I’ve heard of yoga, Tai Chi, and transcendental meditation. I’ve never heard of shinrin yoku. This Japanese martial art is not for self-defense so much as it is used for healing. And it seems to work very well for those who suffer from anxiety and depression.
Commonly called “forest bathing”, Japanese doctors are offering up prescriptions for hills rather than pills. The method pairs mindfulness practices with a nature hike. And the results researchers have compiled in their studies of patients who practice shinrin yoku are fascinating. Health complaints among patients have not only been drastically reduced, their cancer risks have also dropped. A nature walk to prevent cancer? Indeed, it seems so.
Basking in the beauty of nature is proving to be very therapeutic on not only the human psyche, but the human body as well. Japan’s Forestry Agency first introduced the practice of shinrin yoku in 1982 as a campaign to reduce public stress and encourage people to relax. Unbeknownst to the Japanese government, they were also embarking on a plan that would dramatically improve the overall health of their population.
Since the program’s inception, many curious medical researchers have conducted studies of what happens to a person who spends time away from civilization and mindfully engaging in nature in a way to soothe their mind and body. They discovered that it increases activity levels of what they call NK cells, or, “natural killer” cells. These are the cells within the human body that combat cancer cells and strengthen the immune system.
Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School made a public statement on the results of several of their experiments which examined the effects “forest bathing” had on immunity, stress and emotional states. They conducted two studies which included both genders. Subjects had certain criteria assessed as well as blood serum levels at the onset of a forest bathing experience with a duration of two nights and three days. After the shinrin yoku experiences were completed, subjects were once again assessed, including another blood serum analysis. Before and after data was compared. Doctors and researchers noted a boost in NK cell levels that lasted for as long as thirty days after the experience. Another study indicated elevated NK cell levels lasting seven days after spending a single day forest bathing.
Doctors and researchers concluded that the elevated NK cell levels are a reaction between the natural environment and the human body. The air within a forest is filled with particles of essential oils from the trees. These are called phytonicides. Phytonicides within the tree serve as a protective agent against destructive fungus, disease and insects. Humans, by breathing the forest’s air that is infused with phytonicide particles, are thereby strengthening their immune system.
On an emotional level, participants in the study filled out questionnaires before and after spending time in the forest, indicating their levels of happiness, sadness, anxiety, etc. At the end of a forest bathing experience, participants reported significantly lower levels of anger, sadness and anxiety and higher levels of happiness and friendliness. Doctors and researchers concluded that shinrin yoku enriches emotional vitality within a person.
So, how can the average person engage in shinrin yoku? Well, you can either pack appropriately for a week long or weekend camping trip and engage in gentle day hikes, or, put a snack and bottle of water in your pocket and simply walk out your front door and head for your nearest park.
Once you immerse yourself amongst the trees, stroll slowly. Observe the trees. Sit and rest. This is therapy, not exercise. Relax. Wander aimlessly. Breathe deeply. Touch the bark. Smell the leaves. Maybe even hug a tree! Whatever you do, embrace the moment.
And if you have mobility issues, you can still enjoy some benefits of shinrin yoku from the comfort of your home. Norwegian researchers assure us that even a scenic view of trees from a window has healing effects. Live plants within the home, near enough to touch and appreciate are even better. People who have plants within their homes or workstations can experience as much as a forty percent reduction in stress, anxiety and depression, according to a recent Australian studies at the University of Technology in Sydney.
More institutions are adapting clinical settings to reflect shinrin yoku principals. By using live plants in hospital settings, they are seeing fewer employees taking sick leave. School reports fewer kids showing up in the infirmary when using live plants in classrooms.
So nourish the soul and the body by getting in touch with plants. Take the time to appreciate not only their beauty, but their healing properties. Breathe in good health.