For 95% of the time our species has spent on this green earth, we’ve been enmeshed in and inseparable from the natural world. Every aspect of our daily lives took place among the trees. Our workplace was the forest; our home was in the open air amidst other life. After thousands of years adapting to this specific environment, our brain and its biological mechanisms are still there. This deep-rooted attachment to the natural world can be seen through our color perception. We are able to detect more shades of green than any other color because, even if one’s ancestors have long since emigrated to the desert, the forest is where our brains and bodies evolved to be. So it comes as no surprise that when we are removed from our forested natural habitat for the artificial, man-made environs we inhabit today, problems will arise.
Naturalist and conservationist John Muir wrote about what has been prescribed in modern times as nature deficit disorder: “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.” While city-dwellers have been escaping the confines of urban life for the relaxing retreat of the woods for centuries, the need has been dramatized in the current era. This might stem from the the growing trend of urbanization; people have been flocking from the country to the city at a constant pace. According to a 2014 article by the United Nations, 54% of the population lives in cities, a figure projected to rise to 66% by the year 2050. It appears the vast majority of this city life is spent indoors, as a study conducted by the EPA recorded Americans spending 90% of the time indoors. As our city lives get socked-in, and our phones shatter our attention spans, the need for a release comes at a fevered pitch.
Enter Forest Bathing, a Japanese practice of submerging oneself in nature for a bounty of health benefits. In Japanese, Shinrin-Yoku translates to English more accurately as “taking in the forest atmosphere” by mindfully walking through nature, allowing the senses to be rejuvenated. Since its conception in the 1980s, forest medicine has revolutionized the Japanese medical industry. Shinrin-Yoku is regularly prescribed by doctors to treat everything from depression to cancer. For anyone who has spent extended periods of time in nature, the health benefits are intuitive. But, to appease the logical brain, science has rigorously studied the far-reaching effects.
On a chemical level, inhaling aromatic compounds called phytoncides increases natural killer cells that boost immune system functioning. After walking in the forest for two hours over two days, these immune-supporting cells increased by 50%. Numerous studies have also found that forest bathers experience reduced stress, increased energy, and improved sleep. In combination with these bodily benefits are cognitive ones. Spending significant time in nature has been shown to increase the ability to focus as well as to expand creativity. In a study on backpackers, the group that had been in nature constantly for four days scored 50% higher in creativity that the control group that did not leave the city. As it stands, simply being in nature has its own intrinsic rewards, so how does the specific practice of Forest Bathing deepen this experience?
Inspired by the Japanese practice, groups offering the meditative experience have appeared all over the world. Jesse Remer is the leader of Forest Therapy PDX. Remer immerses participants in the forest and offers what can be described as guided meditations. She describes her jobas taking over the activity of the left-brained taskmaster, worried about the time and directions, so that participants can slip into the relaxed, intuitive right side of the brain. In the two to four hour walk through the woods, she offers invitations to participants: “How often have you walked so slowly to notice the ladybugs crawling underneath a leaf?,
Forest Therapy is an international phenomenon. It doesn’t have to be a transcendental experience— for many it’s simply a much-needed opportunity to unplug. We are all native to the forest, and being in nature is returning home. We’re “stepping into the idea that we are not separate from it,” says Jesse Remer. As a piece of preventative medicine, Forest Bathing has the power to heal.