Intuitively, we have all always known that the best medicine can be found in nature: the sun provides us with warmth, light and Vitamin D; the soil is rich in beneficial bacteria that are vital to our immune health; plants offer our bodies oxygen, nutrition, and medicine. Trees are especially healing. They provide breathable air, shelter, food, and fuel, as well as a range of medication from aspirin to tea tree oil. Just being in trees is good for our overall well-being.
In 2004, Japan’s National Land Afforestation Promotion Organisation ran an experiment that showed forest walking had beneficial effects on blood pressure, heart rate, and the immune system.1 They also found that people who looked at trees for 20 minutes had a 13% lower concentration of the stress hormone cortisol. The Japanese have a word for this practice — Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which has become a cornerstone of preventative healthcare in Japan and South Korea. In Japan alone, there are 48 designated therapy trails, where forest bathers can wander slowly, quietly, beneath a green cathedral of leaves.
The idea is simple: if a person takes a relaxed stroll through a forest or natural area, there are calming, rejuvenating, and restorative benefits to be achieved. These benefits occur due to various essential oils called phytoncide, found in wood, plants, and some fruit and vegetables, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better—inhaling phytoncide improves immune system function and lifts the overall mood.
Science aside, there’s something profound about being in trees. They have a way of making us feel connected to a larger reality, something powerful, but also protective. It’s what the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke referred to as “the sublime and the beautiful” -- a sight at once both awe-inspiring and reverential. Many of us feel a heightened sense of intuition and the ability to think better -- Plato and Aristotle did their best thinking in the olive groves around Athens, Buddha found enlightenment beneath a bo tree, and Isaac Newton realized his theory of gravity when an apple fell from the tree under which he was sitting.
Many great writers have looked to the woods for inspiration. Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 book Walden: Or Life in the Woods offered a prescription for discontented civilization, which he called “the tonic of wildness.” John Muir often recognized as Father of the National Parks, wrote: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.” He is one of many people whom we include when we think about the origins of the forest bathing practice.
To enjoy this ritual:
- Just be with trees. There should be no intended outcome, no counting steps on a Fitbit. Forest bathing is not exercise - you can sit or meander, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish.
- Try walking barefoot. The feeling of the earth beneath your feet increases the calming and grounding effects.
- Take slow, deep breaths. Allow your senses to come alive.
- How does the bark feel?
- What scents does the wind bring in?
- What sounds can you hear amongst the leaves?
1 Forest Medicine Research in Japan. - NCBI