How taking time out in nature can help your heart and mind
During the height of Covid lock-downs I often found myself stepping into my yard to find a patch of sunlight, raising my face to the sky, and taking deep, purposeful breaths for little five-minute breaks. I would concentrate on listening to the bees in my jasmine bushes, smelling my treasured plumeria tree, and tuning out the chaos that was barely muffled by my backdoor. I was homeschooling two rambunctious young boys, and felt overwhelmed with my newfound responsibilities while coping with the heightened stressors of the pandemic. As it turns out, this little self-care ritual I had accidentally stumbled upon has a name in Japanese culture: shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing. Its simplicity is beautiful, in that the practice merely requires you to find a patch of nature—it can be deep in the woods or even amongst well-placed patio plants —and to try and take in the environment using all of your senses.
What is Shinrin Yoku?
While it’s tempting to ascribe this practice to some ancient art of healing, the origins of shinrin-yoku can be traced back to the 1980s in Japan. It emerged as a physiological and psychological exercise to offer an eco-antidote, if you will, to tech-boom burnout. Advocates for the practice also hoped that forest bathing would inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests.
So what is it, exactly? Well, it’s the act of finding a bit of nature to immerse yourself in, and then taking the time to use all of your senses to slow down and be more mindful of the present. Like any mindfulness exercise, it can be done just about anywhere and by anyone, but it is best experienced (at least at first) with a guide. One such guide, Brenda Spitzer, from the Morton Arboretum in Illinois, likes to emphasize the slow pace that is necessary:
In an article on NextAvenue, she described it this way: “We move very slowly along those trails, using all of our senses to just bring us into the moment […] A forest therapy walk gives participants an opportunity to take a break from the stresses of daily life, to slow down and appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly. The key to forest therapy is not to cover a lot of miles, but to walk through nature with intention and just take it all in.”
For people just starting out, it can be hard to get in the practice of going slowly enough. One way to help yourself move with intention is to write or sketch in a small notebook, or try to take macro-shots of nature that you find interesting with a camera (even if it’s your phone). That way you are more focused on the details of one particular place, rather than thinking about getting to the next stop.
To get the authentic experience, some argue, even these distractions are a deterrent to getting the full benefits of the practice. Dr. Qing Li, the author of the book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help you Find Health and Happiness, argues that you need to leave your phone and cameras behind. For him, having a purpose defeats the purpose of shinrin-yoku; You should let your body guide you. Allow all five senses to take a turn leading you down a different path. You should touch trees, dip toes in streams, smell flowers and taste the freshness of the air. As long as you are fully immersed in absorbing nature (pollen be damned) you will be able to feel a physiological and psychological improvement.
Does Forest Bathing Really Work?
By the 1990s scientists were starting to gather data to support what many have known for years: being outside is good for us. (Darn it, my mother was right. Again.) In one study, scientists compared results from subjects who went for a walk in the woods versus a walk in the city, and measured different ways to analyze stress in the body. The results showed lower concentrations of cortisol (the stress hormone), lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure, and greater parasympathetic nerve activity in those who took the walk in the woods. In other words, they were less stressed-out.
In another study conducted by our friend Dr. Qing Li, middle-aged men performed a similar task: one group would forest-bathe, and the control would do the same but in an urban environment. Again, those that were able to take in nature versus the chaos of the city showed several different benefits: decreased scores for depression, fatigue, and anxiety, along with other beneficial physiological responses.
And lest you think that this only works when it’s absolutely gorgeous outside, that isn’t the case. Forest bathing works year-round and in all sorts of weather; the experiences will just be different. For example, native evergreens, such as spruce, eastern hemlock, balsam and pine, release a high concentration of phytoncides, which are airborne essential oils that provide a natural immunity boost. Snow has its own sensory wonders for winter bathing, and who can ignore the lure of a late summer rain shower?
Where Can I Try Forest Bathing?
Capital Region residents have plenty of nature for everyone to experience. Just outside the downtown area you have Washington Park, which is perfect for when you need a hit of green but don’t have the time to get truly out there. For more dense nature, take a day trip to Green Mountain National Forest, or head up north to Adirondack Mountain State Park. There, you can take guided forest bathing year-round (check out Adirondack Riverwalking)