Did you ever, as a child, have that school break time where you were given a crayon and a piece of paper and told to make tree rubbings? As exciting as it was as a five-year-old to see the bark recreated on your paper; for your teacher, the joy was probably to be found in you burning off energy and remaining in relative silence for the rest of the afternoon. And as it turns out, your teacher may have been onto something.
Long regarded as having one of the healthiest populations on earth thanks to high life expectancies in the world and a top-notch diet, the Japanese government introduced shinrin-yoku – that is, forest bathing – as part of a national health programme in the 1980s. Lauded with counterbalancing modern stressors and in doing so presenting both physical and mental health benefits, it’s believed that millions of individuals still practice it each year. So, does this meditative practice really work?
What is forest bathing?
The concept is simple: that spending time actively indulging your senses in a forest will improve your wellness. There’s no completely ‘correct’ approach to shinrin-yoku but paying attention to the surroundings around you is key. Look at the way that light filters between the treetops, where it lands, take in the textures of the natural world and the smells of the air around you, noting when they change. Treat it like a real bath – and by that we mean leave your phone in your pocket – so that you resist the urge to view it through the grid of the ‘gram (although one can’t hurt, surely).
In his a book, Dr Qing Li explains that the foundations behind forest bathing lay in the idea that at their origins humans are fundamentally ‘natural’ creatures: “As we walk slowly through the forest, seeing, listening, smelling, tasting and touching, we bring our rhythms into step with nature. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world. And when we are in harmony with the natural world we can begin to heal. Our nervous system can reset itself, our bodies and minds can go back to how they ought to be.” (1).
What are the benefits of forest bathing?
So, does the science back really back this theory up? Well, it would appear so. One study, which followed almost 500 individuals over three days, one of which was spent in the forest, concluded that: “forest environments are advantageous with respect to acute emotions, especially among those experiencing chronic stress. Accordingly, shinrin-yoku may be employed as a stress reduction method, and forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes. Therefore, customary shinrin-yoku may help to decrease the risk of psychosocial stress-related diseases.” (2)
And according to the research, the physiological impact can be just as impactful with studies finding that “systolic blood pressure of the forest environment was significantly lower than that of the non-forest environment. Additionally, diastolic blood pressure of the forest environment was significantly lower than that of the non-forest environment.” (3)
The best shinrin-yoku sites to try
Of course, there’s only one way to know if shinrin-yoku works for you, and that’s to test it out….
In the UK
Living in the middle of one of the world’s busiest metropolises doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a dose of shinrin-yoku. Epping Forest and Surrey’s famous Box Hill are both within easy reach of central London and while you might not have the woods all to yourself, they’re a splendid way to spend a Sunday before the grind of the working week starts once more.
Germany’s Bavarian Forest National Park boasts over 300km of well-marked walking trails criss-crossing through thick forest and under heavy canopies. Between its expanse and its location, it’s easy not to see another soul for hours so it’s easy to enjoy your forest bath in the knowledge you won’t be disturbed.
Top tip: Visit in Autumn to see the forests transform into a carpet of colour.
If you’re already convinced and ready to go all out, then there’s only one place that fits the bill, and that’s the home of shinrin-yoku. The Chubu Sangaku National Park, located within a three-hour train of Tokyo is a strong contender for the perfect spot, offering multi-day hiking opportunities and unbeatable scenery.
- Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing
- E. Morita, S. Fukuda, J. Nagano, N. Hamajima, H. Yamamoto, Y. Iwai, T. Nakashima, H. Ohira, T. Shirakawa. Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction, Public Health, Volume 121, Issue 1, 2007, Pages 54-63.
- Ideno, Y., Hayashi, K., Abe, Y. et al. Blood pressure-lowering effect of Shinrin-yoku (Forest bathing): a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Altern Med 17, 409 (2017)