When the U.S. media began reporting on the phenomenon of “forest bathing” as a therapy for mental and physical health, the online commentariat—as it will—mocked the concept relentlessly as yet another pretentious, bourgeois repackaging of something thoroughly mundane. Didn’t we just used to call it “going outside”?
Well, yes, if all “forest bathing” means is “going outside,” then it does sound like a grandiose and unnecessary phrase. The term, however, is not an American marketing invention but a translation of the Japanese shinrin-yoku. “Coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982,” writes Meeri Kim at The Washington Post, “the word literally translates to ‘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.”
So what? We already have the examples of thousands years of Buddhist monks (and Thich Nat Hanh), of Henry David Thoreau, and the saints of the Sierra Club. But the oldest and most useful ideas and practices can get carelessly discarded in the frantic pursuit of innovation at all costs. The pushing of hi-tech outdoor gear, wearable activity trackers, and health apps that ask us to log every movement can make going outside feel like a daunting, expensive chore or a competitive event.
Forest bathing involves none of those things. “Just be with the trees,” as Ephrat Livni describes the practice, “no hiking, no counting steps on a Fitbit. You can sit or meander, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish anything.” You don't have to hug the trees if you don't want to, but at least sit under one for a spell. Even if you don't attain enlightenment, you very well may reduce stress and boost immune function, according to several Japanese studies conducted between 2004 and 2012.
The Japanese government spent around four million dollars on studies conducted with hundreds of people "bathing" on 48 designated therapy trails. In his work, Qing Li, associate professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, found “significant increases in NK [natural killer] cell activity in the week after a forest visit… positive effects lasted a month following each weekend in the woods.” Natural killer cells fight viruses and cancers, and are apparently stimulated by the oils that trees themselves secrete to ward off germs and pests. See the professor explain in the video above (he translates shinrin-yoku as taking a "forest shower," and also claims to have bottled some of the effects).
Additionally, experiments conducted by Japan’s Chiba University found that forest bathing lowered heart rate and blood pressure and brought down levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that can wreak havoc on every system when large amounts circulate through the body. Then there are the less tangible psychological benefits of taking in the trees. Subjects in one study “showed significantly reduced hostility and depression scores” after a walk in the woods. These findings underscore that spending time in the forest is a medical intervention as well as an aesthetic and spiritual one, something scientists have long observed but haven’t been able to quantify.
In their review of a book called Your Brain on Nature, Mother Earth News quotes Franklin Hough, first chief of the U.S. Division of Forestry, who remarked in a 19th century medical journal that forests have “a cheerful and tranquilizing influence which they exert upon the mind, more especially when worn down by mental labor.” Hough’s hypothesis has been confirmed, and despite what might sound to English speakers like a slightly ridiculous name, forest bathing is serious therapy, especially for the ever-increasing number of urbanites and those who spend their days in strip malls, office complexes, and other overbuilt environments.
What is a guided forest bathing experience like? You can listen to NPR's Alison Aubrey describe one above. She quotes Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, the certifying organization, as saying that a guide "helps you be here, not there," sort of like a meditation instructor. Clifford has been pushing health care providers to "incorporate forest therapy as a stress-reduction strategy" in the U.S., and there's no question that more stress reduction tools are sorely needed.
But, you may wonder, do you have to call it “forest bathing,” or pay for a certified guide, join a group, and buy some fancy outerwear to get the benefits hanging out with trees? I say, consider the words of John Muir, the indefatigable 19th naturalist, "father of the National Park System," and founding saint of the Sierra Club: In the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you. The quote may underestimate the amount of risk or overstate the benefits, but you get the idea. Muir was not one to get tangled up in semantics or overly detailed analysis. Nonetheless, his work inspired Americans to step in and preserve so much of the country's forest in the 19th and 20th centuries. Maybe the preventative medicine of "forest bathing" can help do the same in the 21st.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness