“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” ~ John Muir
The refreshingly cool water creates eddies around my bare feet as I watch the babbling brook wind its way through the forest. The warm sun dances in patterns on my shoulder as the breeze gently rustles the canopy of green leaves overhead. As I crouch down to get a closer look at a patch of delicate moss on a nearby rock and see how it catches tiny drops from the stream, the smells of rich soil mixed with pine needles fill me with delight. Everything feels so alive here.
Humans have long understood the healing powers of nature. The Japanese even have a practice called the art of “Shinrin-yoku,” which translates to “Forest Bathing.” Developed in the 1980's, Forest Bathing is now a cornerstone of preventative medicine and healing in Japan, and rising interest has spread Forest Therapy around the world. Intuitively, people have long known of the healing, grounding, centering, rejuvenating, and awe-inspiring impacts of immersing oneself in nature. More recently, science has been beginning to unpack why this might be the case.
According to some of the research, Forest Bathing has been shown to:
Improve the immune system, increasing human natural killer (NK) cell activity as well as anti-cancer protein production (source, source, and source)
Increase self-reported states of wellbeing and vigor while reducing depression, anxiety, tension, and anger (source, source)
Reduce stress, reduce blood pressure, lower sympathetic nervous system arousal, and increase parasympathetic nervous system function (source)
Lower blood sugar (source)
Diminish pain (source)
Increase focus, especially in children with ADHD (source)
Improve body image (source)
Increase Experiences of Awe and Wonder
“Going to the woods is going home” ~ John Muir
There are many theories about how all of this happens. Scientists have discovered that phytoncides play a significant role. Phytoncides are antimicrobial volatile organic compounds produced from plants that help trees protect themselves from harmful insects, fungi, and bacteria, and also appear to greatly benefit humans (source). Another contributing factor could be the negative ion-rich environment, which has been shown to reduce depression. Sunshine and vitamin D levels could be another factor. The impact of color and green hues is another factor. The physical exercise, increased oxygen, and slower pace all also influence our wellbeing. This article is a good summary of the research about how each of our sense capacities is influenced by forests.
I've been recently fascinated by the microbiome and how many microbes, bacteria, fungi, and viruses we share the planet - and our bodies - with. By some estimates, there are thought to be roughly 10x more non-human microbes in a body than human cells. In this eye-opening podcast from Collective Insights with Daniel Schmachtenberger and Dr Zach Bush, Dr Bush says 2000-2010 was the decade of the brain, but he thinks 2010-2020 will be the decade of the gut. He says the microbiome is an ecosystem in which we humans play only a tiny little part. We are constantly exchanging microRNA, little packets of information, with the environment and the microorganisms that live in and on us. He explains that when he goes outside in the beautiful fall weather and breathes the smells in the woods, "a lot of that is decomposition of the soils and all the leaves falling. That microbiome is exuding exosomes of microRNA so every time I go out and breathe, I get to be plastic with my environment." He continues by explaining how much damage we have done to our microbiome through synthetic fertilizers, glyphosate, and the many toxins to which we are exposed. In order to rebuild gut health, he highly encourages people to go out in nature, garden, play in the dirt, touch plants, and walk barefoot. This may be another important reason why we benefit so greatly from Forest Bathing. Check out Neurohacker Collective for more thought-provoking podcasts,
In Florence Williams' book, The Nature Fix, she travels around the world talking with researchers, educators, and policymakers about the impact of nature on our health, creativity, and happiness. She says that while all the science is fascinating and she hopes it will help support more people getting outside, she also sometimes wonders if perhaps the researchers are missing the forest for the trees. Maybe why we feel so good looking up at ancient redwood trees can't be simplified to one thing such as phytoncides.
Irregardless of the specifics of how we benefit and why that happens, one thing is clear: we just feel better in a beautiful forest. In a world where depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States among people ages 15-44 (source), the opiate crisis is continuing to increase, suicide rates are going up, and chronic mysterious health illnesses are on the rise, the healing benefits of nature immersion are not to be overlooked.
Sadly, the shift away from time in nature is happening at a dizzying pace. A 2009 report by Natural England found that only 10% of children played in woodlands, compared with 40% of their parents' generation (source). I recently read that in the United States, children spend less time outside than prison inmates do. Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Wood, coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe what so many are currently experiencing.
So are you feeling convinced? Wondering how to begin? The practice of Forest Bathing involves slowing down and paying deep mindful attention to one's senses. What are the smells, sounds, sights, and sensations of the world around you? How can you get present to the exquisite beauty before you? What if you were to slow your pace, what could you notice then?
When I was on retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh's community, we would wake up before sunrise each morning for walking meditation. We would walk around a lake at an incredibly slow pace, feeling each part of our foot touch the earth, aware of all the sensations of aliveness in our bodies, paying deep attention to every sense and opening to the moment. Doing this as a daily practice was a profound experience. I can't recommend it enough.
We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us. ~ John Muir
While you put on your hiking boots, I hope this stunning video below gets you inspired and maybe even brings you some awe. Even though watching a video can't compare to actually being in a place, see if you can really allow yourself to absorb the beauty and use your senses to engage fully with this video from Jacob and Katie Schwarz. Put it on full screen, sit back, and soak it in. We truly live in a spectacularly beautiful world.
Wishing you a most luxurious Forest Bath!
In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. ~ Aristotle