Have you ever felt that ineffable feeling of being one with nature?
Then you would probably enjoy forest bathing. Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a Japanese therapy aimed at reconnecting with nature and gaining health benefits. The ritual has its origins in ancient Japanese religion but became popularized in the 1980s as a counter-movement to the rise of tech. The practice has since spread across the world. IONS Scientist Garret Yount, PhD, even discusses the benefits of forest bathing in his book Why Vibes Matter: Understand your Energy and Learn How to Use it Wisely.
Forest bathing is also called “taking in the forest atmosphere.” The practice is about merging with nature. And you don’t need a big forest to practice it! Anywhere where you can walk among trees is great.
How to do forest bathing
Forest bathing is surprisingly simple – all you need is a tree. The practice allows us to reap the benefits of nature without needing to go on a hike or find a faraway forest. If you have a park near your workplace or home, you can practice forest bathing during your lunch break. In its original form, it’s done in a bigger forest.
The concept is to go on a walk in the wild where you connect with nature while focusing on the present moment. Forest bathing should be done without distractions like phones or cameras. This is the time to capture the moment – not through a camera lens, but through absolute presence.
You can also add activities like hugging a tree, connecting with a stone and contemplating its origins, or collecting sticks and pine cones to take home and make your living environment mimic the natural one. Just remember to be respectful of your surroundings and not to disrupt the balance of any delicate ecosystems you may partake in.
Another important part is to let go of expectations. The goal is just to immerse yourself and engage your senses: listen for sounds, softly gaze at the plants and trees, and enjoy the smells.
Forest bathing is also an opportunity to connect to your intuition. In what direction does your body feel pulled to go? Pause, walk faster, or slow down according to your inner guidance.
Also, notice how you affect nature. Notice how the birds and animals react to your presence and the interplay between all living things.
If you’re walking with others, agree not to talk during the experience. You can gather and share your reflections afterward.
As the walk comes to an end, stay attentive and notice any after-effects for the following hours and days.
Scientific support for the benefits of forest bathing
Science is catching up with what humans have known since the dawn of time: nature heals. There’s a growing research field called forest medicine looking at the benefits of nature for human health. Universities are incorporating it into curriculum and mainstream interest continues to grow.
A 2009 paper revealed that forest environments promote lower cortisol levels and increase parasympathetic nervous system activity.
A 2010 study conducted in 24 forests across Japan showed that spending time in forest environments promotes lower levels of cortisol. Even pulse rate and blood pressure decreased among the study participants.
A 2022 study showed positive effects on the immune system, and improvements in mental health, especially in reducing anxiety.
Forest bathing is a simple way of reconnecting in our increasingly disconnected world. By 2050, 66% of the citizens of our planet are forecasted to live in cities. The average American spends 92% of their time indoors.
A part of the beneficial effects of forest bathing comes from inhaling phytoncides, essential oils from trees. These volatile compounds help relax the nervous system.
Research shows that forest bathing helped increase the number of natural killer cells that help remove tumors and virus-infected cells. This is partly thanks to inhaling phytoncides. Forest bathing may, therefore, help prevent and stop cancer. As a comparison, another group was sent to a city environment – their levels of natural killer cells showed no difference.
Virtual forest bathing – the future?
Our environment directly affects our mood and emotions. As we’ve seen, nature also has numerous benefits.
So, what do you do if you live far away from a forest or green area? Believe it or not, but there’s something called virtual forest bathing. The only thing you need to gain the benefits nature offers is a pair of virtual reality glasses. According to a Czech study, participants in virtual forest bathing experienced similar emotional benefits as those who attended actual ones.
However, the digital version of forest bathing has its limitations. Participants in the study reported feeling trapped when they hit the edge of the simulation. It’s also hard to replicate all the tiny details of a natural forest that add to its magic, like insects or mushrooms. Not to mention the smell of pine trees or the humid ground after rain. That said, virtual forest bathing may still be beneficial since there are clear emotional benefits.
One can also imagine that forest bathing helps us by allowing us to feel the oneness of all things. If the virtual variant gives us just a small fraction of that feeling, it could be a convenient way of spreading the healing benefits of interconnectedness across the globe.