The Ancient Art of Tree Walking
Picture this: You’re in the lush green and quiet of the forest. You can hear the softness of life moving all around you. It’s dim and cool, and the greenery surrounding you calls your name. You happen upon a porcelain bathtub filled with warm spring water, and the sweetest smelling soaps are nearby. Would you get in?
Undoubtedly, you would feel kind of weird about stripping down and taking a bath within the confines of the trees. Or, maybe you wouldn’t… Either way, the Japanese figured out THIS trick a long time ago so you don’t have to. Welcome to the practice of Shinrin Yoku. Or, in layman’s (non-Japanese speaking) terms -- the ancient practice of forest bathing.
Is daily life a sanctuary for stress?
If you’ve found yourself suffering from headaches, uncharacteristic muscle pain, excessive fatigue, a change in sex drive, an upset stomach, restlessness, feeling overwhelmed, social withdrawal, anything else you can think of that’s taking place negatively in your life, it’s probably because of stress. Everything listed above is an example of the way stress manifests itself adversely in the body.
Though your stress may seem manageable to you on the outside, (e.g. if you have a headache take some aspirin), it’s the stress response inside your body that you really need to be worrying about. Stress can affect your brain, your immune system, cause gastrointestinal complications, and generally wreak a lot of havoc in the body. However, we’re going to focus on the effect stress has on your body when it’s triggered by your brain.
Specifically, “studies have shown that psychological stress,” (worrying about that work project), “can cause alpha-adrenergic stimulation and, consequently, increased heart rate and oxygen demand.” When something in your brain is eliciting the stress response in your body, your sympathetic nervous system reacts and can begin to cause trouble.
“It can be postulated that stress causes autonomic nervous system activation and indirectly affects the function of the cardiovascular system. If these effects occur upon activation of the sympathetic nervous system, then it mainly results in an increase in heart rate, strength of contraction, vasodilation in the arteries of skeletal muscles, a narrowing of the veins, contraction of the arteries in the spleen and kidneys, and decreased sodium excretion by the kidneys.”
In a word, when your brain starts spiraling down that stress-hole, your body goes into overdrive compensating for those massive amounts of stress. The signals that it’s sending are increasing your blood pressure, speeding up your heart rate, inhibiting vital functions, and causing a big problem for you when all these symptoms go unaddressed.
Shinrin Yoku is for You
The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS) found that, on average, Americans spend 87% of their time indoors and 6% in an enclosed vehicle. By the year 2050, in just 30 short years, it is thought that over half of the world’s population will live in cities. The human race was not born in jungles of concrete or plains of ash and industry. Our ancestors came from the natural world. The land was their home, and their very life-source. They didn’t experience the modern stresses that so plague us today because they lived by the cycles of the sun and the moon. Their feet touched the earth and their skin touched all the life around them. Their crop soil wasn’t contaminated by chemicals, and the water they drank wasn’t rife with fluoride, lead, and chlorine.
No matter how we may want to, our modern lifestyles don’t allow us to spend all day hunting for food, bathing in the rivers, and traversing the mountains. We all have to work to survive, and sometimes that does mean spending all day indoors. Because of that, it’s important for you to understand the steps you need to take to combat the stresses of our daily world and achieve more of a natural balance, closer to what our ancestors lived so long ago.
John Muir wisely said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity.” The Japanese have known and understood this for many ages, and that is from where the practice of tree bathing originates. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and Yoku means “bath.” Essentially, Shinrin Yoku is to “bathe in the forest atmosphere,” so rather than actually taking a physical bath in the forest, a tree bather will spend time soaking in the forest through their senses, and taking in the ambiance.
The ancient art is akin to meditation. Shinrin Yoku puts an emphasis on mindfulness and presence, and by doing so, calms the mind and lowers the stress of the body. If it sounds hokey, you’re probably not alone in thinking that, but check out the studies I discuss in the next section. The numbers don’t lie. Shinrin Yoku isn’t the fix-all to every stress problem we suffer from, but it does act as a sort of bridge to bring us closer to solving those problems. “By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.”
The Science of Tree Bathing
In 2015, a study was undertaken in the Nagano Prefecture of Japan. The study involved a number of males who, before experiencing tree-walking, exhibited the levels and signs of stress average to someone living a normal, busy life as we all do. However, blood and urine samples were taken from the subjects of the study before and after 4 separate 80-minute tree-bathing sessions. “The forest bathing program significantly reduced pulse rate and significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion.” Additionally, upon analysis of the urine samples, urinary adrenaline and dopamine levels both showed a decrease. These findings “suggest the relaxing effect of forest bathing.”
