by DaeWu Daniel Skidmore
“Forest bathing” is not taking a bath in a forest—at least not literally. Rather, forest bathing refers to the practice of using nature as the focus of one’s meditation. The increasingly popular practice has proven beneficial both psychologically and physiologically for many people and I’d like to share a little bit of its background and tell you why I find it personally rewarding.
Although the practice of meditating in the forest has likely existed for nearly as long as humans have roamed the earth, the term “forest bathing” is derived from the Japanese phrase shinrin-yoku (森林浴), which literally translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere,” or “forest bathing.”[i] The phrase was first coined and promoted by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982. The practice spread to China where it is called sēnlínyù (森林浴) in Mandarin and to Korea where it is known as sanlimyok (산림욕). Since then, “forest bathing” has spread around the world. Today, there are more than 190 trained forest therapy guides in the U.S. who assist people with learning the skill of forest bathing.[ii]
The focus of forest bathing, and what differentiates it from other nature-oriented activities such as camping or hiking, is the concentrated effort to be totally in the present in experiencing the forest, much like one does in focusing on breath or an object in seated, Zazen meditation.
Because it is like other forms of meditation, studies of forest bathers have revealed many of the same benefits of forest bathing that one can obtain from more traditional forms of meditation as well as yoga. A WebMD article lists reduced stress, increased focus, improved mindfulness, more creativity, and improved mood as well as several interesting physiological benefits of forest bathing, including:
- Lower blood pressure, reduced resting heart rate, and decreased heart rate variability
- Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol
- Up to a 50 percent increase in white blood cells that fight infection and cancer.[iii]
It is not entirely clear why forest bathing can have these effects. Some argue that there is something primal in our connection to nature, which makes us more at ease in its presence, producing positive health results. Some studies also note that aromas and chemicals emitted by trees may cause many of the positive physiological benefits of forest bathing. Nothing is conclusive, and it is likely that a mixture of different influences in the forest assist with achieving these benefits.
I unintentionally discovered the power of forest bathing when I was about eight years old. My home environment was not ideal, to say the least. When things were bad, I walked to a forest near my home and sat, experiencing the forest because I found it gave me peace.
Only now, later in life, do I realize that those retreats to escape the turmoil in my home in order to center myself were really kinds of self-taught meditation that enabled me to concentrate on something other than the stress in my life. In so doing, I cultivated a form of mindfulness that allowed me to better understand the stress originating in my life at home. I believe this helped me to avoid some of the traps that my siblings, who had no such coping mechanisms, have fallen into.
Even today, I find the practice of walking slowly and mindfully through wooded areas to be of great value and an important part of my ongoing meditation practice. As Hoden Sunim has repeatedly said, “there are many dharma gates that we can explore in becoming more liberated.” So, I hope that you too might consider this wonderful practice!
Join us for the Nature Walk at Troy Nature Center
Saturdays: 10:30 – 11:30 am
[i] “‘Forest bathing’ is latest fitness trend to hit U.S. — ‘Where yoga was 30 years ago,’” by Meeri Kim, The Washington Post, May 17, 2016
[ii] [iii] “‘Forest Bathing’ Harnesses Nature to Boost Health,” by Kathleen Doheny, WebMD Health News, Aug. 1, 2017