The Healing Powers of Forest Bathing

While travelling though England a couple of years ago I came across forest bathing. Forest bathing is the practice of walking mindfully amongst trees and there is a growing body of evidence to demonstrate that physical and emotional benefits that can be gained from doing this. It has been predicted that this practice will be as big a yoga over the next 20 years.

When we walk amongst trees we are in an oxygen rich environment. We are exposed to sights and sounds that generally relax us, but even more important is our exposure to phytoncides (wood essential oils). Phytoncides significantly increase our NK cells which are known to fight cancer. In a nutshell walking in the forest has some major health benefits the full extent of which is, as yet, unknown.

Forest therapy has been proven to:

  • Improve the immune system
  • Increase relaxation due to increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system
  • Reduce stress
  • Reduce anxiety and depression
  • Reduce blood pressure if it is high and raise it if is low
  • Increase feelings of wellbeing
  • Decrease cardiovascular illnesses
  • Help with respiratory system issues such as allergies

Dr Nooshin Razani, a paediatric infectious diseases doctor at Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland California, conducts a program call Shine, where once a month she leads of group of up to 50 people through a lush forest of redwoods. Her patients range in age from 8 months to 18. Dr Razani published findings that park visits, no matter where they were, or whether they were led by a guide or not led to a decrease in stress.

Suzanne Simard, a researcher at the University of British Columbia also quotes a hospital in Atlanta that formally offers forest therapy to patients with cancer. Another doctor in Iowa, Dr Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmill, an obstetrician-gynaecologist became a certified forest guide and leads groups.

Professor Yoshifumi Miyazak, who is a researcher and director of Chiba University’s Centre for Environment, Health and Field Sciences and author of Shinrin-yoku, says that our genes cannot change in just a few hundred years and the loss of trees and our natural environment is a major contributor to modern day stress. Dr Miyazaki also says that stress today is not just triggered by dangerous situations but emotional ones as well such as a crowded commuter train, a driver who takes the parking space you wanted, or an employer who is unhappy with your work. We have more triggers for the stress response today than ever before and when our bodies remain in a state of hyper-arousal for too long illness occurs.

How a forest bathing session is conducted

  • Choose an area to walk in where there are lots of trees, preferably one that is away from traffic and a lot of people.
  • Walk slowly and focus on your five senses.
  • Listen to the sounds around you.
  • Look at the different way the light falls and different shades of green.
  • Feel the breeze on your skin. Hug a tree and note the texture of the bark.
  • Breathe deeply into your heart field and tune into your emotions, particularly noting if you feel calmer.
  • Breathe deeply and smell the forest.
  • Do not eat anything unless you know it’s safe, but you can engage your sense of taste by opening your mouth and tasting the air.

The length of each session is up to you generally, though a minimum of 20 minutes slow walking is ideal, with 20 minutes sitting.

If you walk with a group, you may ask them to stand in a circle and comment on what they noted during the session.

A forest bathing session can last from 20 minutes up to 2 hours, and longer if people choose. How you feel about the session has a lot to do with how effective it is so don’t push yourself to do longer if you are not enjoying it.

There are several other things you can do:

You can reverse the order of sitting and walking.

You can just walk if you choose or practice yoga, tai chi, or qigong.

You can start with an intention.

You can have a tea ceremony at the end.

You can walk barefoot.

Mindfulness is the way to change our state and ultimately our entire lives, whether we practice being mindful as a daily exercise, or we make walking amongst trees something we do on a regular basis.