By Nicole Rivard
Typically when I visit my local 65-acre nature preserve it’s to get some exercise. But recently I realized that even though trail running and hiking are great forms of exercise that allow you to be outdoors, if you truly want to experience and connect with nature—and yourself—there’s a better way.
It’s called Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” and this health trend is taking off in the United States.
Shinrin-yoku, which doesn’t actually involve any type of bathing, was developed in Japan in the 1980s, and it is becoming a staple of preventative healthcare and healing in Japanese medicine. Japanese researchers have found that the phytoncides that are produced to help plants and trees protect themselves from harmful insects and germs, are beneficial to humans. White blood cells, which guard against tumors and infections, showed a 50 percent elevation in people who spent three or four days in the forest, the study found, and those effects lasted a month. Other studies indicate benefits such as lowered cortisol levels (the stress hormone), plus lowered blood pressure and heart rate, and alleviation of depression.
What is old is new again
There actually has been a long tradition of spending time in forested areas for the purpose of enhancing health, wellness and happiness throughout the world, according to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, which was founded in 2012 by M. Amos Clifford.
And it’s not just about healing people; it includes healing for the forest, or river, or desert, or whatever environment you are in. Working for Friends of Animals, I liked the sound of that.
So I decided to try my first shinrin-yoku session at Harry C. Barnes Memorial Nature Center in Bristol, Conn. It was an eye-opener, literally and figuratively; I learned that there is so much to discover along a journey through the forest when you actually let yourself be in the moment and are not focused on any destination…or calories burned.
And that’s the whole point of shinrin-yoku—to use all of your senses to practice being in the moment, forgetting about the future and not lamenting the past. During the outing, the guide prompted us first through some slow heel-to-toe walking, where we massaged the earth with our feet while focusing on our equilibrium. Eventually she had us engaging all our senses—even our sense of smell as we picked up and sniffed various leaves. We also paused here and there to talk about what we were feeling in the moment and what we were grateful for.
As someone who loves wildlife watching, I was thankful for the different prompts by the guide, because in an hour and a half, I noticed flora and fauna that would otherwise have gone unnoticed—I marveled at Eastern Newts in the red eft stage; wood frogs; dragonflies, ants going about their day, the sounds of birds near and far, the light coming through the forest canopy, the shapes of different kinds of fungi and even the feeling of the moss on the tree I hugged. Yes, we hugged a tree.
Clifford, who has plans to certify 250 new guides next year, says “what energizes our work is our love of nature; but also our sense of impending environmental catastrophe caused by global overpopulation and Western Cultures over-emphasis on consumption.”
He believes his contribution to finding solutions to these problems is to help as many people as possible to develop meaningful relationships with nature. And that’s a concept shared by Friends of Animals.
“The reality is that most people don’t spend much time in nature; and when we do, we are often distracted in ways that prevent us from forming meaningful connections with the plants and other inhabitants of the forest,” Clifford writes. “We agree with Jacques Cousteau that ‘people protect what they love.’ Love of nature arises naturally when we come into heartfelt, embodied relationship with it, a kind of relationship that is not limited to knowing the facts but instead encompasses a much deeper knowing of one’s place among the many beings.”
I couldn’t agree more.
If you’d like to learn more about Shinrin-yoku, visit www.natureandforesttherapy.org.
Here is a list of places across the country that currently offer forest bathing:
New England Nature and Forest Therapy Consulting, Acton, Mass. https://www.nenft.com
Woodloch Lodge in Hawley, Pa. www.thelodgeatwoodloch.com
Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. www.blackberryfarm.com
L’Auberge de Sedona in Sedona, Ariz. www.lauberge.com
Trout Point Lodge in East Kemptville, Nova Scotia www.troutpoint.com
Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz, N.Y. www.mohonk.com/mindfulness;
Harry C. Barnes Memorial Nature Center, Bristol, Conn. www.elcct.org
Nicole Rivard is editor of Friends of Animal’s quarterly magazine Action Line. She brings 18 years of journalism experience to the front lines, protesting and documenting atrocities against animals.