Shinrin-yoku: What is forest bathing?

- September 20, 2021

It’s an understatement to say that the world of wellbeing has exploded in recent years. As more and more of us have become acutely concerned with our physical, mental and emotional health, a huge influx of new or borrowed wellbeing practices from all corners of the world have entered the mainstream. Some people have taken up mindfulness, others have become dedicated to meditation; some have honed their breathwork skills while others have added ayurvedic or aromatherapy rituals into their daily routines.

One practice that has intrigued the minds of many (particularly city slickers who spend the best part of their week tied to a desk) is the Japanese ritual of Shinrin-yoku, otherwise known as forest bathing. Have you, too, been feeling the undeniable pull of nature recently? Below, you’ll find the New Life Portugal guide to forest bathing.

What is Shinrin-yoku?

“Shinrin-yoku was developed in Japan during the 1980s, in response to a health crisis caused by mass urbanisation, and a culture of extreme stress,” explains Marina Neumann, New Life Portugal Program Manager and ANFT Forest Therapy Guide in training.

To put it simply, shinrin-yoku is immersing yourself in nature, with ‘shinrin’ meaning forest and ‘yoku’ meaning bath. “It is a rather broad term for a collection of activities that occur on certified Forest Therapy trails, of which there are approximately 60 in Japan, located near densely populated urban centres,” Marina explains. “During a shinrin-yoku experience, a guide leads a group into the forest and presents activities that employ the five primary senses to connect to the land and reduce stress.”

While it may involve movement, shinrin-yoku isn’t specifically a form of exercise; it’s about spending time in the comforting embrace of nature, and connecting with its many facets through sight, smell, sound, touch and sometimes even taste.

“Forest bathing is the practice of immersing yourself in nature in a mindful way, using your senses to derive a whole range of benefits for your physical, mental, emotional, and social health,” Marina continues. “This is not a regular walking nor an investigation on the nature around us, it is about your own experience, body-mind-heart and opening our senses.”

“Shinrin-yoku then inspired a more clinical variant called shinrin-ryoho (translated as ‘forest therapy’), in which licensed doctors and nurses, known as ‘forest therapists’, design and conduct forest-based programmes to promote health and healing for people suffering from illness, mental disorders, or lifestyle diseases,” Marina adds. “Shinrin-ryoho is supported by a rich collection of physiological and neurochemical studies focused on the impact of forest environments on human health that comes from Japan.”

Who is Forest Bathing suitable for?

People of all ages and fitness levels can benefit from Forest Bathing. It can be particularly helpful for those who live in urban areas and may not be exposed to or have easy access to nature on an everyday basis. People who live in cities generally experience higher levels of stress and tend to suffer from conditions that affect their mental health more often than those who live in the countryside.

As spending time in nature and connecting with flora and fauna through our five senses lowers stress levels, improves mood, and boosts the immune system they might get more out of it than someone who lives surrounded by nature. That being said, though, the latter group of people may be surprised how intentionally and mindfully experiencing nature will enhance their wellbeing.

In short: Anyone who is open to the experience can benefit from Shinrin-yoku. You’ll find that the practice – if done regularly – will improve your overall physical, mental and emotional health and is even accessible to people who are recovering from injury or who have chronic conditions that affect their mobility. Furthermore, forest bathing can also make a difference to those at risk for heart disease or stroke as science has proven that being in nature lowers blood pressure and heart rate.

As Shinrin-yoku – at least in its traditional form – gets practised in a group setting, it can help with loneliness as it’s also a great way to connect with others and build community. It allows you to meet new and like-minded people, relax, connect with your body as well as your surroundings and enjoy the beauty of nature.

What are the benefits of shinrin-yoku?

Whether you’ve ever taken a walk in the countryside or stood in awe of a horizon-spanning view, we’ve all felt the shoulder-dropping and brow-unfurling power of nature. Shinrin-yoku is about embracing the stress-relieving benefits of the natural world in a long-lasting and meaningful way.

There’s plenty of research that shows how being in nature, particularly when we experience it in a mindful way, can positively impact our wellbeing (Marina recommends this short documentary that brings its effect to life). Below are the main benefits of spending time in nature.

  • It can provide cognitive relief
    If you spend a lot of time in busy cities and built up environments, your mind and body face a barrage of stimuli that increase your cognitive load. While nature isn’t without its stimuli, it triggers our senses in a different, more comforting way.
  • It can boost immunity
    “Certain trees like conifers emit oils and compounds to safeguard themselves from microbes and pathogens, explains Marina. “These molecules, known as phytoncides, are good for our immunity too. Breathing in the forest air boosts the cells used to fight infections.”
  • It can reduce stress
    According to ANFT, time in nature can reduce the production of stress hormone, cortisol. In a study, those who gazed at forest scenery for 20 minutes had 13.4% less salivary cortisol than those in urban settings while leisurely forest walks show a 12.4% decrease in cortisol production.
  • It can aid depression
    “What researchers have found is that being in the forest repeatedly, or even just acutely, is associated with dissolution in tension, a decrease in stress and anxiety and over time, a decrease in depression,” Marina explains.
  • It can boost creativity
    Research has also found that time in nature can improve mental performance and creativity. One study found that participants performed 50% better on creative problem-solving tasks after three days of wilderness backpacking.

