These uncertain times surrounding the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has taken its toll on many Americans’ health and well-being by upending the ways we socialize, work and play. Stay at Home orders and the latest Stay Safe recommendations have us searching for options not just for recreation, but for those activities that also support our mental health. We are fortunate our Minnesota public health experts had the insight to permit and encourage many outdoor activities during the Stay at Home order. There is no doubt that spending time in nature is beneficial to our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
One nature practice you may or may not be familiar with that boasts many mental health benefits and is becoming increasingly popular is the Japanese art and science of Shinrin-Yoku, otherwise known as Forest Bathing. If you just wondered if you should begin taking bubble baths in the forest, as my 12-year-old might have suggested, you will be happy (or disappointed) to know this is not the practice. Rather, it is turning to the trees by immersing your whole being into a forest and soaking up all it has to offer.
Forest bathing is very simple and easy to do on your own. Another option is finding someone learned in the practice to serve as a guide to lead you through some thought provoking and nature-oriented exercises for a different experience. The first step is finding a wooded area and then taking some time to wander in it. This isn’t like hiking as there is no destination. In fact, if allowed and can be done safely, I recommend you go a bit off trail for this experience. You’ll lessen the encounters with other humans which allows you to fully immerse in your surroundings. I strongly encourage the practice of low impact use of the park or forest land by being mindful of where you step and leaving no evidence of your time spent there.
Start by opening to your senses. Going slowly and stopping often, listen for the sounds of the forest. Observe with sight the colors and shapes of plants and shadows. Feel the springy soft texture of moss or the coolness of running water. Most particularly, awaken to your sense of smell as the breath invites in the same elements given off by the trees that they themselves use to stay healthy. These natural defense mechanisms are oils from the trees called phytoncides and we can smell them. Breathe deeply and you may notice a pine, cedar or lemon scent. These phytoncides have been proven to give our own bodies a positive immune system response.
Japanese scientists and doctors have been studying the effects of forest bathing since the 1980’s. Dr. Qing Li notes in his book, Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, his team’s and others’ scientific measurement and study of the benefits of practicing Shinrin-Yoku. It has shown to reduce blood pressure, stress, anxiety and depression while improving the quality of sleep and boosting the immune system. The forest has proven to be a welcome respite from the stresses of everyday life and has become even more utilized during this pandemic.
Having natural spaces to visit close to home should be a basic human right, and in our rural area, it may be something we take for granted. Like me, you may have seen images of crowded metro area parks or read notices by the MN DNR to find a new spot if the parking lot at a favorite state park was full. Many may attest that even our lessor known county parks have been seeing a lot more traffic than usual. Now more than ever, we may be understanding the importance of preserving and promoting conservation and stewardship of natural and wild spaces.
There is no doubt we have a connection with the natural world including the trees within it. We breathe in their life-giving oxygen and they take in the carbon dioxide we exhale. Forest bathing is a simple yet profound outdoor activity that can be beneficial to us during times of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress. When you smell the pine, the cedar, the oak leaves; you know you are among the trees and doing wonders for your health-physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Li, Q. (2018). Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness. New York, NY: Viking.
As published in Definitive Woman Magazine Summer 2020