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I may have written on this subject in the distant past. Shinrin Yoku, otherwise known as ‘forest bathing’ - the literal translation from Japanese to English is Shinrin (forest) Yoku (shower) - has a long history in Japan. The Japanese, in fact, have a long history of living in harmoniously with nature. And they realized, long before the nature movement arrived in the U.S., that forests are medicine. Literal medicine, with quantifiable effects on health.
Put your body in a forest. Immediately, all five senses are stimulated. The scent of trees, plants, and decomposing leaves and wood; the sound of birds and other animals; the touch of bark, plants, and the ground; the taste of the fresh, pure air, or maybe spring water; and the sights all around you.
You know how good it is. Most of us have found our way to the forest at one time - a hike alone or with a friend, camping, or foraging. It’s pretty amazing. We've been going to the forest for most of our history, looking to recharge our batteries, without knowing that there is a name for what we're doing. But our senses told us many millennia back that the forest is a good thing, a place to go and heal.
None of this is merely anecdotal evidence. In 1982, researchers in Japan began studies of the effects of Shinrin Yoku. The goal was to quantify what the Japanese have known all along: that a forest is medicine – potent medicine – that’s free, effective, has no negative side effects, and can be taken as often as we like, whenever we need it.
Scientist Quing Li of Tokyo released the results of the studies, and we saw, for the first time in writing, how powerful a forest is. We all know that when we go to a forest, our minds return to rest, and our concentration improves. In his book, Forest Medicine, Li reports on the immediate and dramatic effects recorded following visits to forests throughout Japan.
The data showed immediate drops in blood pressure, and the release of floods of endorphins in the brain, which subdued depressive chemical imbalances in patients with clinical depression. There were measurable improvements in the function of the immune system. And in female subjects, anti-cancer proteins called antithrombins – which block the formation of blood vessels leading to cancer cells – are produced and disseminated throughout the body. Stress hormones in the blood dropped.
Lots of people have already turned on to Shinrin Yoku. The popularity of barefoot hiking – an activity I enjoy – is on the rise. Barefoot hiking is, after all, earthing, and we know how amazing earthing is for the whole body.
The reason I’m revisiting the subject of Shinrin Yoku is this: I live in a community in which many people walk. On any evening just past dinnertime, we’ll see dozens of people pass by, walking briskly, some with weights in their hands, some swinging their arms back and forth, most with earbuds in, pushing toward a goal, sweating in summer, bundled up in winter.
It seemed like a good idea. So recently, my husband and I decided to start walking too. After dinner, we walked for about 20 minutes through the community. Our goal was to unwind and get the blood flowing.
After a week of walking, I came clean with my husband: our walks were not working for me. In fact, I felt more tense returning home from a walk than when I left it. But give me a walk in the woods, and I feel recharged and happy, every single time. But not so with our neighborhood walks. Why?
I figured it out. The things that bugged me on our walks were the things that kept our walks from being enjoyable and beneficial. When we walk the neighborhood, we’re on display. Neighbors outdoors and in see us passing by: some hail us down for a chat. We pass homes where children are outdoors playing noisily, screaming as only children can. There are dogs in front yards barking at us as we pass. Cars come down the road on both sides. We’re walking on asphalt, which is hard, disconnected from the Earth, hot in summer, and cold in winter. And lastly, as much as I love my husband, walking and making small talk with him - or anyone - is not the same medicine as walking in silence and solitude.
Walking through our community is sensory overload of the bad kind. There’s no serenity, nothing smells good, nothing sounds good, little is pretty, and there’s nothing earth-centered to touch. Once I determined all this, I understood why I disliked it, and that our neighbors were probably walking for the sole purpose of exercise. Which is great, but not as great as the medicine that nature offers. And it certainly doesn’t feed the soul, which in my opinion, is far more important than calorie burning.
Now, when I see our neighbors walking or jogging by our home, ear buds in and listening to music, swinging their arms and carrying hand weights, wearing Fitbits and doing their aerobics, I see nothing appealing. They look pressured. They have specific goals they’re trying to reach, like weight loss, or disease prevention. They’re not really enjoying this, and their minds are definitely not resting.
One more thing: as my husband and I walked together for that week, I must say I felt terribly, terribly white and middle class. And although I am white and middle class, there are aspects to being part of that demographic that make me cringe.
Better to visit a forest in solitude once a week than walk each day on asphalt with cars passing and dogs barking. The difference is huge. You’ll feel it, you may be sure of it.
Go to a forest and see what I mean. Go untethered: please, leave your cell phone, camera, iPod, hand weights, and ear buds home. Leave your goals behind. Thank Mother Earth for her medicine. Wander, but pause from time to time. See if your body pulls you in one direction over another, then follow it. Touch trees. Engage all your senses. Give yourself some love.
Live in peace.