personal trainers, someone a time commitment is made to and who will help optimize the experience for the participants.
For additional information about forest bathing, visit natureandforesttherapy.org or shinrin-yoku.org. For information on DNKL, dnkldharma.org. Contact Jennifer Salkin at firstname.lastname@example.org.