More recently, there has been a focus on research that looks into the benefits of shinrin-yoku in particular. For example, Medical empirical research on forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku): a systematic review is a study that focused on the newest evidence of the relationship between forest environmental exposure and human health. It concluded that forest bathing activities might have the following merits:

  • Improving cardiovascular function, hemodynamic indexes, neuroendocrine indexes, metabolic indexes, immunity and inflammatory indexes, antioxidant indexes, and electrophysiological indexes.
  • Significantly enhancing emotional state, attitude, and feelings towards things, physical and psychological recovery, and adaptive behaviours.
  • Alleviating anxiety and depression.
  • Significantly improving physical and psychological health.

Where should I go for Forest Bathing?

If you’re looking for a place to try Shinrin-yoku there are many options available to you. Some popular spots include national parks, nature reserves, and forested areas – some of the most well-known ones in Europe include The Black Forest in Germany, the Forest of Dean and Sherwood Forest in the UK, Wild Taiga in Finland, Foresta Irati in Spain or Triglav National Park in Slovenia just to name a few. Most European cities have parks with walking trails, gardens, and green spaces that are perfect for forest bathing as well.

As Shinrin-yoku is quickly becoming a very popular wellbeing practice in the Western world, you’ll very likely find guided groups in quite a few of the major cities or in some selected wellness retreats or mindfulness centres like for example New Life Portugal which is nestled in the stunning nature of the Serra da Estrela.

This mountain range is located in the center of Portugal and is known for its high peaks, natural beauty and its unique flora and fauna. The park offers a variety of trails, from easy walks to challenging hikes, that will allow you to fully immerse yourself in nature and experience the benefits of forest bathing in an incredibly diverse outdoor environment with breathtaking panoramic views.

How to do Forest Bathing?

It’s important to note that there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to practice shinrin-yoku. “There is not a specific objective to achieve, each person has their own experience and will receive from nature what they need at that moment,” Marina explains.

However, there are some general guidelines to bear in mind, as laid out by wilderness guide Amos Clifford:

  • The intention of forest therapy is to connect with nature in a healing way, which requires you to move through the environment with presence and utilising all of your senses.
  • Unlike a gym session that you know will be over in an hour or so, Shinrin-yoku should not be rushed, nor should it be thought of as physical exercise. “It is more about being here, than it is about getting there.”
  • Shinrin-yoku should not be a one-and-done experience. It’s about developing a meaningful relationship with nature over the long term.
  • It’s also not simply about taking walks in forest land, but instead about core routines that will help strengthen our relationship with nature. “Among these practices are sit spot, place tending, acquiring nature knowledge, and engaging the active imagination through play, creative expression, and imaginal dialogues with other-than-human beings such as animals, trees, stones, and rivers.”

Ready to give shinrin-yoku a try? Below are the basic steps often followed during group forest bathing experiences.

  • Be clear with your intention to practice forest bathing.
  • Start with a ritual to indicate the beginning of the practice.
  • Stay in one area for at least 15 min. and use your five senses to explore the present.
  • Slowly walk for 20 minutes, noticing the movements around you.
  • Select min. 1-3 signs ideal for the mood, other people, the weather, and the forest.

Forest therapy at New Life Portugal

We practice forest therapy, a form of therapy inspired by shinrin-yoku and developed by ANFT (Association of Nature and Forest Therapy) created by Amos Clifford.

“Forest Therapy is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments,” explains Marina. “Studies have demonstrated a wide array of health benefits, especially in the cardiovascular and immune systems, and for stabilising and improving mood and cognition.

We build on those benefits and look beyond them, to what happens when people remember that we are a part of nature, not separate from it, and that we are related to all other beings in fundamental ways.”

While you can practise forest therapy in any safe natural space, even in urban parks, here at New Life Portugal wellness retreat, we have the privilege of being situated in the awe-inspiring Serra da Estrela National Park.

The first natural park to be created in Portugal, it holds the record for the largest protected area in the country.

Furthermore, at New Life Portugal, you’ll be able to explore the merits of forest therapy with a trained guide at hand. Not only does this support help you to slow down, it deepens the discipline and experience.

“We say that the forest is your therapist, the guide only opens the doors for you,” notes Marina.

“The role of the guide is to create a safe environment and group container, so everyone can focus on their own experience and learn from others. During the practice, the guide will offer many types of invitations on how to explore five senses and the environment.”

Alongside Forest Therapy, New Life Portugal also offers grounding (or earthing) practices. “This is a therapeutic technique that involves doing activities that ‘ground’ or electrically reconnect you to the earth, based on the central theory that grounding affects the living matrix, which is the central connector between living cells,” Marins explains.

“Electrical conductivity exists within the matrix that functions as an immune system defense, similar to antioxidants. Through grounding, the natural defenses of the body can be restored.” With benefits for sleep, chronic pain, stress, reduction and immune response, there are many ways we do it: walking barefoot, lying on the ground, submerging in water.

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