“If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke
The term Shinrin-yoku sounds ancient and mystical, as if it was handed down from a mountain monastery by a wizened Zen monk before he turned and disappeared back into the mists, never to be seen again.
In fact, Shinrin-yoku translates as “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing.” and describes a program developed in Japan in the early 80’s by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
It seems funny that such a sensitive and healing practice could spring out of a beaurocratic body with a name like ‘The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’, but forest bathing is inspired by Shinto and Buddhist practices and comes at a time when the need to be reimagining our relationship with forests, with all of nature, is hitting a crisis point.
Mindfulness and Nature
Humans have lived in close communion with forests for all of our existence. We’re wired to be affected by, and respond to, our natural environment. For so many of us living in urban environments, it’s common to feel that pull towards wilderness in whatever form resonates for us, whether that’s hiking in the forest, climbing mountains, or the gazing out at the ocean. We all know that spending time outside in nature can have a rejuvenating effect on us.
What makes forest bathing more than just ‘being outdoors’, however, is that participants are encouraged to engage with and explore this natural environment consciously, using their senses. So there’s the experience of being outdoors combined with the element of mindful engagement.
There are certified Shinrin-yoku guides who are trained in leading groups in the forest bathing experience. Their job is to guide the group safely and assist them in opening themselves up to the forest through a loose sequence of activities.
Some of the activities include mindful breathing, smelling, listening, and other exercises that encourage interaction with the environment through the sensing body.
Here is a description of a beautiful invitation called ‘shared breath’
With the help of the guides participants get to experience themselves in relationship with the surrounding forest, to feel immersed in the experience, to allow the boundaries of the self to soften a little and let the forest in.
In this way there is a sharing of energy, as the forest is allowed to influence you and nourish the forest bathers.
The guides sometimes lead the group in an activity called ‘The Way of Council’– small meetings where the group is given a forum to support each other in reflecting on their shared experience.
Benefits Of Forest Bathing
Some of the benefits of forest bathing include: lower blood pressure, a reduction in stress, more energy and improved sleep. People who have tried the experience often report feeling a closer, and deeper, connection to nature and themselves. And a lot of people have tried it, with over 2.5 million people in Japan walking forest therapy trails in Japan every year. Yes, they have have spent millions setting up dedicated trails throughout Japan.
It makes sense that Japan would be leading the way with forest bathing, and the extensive research they are doing into the effects of the experience. Japan is highly urbanized and city life is chaotic and draining on the people who live there. One area of the research focuses on the effects of “aromatic volatile substances’, the oils exuded by trees that are breathed in as people walk through the forest. These substances are proving to have profound effects on people’s brains and bodies.
And while the chemical properties of forests might be rejuvenating and contribute great health benefits, my instinct is that the opening up of yourself to the forest, that process of allowing the outside world to come in and affect you, is where the deep healing comes in, as people reconnect to the old ways of being in right relationship to the world that holds us.