Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing is a Japanese concept growing in popularity

By Alistair Taylor

I’ve always sort of intuitively known about the therapeutic value of being in a forest.

Now I know that value has a name and is, in fact, the latest popular trend in health and wellness. It’s known as forest bathing.

As a child growing up, I lived most of my life on the doorstep of wilderness. The eastern woodlands of Labrador, the verdant rainforest of Haida Gwaii and the parched freeze-dried, subarctic woods of the Yukon.

The forest was always accessible to me, particularly when I lived on Haida Gwaii. I lived in a town of 500 people on the west coast of the Moresby Island, the second largest island of the mystical – and misty – archipelago off the northwest coast of British Columbia. The townsite itself was on an island. A clearing was scraped in the middle and houses and other buildings were hastily constructed to house employees of a nearby mine. At either end of the island were two clumps of forest, like a green Q-tip.

My friends and I would spend hours and hours in those forests. They gave us the feeling that we were hundreds of miles away from civilization and our imaginations would soar: we were warriors, we were explorers, we were Vikings, you name it. We made bows and arrows and pretended to patrol our homeland for invaders.

Whenever my friends weren’t around, I’d wander those woods with my dog Blackie, playing catch with a stick; wandering aimlessly. Often we’d go to the end of the island and hang out on the beach, I’d chuck rocks in the water aimlessly wasting time. It was idyllic.

When the stress of modern life gets to me these days, I often think of those times and the feeling of peace I remember from being in those woods.

As an adult, I continued to enjoy the outdoors and I discovered a methodology to use in observing nature. It required first to settle into a state of peace and stability. Almost like calming down to the point of disappearing, becoming a part of the forest in the minds of its creatures to the point they considered you part of the scenery. This allows you to better observe the goings on.

It was a technique of observation but it has the concurrent effect of being a type of meditation, certainly a relaxation. Just the medicine for a modern mind.

Well, recently, the latest health trend has given the therapeutic effects of being in the forest a name. It’s called forest bathing and it is derived from the Japanese term shinrin-yoku.

To a certain extent, it’s like one of those scientific studies we always scorn where some researchers get grant money to do a study that confirms something we’ve always known. Like green vegetables are good for you. Or,  if you don’t get enough sleep, it’s bad for your health.

Another trend related to forest bathing is the concept of nature-deficit disorder in children (and adults). In recent years, a movement has recognized that our children are spending very little time in nature and that is not good for their health. So, there have been books written about it (Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods is probably the most famous) and educational programs have been built around it. In Campbell River, École des Deux Mondes French Immersion Kindergarten teachers believed in the important role nature plays in the development of young children and put that belief into practice with successful results.

In 2014, the Campbell River Mirror reported that teachers Barb Vachon and Desiree Dallaire felt fortunate to have a forested location on their school property and they took full advantage of it to give the children a unique and authentic educational experience.

DSC_9582 copyThey valued the time their students played in the school’s forest and see the experience as beneficial in numerous ways.

Vachon and Dallaire brought their students to play and learn in the forest a couple of times a week. Having witnessed firsthand the learning opportunities the forest offers their students, both teachers planned an hour a day in the forest, rain or shine.

Both Vachon and Dallaire gathered further inspiration for this idea from fellow teachers in School District 72 as well as from established nature Kindergarten programs from across Vancouver Island and beyond.

There are many developmental benefits from spending time in nature which are backed up by research studies. Increasingly, children are spending too much time in front of screens and it seems like their childhoods are being hijacked by technology.

Adults, too, are guilty of shirking nature in favour of the comfortable indoor pursuits of television and computers. U.S. figures show Americans spend 87 per cent of their time indoors.

Ironically, the Internet is connecting us to the world but it is also insulating us from the real world outside our door.

Shinrin-yoku means “taking in the forest atmosphere” or, alternatively, forest bathing, and was developed in Japan during the 1980s. Researchers in Japan and South Korea have developed a body of scientific literature that prove the health benefits of spending time in the trees. Benefits include lower stress levels, improved working memory and just feeling good to be alive.

It’s more than just a walk in the woods, though. This is not hiking. Hiking involves setting off through the woods to reach a certain destination. Certainly a worthwhile activity and definitely better for you than flopping on the couch with a TV remote in your hands.

Forest bathing involves slowing down and opening up all your senses to the presence of the forest. It’s about being alive to the details around you – the colours (how many shades of green can you see?), the smells, the sounds. There are myriad ways to experience a forest. You can touch the bark of trees and brush your hand across the fresh soft shoots of a pine tree.

On a more professional level, forest bathing can be a guided experience under the tutelage of an experienced forest bather. Some people are so on the go, they don’t know how to still their mind by themselves.

Practitioners, however, are quick to point out that guides are not therapists, suggesting the forest is the therapist instead.

Forest bathing is becoming very popular and there are articles published that claim it is like Yoga was 30 years ago, just beginning to build up its momentum to the wild popularity it garners today.

A 2010 research paper from Japan evaluated the physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku [The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan, Bum Jin Park, et. al.]. The authors conducted field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Twelve subjects walked in and viewed a forest or city area.

On the first day, six subjects were sent to a forest area and the others to an urban area. On the second day, the subjects switched. The researchers evaluated the subjects’ salivary cortisol, blood pressure, pulse rate and heart rate. These indices were measured in the morning before breakfast and before and after the walking and viewing.

The results showed that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments. The study’s results suggest that a whole research field dedicated to forest medicine could be developed and used as a strategy for preventative medicine.

But we don’t need a bunch of scientists to tell us that, do we? In the central Vancouver Island area, we have hundreds of square kilometres of forests. Maybe that’s why Vancouver Islanders are known to be more mellow.

In the Campbell River area, there’s plenty of accessible forest to cure whatever stresses ail you. The Beaver Lodge Forest Lands is like a massive pool, a veritable lake of forest to bath in. The core of the forest is accessed by many trails and you can easily step off the track and find an opening not even visible to any passers by. There you can stop, do some relaxing breathing and connect with the forest around you. If you like to walk, meander slowly through the woods.

The nice part about the Beaver Lodge Forest Lands is that it’s hard to get lost (but not impossible, so be careful, use techniques to keep track of where you are – and let somebody know you’re going to do this and where you’re setting off from) so you can wander somewhat aimlessly.

Other easily accessible forests that are made for meditation are the old growth stand in Elk Falls Provincial Park near the trailhead (but be careful, BC Hydro dam reconstruction is going on in the area). Check out the Quinsam River trail or the Willow Creek nature area in Willow Point. There’s no shortage of forest close at hand.

And it’s not an activity that can only be done alone. Take a friend or loved one and share the experience.In the end, it’s nothing new. What’s beneficial is that the positive effects are being measured and there’s nothing like a scientific study to support your walk in the woods. Of course, nobody needs permission to do any of this. It’s not simply striding off into the bush, though. You have to consciously still your mind and open your senses. That’s not as obvious as it sounds.

Our attitude is frequently one of conquering it and bulldozing our way through (metaphorically). This is different. Head off to your local stand of forest and give it a try. Who knows, it might take you back to the simpler days of your childhood.