The findings of this study are furthered by another when you learn that workplace-related stress in the United States accounts for insurmountable losses. “Workplace stress, such as long hours, job insecurity, and lack of work-life balance--contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs.” Additionally, this second study reveals that an astonishing 5-8% of annual healthcare costs in the United States are attributable to the management of our nation’s workforces.
The results of Shinrin Yoku are almost immediate, and they stick around for a while. It’s an ideal practice for anyone living a busy working life. While tree bathing isn’t something you need to do every single day, fitting it in on a weekend a few times a month can make all the difference. There are many different ways to tree bathe, and I’ll go over some of those in the next section so you can find out what’s right for you.
Do trees hold the key to immortality?
We all want to live longer and healthier lives. We rely heavily on our immune systems to protect us from foreign invaders -- bacteria, parasites, or other -- so that we stay vital and alive. Arguably, the most important immune cells are your Natural Killer (NK) cells. Quite literally, they were born to kill. They are stronger and more active than all other immune cells. You can think of them as the CIA of your body’s cells. They have secret intel on all other cells in your body. They will always be the first to spot an intruder, where that be a microbe or cancer cell. They can quickly identify which cells are not “self” and they are ready to destroy at all times.
In order to bio-hack your longevity, you want to support healthy and active NK cells. What can you possibly do to help your NK cells? Numerous plant compounds may activate NK cells. But the cheapest and most enjoyable methods of activation are forest bathing and laughter. The old adage: “laughter is the best medicine,” may seem like a wives tale, but does, in fact, hold scientific medical truth. And what of forest bathing? Blood samples from men who practiced forest bathing for 2 days in a row yielded a 50% increase in their NK cell activity and population. Those results are not too shabby for a walk in the forest.
Practicing Ancient Arts
The first step of forest bathing is to find a spot. When you first begin, it might be simpler to start in a heavily wooded area, where you will be able to be completely immersed in the trees. After you’re used to the practice and maybe even get good at it, you can forest bathe anywhere you have access to a piece of nature. The most important part of this first step is leaving any distractions behind. You heard me. No phones, no cameras, no wristwatches. You don’t even have to wear shoes if you don’t want to. It should just be you and nature.
You need only to wander through the trees. You shouldn’t so much have a destination in mind, but let your body go where you feel is best. Tuning into nature and your body will get you out of your headspace, and relax you as you let the forest do its work.
In an article from TIME magazine on the subject, they advise, “the key to unlocking the power of the forest is the five senses.” You should smell the sweet scents of the deep growth all around you. Let the rustling of leaves, creaking of branches, and perhaps the simmer of nearby wildlife brush your ears. As you breathe in the cool, fresh air, let your mouth taste its sweetness. You might even reach out and touch a tree, and feel your connection to this ancient life form. This heightened state of mind, this mental quiet, becomes your body’s missing sense. This is where you find that calm place, to let your body relax and to let your worries fade away.
A Little More on Shinrin Yoku
If you’re nervous about wandering around in the trees by yourself for the first time and trying to find some peace of mind, you can hire a guide! Certification programs exist for tree walking guides, and there may even be some in your area, depending on where you live. A Shinrin Yoku guide will help walk you through (literally) what you should be thinking about and feeling, and they can help you to have a wonderful, restorative experience. Plus, you will likely be in a group, and you can meet some like-minded souls who seek the same respite. You can check out this website to find a local guide in your area.
Additionally, there are actually spas, resorts, and getaways in some more heavily wooded areas of the United States and the rest of the world where Shinrin Yoku is offered and encouraged. If you feel like you need a little heavier pick-me-up, schedule a weekend getaway! Your body and mind will thank you. There are many opportunities like this one on Airbnb, or you can check out this list of forest bathing getaways in the United States.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything and your stress load only seems to grow heavier, it might be time to stop adding more solutions and start taking away tasks. Get rid of the distraction and the toil of your every day, and go to the mountains. Go to the forest. Your body and my body have unexplainable connections to the energy that is in nature, because that is where we came from. The restorative power of the forest will heal your stressed mind, and your life, brain, and body will be happier and healthier because of it. 幸せな森の入浴！ (That means “Happy forest bathing!” in Japanese.)
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