Picture yourself immersed deep in the woods.
The canopy is bathed in sunlight and brimming with beauty. Leaves glisten in the sun (the Japanese have a distinct, untranslatable word for this: “komorebi”). The ground — lush with mosses and ferns — is stirring with the sounds of unseen creatures and critters underfoot.
After a moment or two of stillness, you see small groups of people wandering the dirt trails, leaving only footprints, but taking back to their urban nests something very precious: a refreshed state of mind.
It’s no wonder that a walk out in nature leaves us all feeling happier and healthier. It’s our natural habitat, after all. But did you know that something as simple as a walk in the woods can relieve stress, strengthen your immune system, and even prevent certain diseases? It’s the ancient practice of “forest bathing,” which amounts to a meditative walk in the forest as a way to promote well-being. Don’t worry — it’s not as tree-huggerish as it might sound.
In Japan — where vast forests make up 67 percent of the landscape — the government is backing it up as a way to relax the overworked masses. In the past 10 years alone, they’ve established 48 “Forest Therapy” trails and invested more than $4 million into programs. And scientists are heralding forest bathing as a kind of natural aromatherapy with quantifiable effects.
One such advocate is Qing Li, MD, PhD, associate professor at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, and the vice-president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine based in Japan. He’s one of the world’s leading researchers in forest medicine and is helping popularize the practice in the Western world. As we hold on to the last warm days before the fall chill, we asked Li for his secrets to tapping into the healing power of the great outdoors.
Li told us that the practice was first inspired by the ancient spiritual practice of “shinrin-yoku” (translated literally into “forest bathing”). According to Li, the idea is to let nature enter your body through all five senses: “the fragrance of the forest, green colors of the plants, the murmuring of streams and singing of birds, the eating of forest foods, and the touching of trees.”
This kind of “living in the present” allows you to feel alive, aware, and energized. But the benefits of forest bathing extend beyond that. Over in Japan, forest bathing is treated as standard preventative medicine. In a series of experiments conducted by Li, a group of adult subjects were led out for a three-day trip to a forest park. Test results showed that their natural killer cell levels were significantly higher after a day of forest bathing compared with a normal working day.
Translation, please? “These findings indicate that forest bathing could build bodies that may be resistant to cancer development,” says Li.
Other science-backed studies link forest bathing to reduced stress, boosted immunity, lowered blood pressure, and improved overall physical and mental health. Now that’s some meditative magic.
Ready to give it a try? Anyone can forest bathe, says Li. The key is to set your own pace. Never overexert yourself: Rest in a quiet, scenic spot when you’re tired. Drink water or tea when you’re thirsty. If you want to boost your immunity, he recommends a three-day, two-night trip. And if you’re just looking to relieve daily stress, a day trip to a forested park near home does the trick just fine. If you can, he adds, sink into a hot bath when you get home. The idea is to unwind in the natural elements.
Even if you live in an urban area with no forest is in sight, keep your eyes peeled for surreptitiously green spaces. Are there any tree-lined streets in your neighborhood? Any public parks or botanical gardens? What about that tucked-away cafe with the lush lawn hidden from street view? Nature is all around you –- you just have to know where to look.
And the last resort? You can always bring the great outdoors to your small indoors with these no-fuss, nature-inspired home projects: woodsy centerpieces and accents, and rustic earth tones. You can unearth materials from your own backyard to create bottled terrariums, naturally scented products such as this homemade grass soap, and inspirational leaf prints.