Those of us who are in environmental fields or simply have an affinity for backyard gardening are familiar with the benefits of being surrounded by nature. Now there is a great amount of research on the mental and physical benefits of spending intentional, mindful time outdoors, especially in forests. This concept of “forest bathing” or shinrin-yoku (in Japanese, literally “forest bath.”) is getting increasing attention from the scientific community. This form of “bathing” is a simple immersion into a forest – disconnecting from our everyday lives and committing time to experiencing everything the natural has to offer.
A group of DeepRoot Minneapolis employees decided to try this much talked-about practice firsthand. We contacted local shinrin-yoku guide David Motzenbecker of Motz Studios, who leads these mindful walks at a local nature center. David has gone through extensive shinrin-yoku training, becoming an ANFT (Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs) Certified Forest Therapy Guide. Our DeepRoot group met David on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in June at the Wood Lake Nature Center located just outside Minneapolis. He explained the format of the outing — there would be two hours spent exploring various “invitations” or exercises designed to attune each of our senses to the environment around us. Cell phones were to remain off throughout the experience. No texts, no pictures, no distractions.
We set out on a journey of exploring all our senses. The first invitation focused on listening and consisted of standing on a small floating platform on the shore of Wood Lake. We were instructed to close our eyes and only listen to our surroundings. David guided us through some different ways of listening – what was the closest thing we could hear? The farthest? The more we stood, the more we heard. There was the obvious: birds calling, squirrels rustling through branches, even the distant hum of traffic. However as more time passed and we settled deeper into our listening, even the subtle sound of the cattails moving became clear. Bubbles in the water became audible. We had moved from superficial listening to deep listening.
Next up was perhaps my favorite of all the activities. We were to walk down a trail slowly. Very slowly. The object was to notice movement of all kinds as you moved from point A to point B. We noticed leaves trembling in the breeze, the cottonwood puffs floating down from the branches, and then all number of tiny insects. Toads emerged from hidden places, turtles popped their heads out of the water, and a bird fed babies in a tucked-away nest. Just as with the focused listening, the deeper we looked the more we found.
Switching our focus to touch, the next invitation asked us to collect anything with an interesting texture we could find between two points. Seed pods, pebbles, bark, grasses, and many other natural treasures filled our hands. When the exercise concluded we shared our finds and then created a piece of art right there on the trail, laying each texture down in an arrangement for the next visitor to experience.
Focusing on our breathing, we then embarked down a path and were asked to be aware of the cyclical nature of breathing, both ours and that of the forest. As we became aware of our own respiration, we thought about how we were inhaling that which the trees exhaled, and vice versa, thus creating a connection between our lives and the forest’s. It was deeply grounding to feel this critical tie between ourselves and nature.
Our series of invitations culminated in a period of individual reflection. David gave each of us a small rolled up piece of paper and told us we may choose to open it during this time alone or when we got home, or even not at all. We each found a spot in the forest that spoke to us and settled in. I opened my paper and found a beautiful aerial image of a river delta, showing a fractal-like pattern. This inspired me to spend my reflection period looking at my immediate surroundings for other fractal patterns, of which I found many.
At the end of our individual time, we gathered at the edge of the lake. We all agreed that the experience was eye opening. Each of us felt considerably more relaxed and focused, awake and aware. It was a feeling that, for me, lasted the rest of the day and well into the next.
While the concept of forest bathing may sound new-age and somewhat mystic, there is hard science supporting both the mental and physical benefits of the practice. Studies show that a forest bathing experience increases the number of natural killer cells in the body. Natural killer (NK) cells are aggressive cells of the immune system that play an important role in fighting cancer as well as viral-infected cells. In the study, twelve healthy male subjects, age 37-55 years experienced a three-day/two-night trip in three different forest fields. On the first day, subjects walked for two hours in the afternoon in a forest field; and on the second day, they walked for two hours in the morning and afternoon, respectively, in two different forest fields. Blood was sampled on the second and third days of the study, and showed at 50% increase in NK cells in 11 of 12 participants.
A different study considered both physiological and psychological effects, measuring systolic blood pressure (SBP), diastolic blood pressure (DBP), pulse rate (PR), autonomic functions, and profile of mood states (POMS). It was found that all participants, “showed significant decrease in SBP, DBP, and in negative POMS items after a forest bathing session. Before the session, those with depressive tendencies scored significantly higher on the POMS negative items than those without depressive tendencies. After forest bathing, those with depressive tendencies demonstrated significantly greater improvement in many of POMS items than those without depressive tendencies, and many of them no longer differed between those with and without depressive tendencies.”
Forest bathing is as effective as it is enjoyable. The practice is not complicated – you can try it yourself in a wooded area near you, alone or with some friends. Find your forest, turn off your phone, and enjoy the benefits the forest has to offer.