Shinrin – forest. Yoku – bathing, showering, taking in – with all of our senses. Shinrin-yoku – bathing mind and body in green space.
I am lucky to live near Walden Pond, I walk or swim there almost everyday. Taking myself offline gives me a chance reset. I go to the forest to breathe with the intention of reinvention, and because I realize by slowing down I’m not doing less, I’m doing more.
I like that I am breathing in the air of transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and other notable thinkers who lived beneath these same trees. These places are immersed in the tradition of conscious living and communing with the land. I am reminded that when I breathe, I feel like I am becoming more aware of the preciousness of life and tapping into the molecules of genius in the air around me. This is how I like to greet the day.
“IT IS NOT SO MUCH FOR ITS BEAUTY THAT THE FOREST MAKES A CLAIM UPON (OUR) HEARTS, AS FOR THAT SUBTLE SOMETHING, THAT QUALITY OF AIR THAT EMANATION FROM OLD TREES, THAT WONDERFULLY CHANGES AND RENEWS (OUR) WEARY SPIRIT.”
– ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
In 1990, Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University conducted a small study in the beautiful forests of Yakushima to test shinrin-yoku. Yakushima is one of Japan’s most pristine forests, and it is filled with 1,000-year-old cedar trees. Miyazaki showed that 40 minutes of walking in the cedar forest improved mood and feelings of vigor. Further, his findings reported lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in subjects who took a forest walk, compared to the control group who walked indoors. It is important to note that a reduction in stress hormones is almost certainly a boost for the immune system. Miyazaki’s study was the first evidence-based proof that a walk in the forest is not the same as other environmental settings.
Diana Beresford-Kroeger is a botanist, medical biochemist and author of “Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest,” who has described trees as ‘chemical factories,’ in a good way! Not only do trees have an arsenal of chemical compounds in their bark, roots, sap, leaves and other parts, says Beresford- Kroeger, but they often emit aerosols into the biosphere— sometimes as a response to the presence of insect pests or predators, other times a response to weather or other external factors. The effect of these natural chemicals and their impact on the overall biosphere is, still, largely obscure. What we do know is that a walk beneath these trees very often results in exposure to a literal shower of compounds—many of which are known to have various anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-viral and even anti-cancer qualities in humans. These ‘natural’ chemicals are collectively known as phytoncides, and they work to protect plants by inhibiting the growth of attacking organisms. In humans, their uses have been associated with the cure for tuberculosis and many other ailments; and they are commonly used in non-Western medicine, aromatherapy, and veterinary medicine.
Since the 1800s, researchers around the world have been studying the beneficial effects of breathing forest air. They have found that, especially in the springtime, conifers secrete terpenes – a large class of organic compounds with uses in food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and biomedical industries. Studies have also shown that terpenes can act as expectorants, help cure malaria and can also be used as natural agricultural pesticides. So, there’s a long list of physiological benefits— to add to the mental health ones—that serve as a reason to visit and preserve these beauty-filled, quiet places.
For 25 years I have worked with chronic and terminally ill children. I have also studied cross-cultural healing techniques. Those indigenous healing practices place much importance on investigating the underlying thought patterns and emotional disturbances that are often the cause beneath the symptoms of our illnesses. Many of my patients came to embrace this perspective using meditation practice. But another way to get there, which requires only a novel bit of awareness, is through solitude in nature.
Whether we know it or not, the forest has its influence on us. The trees are asking us to be present. Nature is trying to capture our attention, but most of the time we miss the subtle invitation. Even so, part of us does connect. We can leave a green space feeling better than before we got there and never know why.
My backyard is a sanctuary for my work with children and for majestic 80-foot tall pine trees. The land borders a conservation area and is also home to endangered plants and wildlife. In my private practice, I go to this forest with children who have anxieties of all sorts and I encourage them to sit against the tree and ask: “How do you stand there for eons while I’m having trouble focusing and being still?” In this manner, we are asking permission for healing. We are having a two-way conversation. When we slow down, we get information.
Believe it or not, many of the children that I work with have this knowingness. By using the forest setting, I am cultivating expansive awareness. Through this magic, you allow the blocks in your mind, body and spirit to be cleared.