When we spend unhurried time in a forest – listening to resident birds, examining sparkling rocks, or just sitting quietly under an old tree – good things happen to our mind, body, and relationships with both others and the planet.
This was the message shared by three experts during a Global Landscapes Forum Digital Summit on the concept of ‘forest bathing,’ to mark the International Day of Happiness (20 March) and the International Day of Forests (21 March). The summit was held weeks after the United Nations issued a global call to action to mobilize political and financial support to restore ecosystems over the coming decade.
Forest bathing is derived from the Japanese phrase shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest atmosphere,” and is proven to have health benefits derived from the chemicals emitted by trees called phytoncides and soil bacteria. Various forms of the activity have been long practiced by indigenous communities around the world, but it has recently begun trending among urban populations looking to reconnect with nature.
“A forest is a place where we aren’t restricted by so many rules that we follow in our everyday lives,” said Sibylle Roth, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Freiburg in Germany. “You can be a human being more than a human doing.”
In the summit, Qing Li, a medical doctor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and the world’s foremost expert on forest medicine, talked about his and other researchers’ findings on the health benefits of forest bathing.
Trees emit essential oils – phytoncides – when they are injured or being attacked. Some plants, for example, give off enough phytoncides to repel attacking insects. Li’s research showed that, when inhaled, these chemicals can reduce stress hormone levels and lower blood pressure. Phytoncides can also strengthen the immune system and increase the production of anti-cancer proteins in the body. He has expounded his findings in his books Forest Bathing: How trees can help you find health and happiness, which focuses solely on shinrin-yoku and in Forest Medicine, a singular compendium of information on the topic that has been translated into 27 languages.
Other studies show that exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae, a nonpathogenic bacteria in soil, can increase serotonin in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which modulates anxiety.
How to best absorb these forest essences during a forest bath? “You need to engage your five senses,” said Li. “See the beautiful scenery, hear the forest landscape, absorb the smell of the trees and plants. Touch the trees…and taste food from the forest.”
Li, however, offered a caveat. “You cannot get tired, or you might produce stress hormones and that would produce a negative effect,” he said. He suggests a leisurely forest walk instead. “Be in nature. Don’t get tired. Don’t exercise [during forest bathing].”
The healing that we experience during forest bathing can also heal our relationship with nature and other communities and nations, said healing and design specialist Julia Plevin. “I always loved being in nature, but it wasn’t until I lived in New York City that I realized the mental health effects of being disconnected from nature,” Plevin said. “I realized so much of my own anxiety and stress stemmed from that disconnection.”
Plevin read up and discovered there are many named forms of mental distress caused by lack of time in nature. “There was ecoanxiety, ecoparalysis, solastalgia. The list goes on,” she said.
It became clear to Plevin that the solution to her anxiety was to reconnect with the forest. “That’s why I started a forest bathing club. It was my own healing and my own way to connect, and I wanted to see if anyone else was also interested in doing this with me,” she said.
Plevin formed the club in San Francisco where she was living at the time and led an increasing number of people through forest bathing excursions. In October, she’ll lead a forest bathing trip in the Brazilian Amazon, to learn about forest bathing from indigenous communities.
Plevin has also written a book, The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing: Finding Calm, Creativity and Connection in the Natural World, in which she has documented indigenous knowledge on forest bathing gleaned from her conversations and experiences with indigenous communities and leaders around the world. “I consider myself a student in all this,” she said. “Wisdom keepers have been holding this wisdom for generations.”
Plevin saw parallels of forest bathing across different cultures. “Cultures that have had no contact with each other have these similar understandings of nature and the sacredness of the earth,” she said. “These indigenous groups have never lost the connection with nature, and they have held onto their beliefs [about nature] even in times of persecution.”
Bringing in a historic perspective, Roth talked about how forest bathing relates to Muße, a German concept related to mindfulness and forests. In ancient Germany, Muße was synonymous with a state of freedom from work and purpose. It did not, however, mean idleness or laziness, Roth clarified. “There is no English translation for it.”
Roth is pursuing the modern meaning of Muße in her country, and specifically how Muße is experienced in the forest. For her research, Roth separately shadowed 25 people on their forest walks, using a field research method called “go-along interviews.”
“There was always something special about the individuals’ connection with the forest,” she said. Her subjects talked about the forest as an escape from everyday life, a freedom from rules, and an experience of life transforming into something bigger or more expansive.
Roth is also studying how these modern ideas of Muße in the forest can have practical applications for the future. “How can forests be built more Muße-friendly?” she posed. “How would [forests] look like to help people perceive [Muße] or be able to perceive it more than they do nowadays?”
But, forest bathing is not just about what forests can do for us, but also what we can do for forests, the speakers said.
Plevin reflected that in forming the Forest Bathing Club and writing her book, she was stepping outside of herself and acting on behalf of the forest. “This is an urgent time on planet Earth where we can’t just go on living as we’ve been living in this extractive way,” she said. “We need to protect the environment in order to protect ourselves and protect our future.”
And it all starts with walking into a forest. “One minute of looking up at a tree increases your awe,” said Plevin. “You connect to something bigger than yourself, and that leads to greater collaboration and creativity.”