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Why Japanese ‘forest bathing’ — which has nothing to do with soap — is trending as a way to address mental and physical ills

Mindful experience of woodlands is used for stress reduction, better immune support, and diabetes management.

Mindful experience of woodlands is used for stress reduction, better immune support, and diabetes management.
MinnPost file photo by Steve Date

I may be among the last nature-minded media consumers in the country to encounter “forest bathing,”  a therapeutic practice that’s currently trending and has nothing whatever to do with backpacking, nudity or soap.

Perhaps it’s because I spend too much time in environmental journalism’s mainstream.  The bathing buzz is louder in places like Lifehacker, whose headline last week was, “I Went Forest Bathing in Central Park and It Didn’t Feel Like Bullshit.”

How can you not click on that link? But it will stay live for you, I promise, if you hang with me awhile as we delve into this intriguing Japanese way of enhancing mental wellness while possibly fighting off a range of physical diseases such as diabetes.

I may as well begin with appreciative excerpts from the experience of Lifehacker’s Nick Douglas. It begins in a noisy corner of the park near Columbus Circle, amid the fragrance of hot-dog carts, under the guidance of a psychologist named Nina Smiley. And it ends a half-hour later in a calm awareness “that lingered for hours as I took a normally tense trip home through Manhattan”:

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We begin by sitting on a park bench, entering a typical meditative state: closing our eyes, breathing slowly and fully, letting our thoughts drift away, focusing on our hearing, our sense of touch, our sense of smell. We slowly open our eyes, and Dr. Smiley guides me in a slow and gentle walk along the paved path around a pond. We stop at a few bushes, caressing the leaves and flowers, smelling them, noticing the different shapes, patterns, and colors on each leaf.

I try to ignore the people around us, clinging to the illusion that we’re in a forest, until I notice that Dr. Smiley isn’t tuning people out. She smiles at a cute kid who’s staring at her, then returns to our study of some ducks foraging in the clover. Dr. Smiley guides us in the progressive present tense, in clauses without subjects. “Breathing calmly, breathing fully.” “Looking up at the leaves against the sky.”

Later I ask her if people should only forest bathe with a guide or in a group. She gives the answer I’ve already secretly decided is right: Of course you can do this on your own. A guide can help you do it well, but this isn’t a rarified practice.

Not hiking, not sitting

Nor is it merely a random variation on traditional mindfulness practice or walking meditation, both of which it resembles superficially.

Rather than narrowing awareness by directing it to the breath, or a focal object or sound, bathers try to be fully aware of their surroundings while directing special attention to a group of objects, or to a series of object types in sequence.

As for the walking, the focus is not on the foot movement itself, as in a typical walking meditation or labyrinth exercise, but on feeling one’s place in the wider world. In fact walking isn’t always involved; some variations involve “bathing” while seated on a mossy patch, or standing in a stream, which sounds particularly appealing.

Although, frankly, it all sounds appealing to me. I have been an on-and-off meditator for more than 30 years, I suppose, usually with the seated method called zazen and nearly always indoors;  by far the biggest obstacle to getting started again after a lapse is the challenge of getting down on that damned cushion on the floor when the day outside is so beautiful, and the woods begin at the back door.

I like hiking, too, and understand instinctively why this is different and works differently on the practitioner: Hiking is about going from A to B, certainly noting the surroundings but keeping them secondary. (Unless you see something that pulls you off the path, as happens to me more often than my companions typically appreciate.)

And the claimed benefits of forest bathing are something I think I have actually experienced, though accidentally and somewhat unknowingly, during a brief period of uncontrollable anxiety.

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I had taken two weeks off from my journalism work to try writing fiction for four hours every morning, after which I planned to spend the afternoons relaxing on a golf course (the Updike Sabbatical, I called it).

But I couldn’t stop at four hours or, some days, at six or even eight. Not because the prose was flowing, mind you. Quite the opposite — I kept making sentences, then reworking and reworking and reworking them until the page was a snarl and I was knotted up in deep, bleak panic.

Not knowing what else to do, I dashed out of the house and strode a couple of blocks to Minnehaha Creek, near the Lyndale bridge, then walked aimlessly (though rapidly) in that little gorge for 20 minutes or so until a mysterious calm settled on me.

Huh, I thought … and then did the same tension-breaker as needed until the sabbatical was up. It never failed to work. But I never thought to try it again, until now.

Japanese roots

Forest bathing’s foundation and largest following is in Japan, where it is called shinrin-yoku and is part of a group of therapies called “forest medicine.” While stress reduction its key objective, it’s not the only one — restoring immune systems is also a major focus — nor is mind work the only therapeutic element.

Research shows that various trees give off chemical compounds that lower blood pressure and ease anxiety, as do the tactile experience of tree bark and the visual stimulation of seeing flowers in bloom.

Some of this work can be read at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, including a study showing reductions in such stress indicators as cortisol, blood pressure, pulse rate and sympathetic nerve activity;  and another, published in the International Journal of Biometeorology (!), suggesting the practice can lower blood glucose levels in diabetics.

Over at WebMD you can find a medically minded discussion of other research findings which suggest that forest bathing increases production of infection- and cancer-fighting “natural killer cells,” lowers heart rate variability, may have anti-inflammation effects, and “is also linked with increased creativity, problem solving, and improved mood.”

This article also reports on the work of the U.S.-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy:

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Amos Clifford founded the association and started training guides in 2014. He says about 15 guides finished the initial training. Now, he has trained and certified about 270 guides, including the 190 in the U.S. Guides in the U.S. are most often found in California, the Midwest around the Great Lakes, and in New England states, he says, partly due to the abundance of forestlands in those locations. He estimates about 1,000 people in the U.S. have taken part in forest therapy.

His guides have taught the process to a wide range of ages, as well as to people with autism, intellectual disabilities, major depression and other issues, and those who use wheelchairs.

Clifford is also featured in a recent National Public Radio feature on forest bathing that was broadcast a couple of weeks ago — another indication that the practice, or at least interest in the practice, is on the rise.

So are recent articles in Ladders (which says forest bathing has roots traceable to ancient Buddhist and Shinto practices), the Huffington Post,  Orlando’s city magazine and the Owatonna Free Press.