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Forest Bathing

trail with trees and lake in the background

Forest Bathing

By: Dr. Toby Hallowitz, Naturopathic Medical Doctor

I am extremely appreciative and gracious for the opportunity to provide care to thousands of patients and family in the Inland Northwest area over the past 13 years. I was drawn to move here for the community and this area’s love of nature. I feel fortunate to have been accepted and trusted as part of this community. I believe most of us are drawn to live here for a common reason – the way we feel immersed and nestled in the beauty of the clear blue lakes, breathe in the scents of forest and shores, and reside, swaddled by the mountains of ponderosa pine. We are lucky – rather than living in a city of geometric slabs of concrete, we are able to interact with the landscape in a deep and profound way. Every day if we open our windows or go for a walk in the neighborhood we are communing with the natural landscape.  

It is so important with everything we have been going through over recent years, with the emotional turmoil of politics, pandemic, divisions and loss of 2020 – many of us live in fear. There is so much fear, it can be crippling at times. I see it with my patients, my friends, my family and with me. Sometimes it is hard for us to find the will to go on. What reserves do we pull from. Where do we find the strength?

We know this. The answer is why we have community – friends, family, colleagues, and religion. But this community also includes the more-than-human earth. Just as we lean on our community in times of need, where each one of us in the community supports each other. So too does the community of nature.  We must lean on nature, the area where we live and work and include it as part of our community for us to gain strength, for us to heal.

Shinrin-Yoku is a traditional Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature by mindfully using all five senses. It literally translates as forest bathing. I also like to use the term nature immersion therapy or even just the term nature therapy. A Shinrin-yoku trip in Japan involves visiting a forest for relaxation and recreation while breathing in volatile substances, called phytoncides, natural chemical components found in the essential oils of the forest trees. Alpha-pinene and limonene are two examples of antimicrobial volatile organic compounds derived from trees. In Japan, incorporating forest bathing trips into a good lifestyle was first proposed in 1982 by the Forest Agency of Japan.

Research conducted in Japan and China points to a host of positive health benefits for the human physiological and psychological systems associated with the practice of nature immersion. During the 1980s, Shinrin-Yoku surfaced in Japan as a pivotal part of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Research has been focusing on beneficial effects on the immune system, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, inflammation, stress reduction, and emotional and mental health conditions.

Dr. Qing Li is one of the most important early pioneers in researching Shinrin-yoku. In his recent beautiful book entitled “Forest Bathing – How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” he reviews the history, research and importance of Shinrin-yoku. 

He states:  ”We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for millennia. The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air – these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry, help us to relax and to think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.”

Dr. Qing Li said of himself: “Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being.”

We are part of the natural world. Our rhythms are the rhythms of nature. As we walk slowly through the forest, seeing, listening, smelling, tasting and touching, we bring our rhythms into step with nature. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world. And when we are in harmony with the natural world we can begin to heal. Our nervous system can reset itself; our bodies and minds can go back to how they ought to be. No longer out of kilter with nature but once again in tune with it, we are refreshed and restored. We may not travel very far on our forest walk but, in connecting us with nature, Shinrin-yoku takes us all the way home to our true selves.

child walking on trail

The concept that humans have a biological need to connect with nature has been called biophilia, from the Greek, meaning “love of life and the living world”. The concept was made popular by the American biologist E.O. Wilson in 1984. He believed that, because we evolved in nature, we have a biological need to connect with it. We love nature because we learned to love the things that helped us to survive. We feel comfortable in nature because that is where we have lived for most of our life on earth. We are genetically determined to love the natural world. It is in our DNA.

And this affinity for the natural world is fundamental to our health. Contact with nature is as vital to our well-being as regular exercise and a healthy diet. Our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its current, wrote Wilson. We are ‘hardwired’ to affiliate with the natural world – and just as our health improves when we are in it, so our health suffers when we are divorced from it.

In his book, The Biophilia Effect – a scientific spiritual exploration of the healing bond between humans and nature, Clemens Arvay, describes the forest as a more-than-human landscape. He says:

“Lets’ look at the forest for a moment in a different way. Let’s see it as a large, highly complex habitat in which thousands upon thousands of living beings communicate with each other. The tree crowns are radio stations that broadcast plant messages through the air. The leaves of shrubs, bushes, vines and herbaceous plants transmit plant vocabulary, which is received by other plants and animals. In the ground, roots release substances that also contain messages and make a clicking noise that the human ear cannot hear. Plants detect these sounds as physical subterranean vibrations. The forest, just like any other natural habitat, is a place of lively discussion and is dense with communication. Whizzing around everywhere, molecules contain information that other living creatures decode. Among them are countless terpenes.

“Now imagine entering this forest – a hot spot of communication – with your alert, attentive, as well as constantly communicating immune system. Your immune system doesn’t only communicate with other organs and systems in your body; it also communicates with the outside world. It is a sensory organ that is made to receive information that you are unable to consciously perceive. Some of the responsibilities of your immune system are to recognize, assess, and react to stimuli from the outside world. These stimuli could be viruses, bacteria, and all kinds of other substances. The immune system is therefore your body’s invisible antenna as you enter the woods.

two men walking on a trail

“When you breathe in the woods, you are inhaling a cocktail of bioactive substances that plants release into the forest air. One of these groups of substances is called terpenes. When we walk through the woods, we come into contact with the gaseous terpenes of plant communication. We absorb them through the skin, but especially through the lungs. The terpenes in the air come from tree leaves and pine needles. They also flow out of tree trunks and the thick bark of some trees. Bushes, shrubs, and herbaceous plants among the understory, along with mushrooms, mosses, and ferns, emit them as well. Even the litter layer made of foliage and the moldy humus layer swarming with life emit terpenes. When I learned this, my impression of the forest changed. Now, when I walk through the woods, I have the feeling I’m diving into an enormous, breathing organism that communicates with me. I become a part of it, and we breathe and communicate together.”

I am in nature. Nature is in me. Me, you and nature are community.

Please join us as we offer Forest Bathing excursions through CDA Acupuncture and Holistic Healing. The dates and locations will be listed on our events calendar on our website. Please call the clinic with questions and to register.