Shinrin-Yoku is the medicine of simply being in the forest. As a remedial tonic to the over-stimulation of modern life, this practice of “forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”, of taking a walk, breathing in the fresh air, opening our senses and feeling contact with the earth and our natural surroundings has become a cornerstone of preventative health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
What kind of sickness can be cured from walking in the woods? An age old remedy to get some colour in your cheeks, as Grandma would say, it’s now scientifically proven that getting outside can help you heal and increase your vitality. We all recognise that we feel better and generally more alive when we step away from our technology and screens for an hour (or a whole day) and just practice being mindful of our surroundings, opening our senses of smell, sight, sound, hearing, taste. We have more energy, we feel more inspired, more in touch with our surroundings, we make healthier choices, and we develop a closer connection to the natural world around us, more aware of how our individual choices have an impact on our environment.
In the last several decades there have been a number of scientific studies on the healing effects of simply being in wild and natural areas. It is no coincidence that this comes at a time when the popularity of outdoor adventure, environmental consciousness, adventure tourism, and alternative therapies such as wilderness therapy for troubled or at-risk youths are increasing ten-fold. A number of organisations are creating programs incorporating mindfulness meditation, hiking, just being outside. People are recognising the importance of our natural world to the health of our internal landscapes. This scientific research proves that our plants and trees are designed to heal. There is an incredible life-supporting synergy and cycle in the natural world, and forest therapy places us as humans amongst this healing environment. Many trees give off organic compounds which support our ‘natural killer’ cells – an integral part of our immune system’s way of fighting off cancer.
Other benefits of spending time in nature? Reduced stress, better sleep, increased recovery from illness, reduced blood pressure, improved mood, increase in ability to focus on one thing at a time, more energy. Opening our senses to nature also develops our intuition – we learn to contact the world around us in new ways and in turn listen to what our bodies are telling us – messages that can be clouded by technology, mixed messages and distraction. When you spend too long in the city and all you want is to lie in the park, this is your cells sending you a message about what it needs. Other long term benefits on a more personal level include better relationships, increased flow of life force energy, overall increased happiness, a better understanding of the land on which we live, and the condition of our natural environment.
One of the most significant problems in our age of connection is that, ironically, we are becoming more and more disconnected from reality. We develop relationships over social media rather than in person, we hide behind our technology, we don’t understand that our actions have a knock-on effect in the world. The more technologically wired we are, the more isolated we become, to the extent that we don’t need to leave our house all day. We order food online, we talk to our friends online, we work online, we shop online, we entertain ourselves online. By stepping out of our homes, walking into the forest, we are aligning ourselves with nature and taking a step towards healing the chronic modern illness of disconnection.
And the idea, in returning to nature, is not to achieve anything, which is exactly the opposite of the demands of our daily lives. We are conditioned to always be achieving, working towards something. In the forest, Forest Bathing masters do nothing, and gain illumination. As Einstein wisely proclaimed,
“I think 99 times, and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me”.
So just be with the trees – no need to count your steps, track your calories – just sit, or meander around, but the point is to relax rather than accomplish anything.
The healing power of nature isn’t a new scientific discovery. John Muir, also known as “John of the Mountains”, an American naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, glaciologist and early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the United States, recognised this as early as the 1800s. He wrote “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.” So we’ve known it for centuries, but age-old wisdom brings new significance in modern times, as a remedy for modern illness.
And on that note, I’m going to step away from my computer and get back to nature, back to where I came from.