There is a need for people to re-connect with nature. Forest bathing is a very potent way to do so
The latest spa trend to hit California takes place in the great outdoors
California’s latest wellness trend has its roots in Japan. As a reaction to constantly buzzing smartphones, dull office cubicles and endless late nights at the office, Californians are now turning to the Japanese therapy of shinrin-yoku to destress – namely, the art of forest bathing.
While it takes place in the great outdoors, unlike hiking or mountain climbing, there is no destination to reach before dusk or adrenalin-filled moment… The key to a successful shinrin-yoku therapy session is simple – all you need to do is switch off your cell phone, go for a stroll and absorb your surroundings. The aim of shinrin-yoku is to leave those skyscrapers behind, commune with nature and take in the sights and smells of a natural setting.
Californians are now so addicted to the Japanese therapy that forest bathing groups are setting up throughout the state, and city dwellers are now choosing to go for a walk in the woods, rather than slump in front of the TV.
Julia Plevin recently launched the Forest Bathing Club in San Francisco. The product designer and forest bather now takes groups of visitors once a month to green zones around the city. She first heard about shinrin-yoku when she was researching her MBA thesis on the mental health effects of being disconnected from nature and she knew that stressed-out Californians would appreciate this eco-friendly therapy.
During a typical forest bathing session at Mount Sutro, Glen Park Canyon or Muir Woods, Plevin will invite guests to take part in yoga stretches, before they enjoy a meditative walk through the forest. Plevin’s aim is simple: “I want them to leave the 2D world of smartphones and computers behind and be able to smell, hear, touch and taste things they normally wouldn’t.”
While to some this may just look like a simple walk through the woods, the effectiveness of shirin-yoku is a supported by eight years of research by Japanese therapists. The university team found that when you spend time in nature it will not only lower blood pressure, but your stress hormone levels and heart rate. The Japanese government was so convinced by its effectiveness that they made shinrin-yoku part of the national public health programme in 1982.
The reason why it is called forest bathing is explained by Los Angeles-based forest therapy guide Ben Page, who founded Shinrin Yoku LA: “Trees release phytoncydes into the air and ‘bathe’ in them in order to protect themselves from tumorous growths. And humans can absorb phytoncydes – ‘natural aromatherapy’, hence forest bathing.”
While the Japanese have been embracing this outdoor therapy since the 1980s, it’s taken much longer for this mind, body and soul workout hit the States. Wilderness guide Amos Clifford first spied an article on forest bathing in 2012 and decided to help introduce it to stressed-out city dwellers in America. He went onto launch the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy in California, which now trains other guides. “I think there is a need for people to re-connect with nature. Forest bathing is a very potent way to do so,” says Clifford. “It is highly accessible, doesn’t take a lot of time, and people can learn how to do it well with just a few guided sessions.”
The association’s classes have now become so sought after that they are about to launch in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa.
“Our aim is for them to be aware of the place they are in, and of what they are experiencing through their senses,” Clifford explains.
Forest bathers come from all walks of life. They can be tweens, young adults and seniors. “On a three-hour walk we only go about a quarter mile, so there is no pressure to be athletic,” says Clifford.
As the forest bathers walk they will also forage for plants along the trail, which again provides a sensory connection. The leaves that they gather are then put together to create a natural tea, which they will share while still out in the open.
Clifford can still be surprised by the effect that the therapy has on his guests, but there is one guest who in particular stands out for him by her response. “A 60-year-old Native American woman told me that the walk enabled her to finally understand what her people’s ancestral relationship with nature was like,” says Clifford.
Forest bathing is more than just a walk through the woods. It is a therapy that includes quiet contemplation. You need to stop, breathe in those phytoncides and listen out for sound of birds flitting through trees and frogs croaking in the undergrowth.
We might not need a scientist to tell us that a walk in the woods is good for us. But maybe it will remind us how important it is to down tools and get out into the great outdoors. It’s great for a reason.