Shinrin-Yoku: Forest Bathing


Shinrin Yoku is a Japanese concept about immersing yourself in a forest or the natural world. It’s not about being in the wilderness, necessarily, but more about having contact with natural elements, like trees, water, and nature sounds. The Japanese have set up forest bathing sites where you can be led, or follow a signed, programmed walking path. At these sites, you will do some walking, but you’ll also stop for deep breathing exercises, or to write a journal entry, maybe pick up a cedar twig or some herbaceous plant to crush and smell. It’s more about spending some time taking in the physical sensations of the forest, rather than hiking a tough trail and getting your heart rate elevated. And the focus is on the stress-relieving qualities of these natural experiences.

Some folks call this “forest therapy.” I recently found out that there’s a national organization in the US devoted to this concept, The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. On their website, they say: “Forest Therapy is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. … Studies have demonstrated a wide array of health benefits, especially in the cardiovascular and immune systems, and for stabilizing and improving mood and cognition.” This is really about mindfully being in a natural environment—taking the time to slow down and really pay attention to the natural world around you.

Thinking about this, you could spend some time just sitting in a natural setting and taking time to deliberately note the world around you. For example, one of the grounding techniques I teach my clients is what I call 3-2-1. This starts with some diaphragmatic breaths. Often, when I ask someone to take a deep breath, they will inhale and expand their chest. But actually, a deeper breath is one that expands your stomach—this is because it pulls down the diaphragm, which pulls more oxygen into your lungs. So, first you take a couple of diaphragmatic breaths, then you name three things (with a brief description) that you can see. Take another breath. Now name two things you can hear. Take another breath. Now describe one thing you can smell, even if you don’t know what it is, you can just describe the scent of your location. Then take a final deep breath. This is a mindfulness technique because, by making yourself focus on these sensations, you become more aware of your current location, and that focus will often, even if just for a couple of minutes, quiet down all the other thoughts going through your mind.

In a future blog, I’ll talk some more about the stress response and cortisol and about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. But for now, you should know that the sympathetic nervous system is the part of our brain/nerve/body interaction that cranks us up—it’s what keeps us activated in response to the world around us. You’ve probably heard about the fight-or-flight response—how our body responds to stress by increasing our heart rate, breathing rate, and making us sweat. This is all sympathetic NS. The parasympathetic system is sometimes called the “rest and digest” response. You know, what goes up, must come down, so this is how our body recovers and gets back to the “at rest” mode. Doing this 3-2-1 activity, and being out in nature, both trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. So, it’s going to help calm you down. As I said, I’ll talk more about this in a future blog.

We know that nature helps with this response because of some science that has been conducted. In one experiment, they had some college students watch videos of woodshop accidents (this sounds really traumatic!), then half of the group watched nature videos and the other half watched videos of city scenes, and they timed how long it took their body to recover from the stress response. The ones watching nature videos returned to their baseline in 5 minutes, where the city-watchers only partially recovered after 10 minutes. So, they didn’t even have to be in nature, they just had to see some nature. But if that’s the case, imagine how much more impactful it would be if you’re actually immersed in that natural experience with all your senses.

I also think this is a great place to nurture a curious mindset. There are so many things I don’t know about all the things I’m seeing, so asking myself questions about those things, maybe taking a few pictures of some things I want to identify, jotting down some comments about what I’m seeing—all of these outward-focused things helps get me out of my own head, and slows down that swirl of thoughts of all our day-to-day worries. Then when we get back to the house or the office, we can let them slowly return, noting the most important, then tackle one or two of them in a more deliberate, thoughtful way.

I remember on a hike once in the Piney Woods northwest of Houston, I saw a bright orange mushroom—I’d never seen anything like that, but my first thought was, “that’s got to be poisonous,” but maybe I should do a little more research into that. I’ll post a picture of that in the blog. (You can scroll down on this page https://www.mnn.com/your-home/organic-farming-gardening/stories/wild-mushrooms-what-to-eat-what-to-avoid and see what I found out about Jack-o’-lantern mushrooms—they are toxic!)

Let me know of something shocking or unusual that you’ve found when you’ve been out in nature. Or leave a picture. I’d love to see those.

For now, what I’m going to do, is take a little time to journal about some of the things I’m seeing, hearing, and smelling here. Then I’ll hike a little more before I head in to work. And as soon as you get a chance, you should get outside.

Here’s a WebMD article about forest bathing.Let me know of something shocking or unusual that you’ve found when you’ve been out in nature. Or leave a picture. I’d love to see those.

For now, what I’m going to do, is take a little time to journal about some of the things I’m seeing, hearing, and smelling here. Then I’ll hike a little more before I head in to work. And as soon as you get a chance, you should get outside.

Here’s a WebMD article about forest bathing.

Just for fun, here’s a rainy-day playlist:





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