Tap Into the Therapeutic Power of the Forest

By Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

What do you do that gives you energy, that fuels your ability to work and play? Do you have anything? Do you escape from the stress of life to allow your mind, body and spirit to heal?

There are so many benefits to our health from spending time in nature, particularly forests. Research has found that spending time in forests can increase attention capacity and creativity, lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system and improve mood.

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Sunset from the Waterrock Knob Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway (NC)

Are you tapping into the power of the forest as part of your plan to improve your health? It is a key ingredient that could take your health to the next level. It is the multiplier. If you are walking, biking, relaxing in an urban environment, then  you are getting health benefits. If you do the same in a natural setting like a forest, the benefits are multiplied because of the restorative aspects of nature that impact the body and brain, that are not present in urban settings.

The power of the forest can help you at work, school or home. The more time the better, but try to squeeze in 30 minutes to an hour each week and then gradually increase.The power lies in the ability to experience solitude free (mostly) from noise created by humans. You can enjoy the sound of a waterfall, a bird chirping, or the exhilaration of watching a sunset. These benefits, called soft fascination, allow your attention capacity to rest. Much like muscles after working out, attention becomes fatigued and inhibits the the ability to focus.

My challenge to you is next week find a “sit spot” and spend 30 minutes there. Write about what you are experiencing. Draw. Allow yourself to connect with nature. Enjoy the experience and let me know how it goes!

 

 

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Forest Bathing: Dr. Qing Li’ s Definitive Guide to the Healing Power of Nature

by Mark Ellison, Ed.D.

Reading Dr. Qing Li’s new book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness that is being released publicly April 17, I found myself reflecting on how time in nature has shaped my life. This excellent read will prompt many to search out ways to introduce time in nature to their lifestyle.

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Dr. Li is the leading world expert on forest medicine. He is an immunologist at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School and is a founding member of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, and vice president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

This book offers many things: a glimpse into the Japanese culture’s close relationship to nature; an explanation of how nature impacts our health; examples of some of the practices in Japan for using nature to improve health; and suggestions on how to practice Shinrin Yoku. If you take the time to put Dr. Li’s suggestions into practice it will have a positive impact on your life and health.

Nature: Intertwined with the Culture of Japan

Understanding the importance of nature in Japanese culture provides an important lens through which to view this topic.

Dr. Li reflects on time in his childhood growing up in the countryside, contrasting that with today, living in bustling Tokyo. He is blessed though, to work next to a beautiful park. Whether in the city or country, being near nature is important to the Japanese. It is no surprise that Shinrin Yoku is so popular there.

Shinrin Yoku is simply breathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through your senses. Shinrin in Japanese means forest, yoku means bath. Shinrin Yoku is not hiking, jogging or exercising, it is an experience. “Shinrin Yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses it bridges the gap between us and the natural world,” states Li. When this happens the body and mind can begin to heal.

Shinrin Yoku started in Japan, according to Li,  primarily because it is a forest civilization. The culture, philosophy and religion of Japan are all carved out of the forest. Japan is densely populated, but it also has over 3,000 miles of forest. Both of Japan’s official religions (Shinto and Buddhism) believe the forest is the divine. Buddhists believe the natural world is the word of God. Shinto believe the spirit and nature are one, found in rocks, trees, streams and the breeze. This spirit is called kami.

Nature is part of every aspect of life in Japan. Shizen, which means nature, is one of the seven principles of Zen aesthetics, meaning that we are all connected to nature emotionally, spiritually and physically. An example of this, is when in the fall, the Japanese have moon viewings or tsukimi. Family and friends gather together at a place they can clearly see the moon and decorate with autumn flowers and pampas grass.

In 1982 a national health program of forest bathing was introduced in Japan. The forest that was first used (Akasawa) had groves of Japanese Cypress or Hinoki trees. The wood has a scent of lemon and smoke.

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Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

How Shinrin Yoku Improves Health

The book transitions from focusing on the origins of Shinrin Yoku to discussing the many health benefits of utilizing this practice.

The science of the connection between nature and health is revealing encouraging results. Research studies have found positive correlations between time in nature and strengthened immune system, increased energy, decreased anxiety, depression and anger, reduced stress and improved sleep.

One of the key benefits of forest bathing is “breathing in the the forest’s natural aromatherapy. Plant chemicals known as phytoncides have been found to boost the immune system. Evergreens like pine trees, cedar, spruce and conifers are the largest produces of phytoncides. Li uses essential oils to introduce the smells of the forest into his indoor environments. His favorite is not surprising, Hinoki oil. Studies have found that exposure to phytoncides increases the numbers and activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells which help fight off disease, decrease levels of stress hormones, increase hours of sleep, increase mood, lower blood pressure and bring the nervous system into balance. Plug your Hinoki infused diffuser up today! I have.

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White Trillium, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina  Photo by Mark Ellison

Developing Your Shinrin Yoku Practice

One of the most important take aways from this book is how to incorporate the practice of Shinrin Yoku into your overall healthy living strategy.

Li describes the forest as being like our mother, a sacred place, a paradise of healing, which is the foundation of forest medicine. To experience nature he suggests finding a spot you enjoy going. Leave behind your phone and camera. Let your body be your guide. Be lead by your senses. Savor the sounds, smells and sights of nature. The key to unlocking the wonderful power of nature is found in the five senses. Let nature enter through your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands and feet.

There are many activities you can do in nature to promote health. Walking (perhaps barefoot), yoga, eating, hot springs therapy,  T’ai chi, meditation, nordic walking and plant observation. A very important point is emphasized: it is critical that you take the time to get to know yourself and about what you like to do. Learn how to relax in the forest.

We can not always get outside, but we can bring the power of the forest inside through the use of essential oils. Dr. Li recommends Hinoki oil and also suggests several others.

Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed reading this book. I have practiced Shinrin Yoku for several years and teach classes on it as well, and learned quite a bit. It provides a solid, informative plunge into the world of Shinrin Yoku. Li offers many suggestions that you will want to refer back to as your practice of Shinrin Yoku evolves, only a few of which are described here. You will not be disappointed with your investment in this book.

Let me know if you are interested in becoming part of a larger community focused on learning about and promoting the connections between nature and health.

 

 

 

A Conversation with Dr. Qing Li about His New Book on Shinrin-Yoku

By Dr. Mark A Ellison

The Japanese practice of Forest Medicine,or Shinrin-Yoku, has gained quite a bit of notoriety of the past few years. Dr. Qing Li is the person who helped develop this practice and promote it first in Japan, and subsequently around the world. I first worked with Dr. Li in 2011, and had the opportunity to meet with him in 2013 where we presented at a conference about the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

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Qing Li and Mark Ellison hosting the first North American INFOM meeting.

Dr. Li is a physician at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School, a visiting fellow at the Stanford University School of Medicine, is a founding member and chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, a member of the Task Force of Forests and Human Health, and the vice president and secretary general of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine.

He has a new book that will be released in April 2018: Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness which will provide insights to how nature impacts our health and how to experience Shinrin-Yoku. I recently had the opportunity to get feedback from Dr. Li about his new book recently.

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What is the focus of this book?

“Although there is not much new data in this book, it is written for general readers in an easy to understand manner. The target audience for this book is the general public, not for researchers. There are many forest bathing practices in this book.”

Is Forest Medicine becoming more widely accepted?

“We have to understand that Forest Medicine is a preventive medicine, but not a clinical medicine in the moment. I hope Forest Medicine will be developed into a clinical medicine at least partially.”

What countries are in the forefront of developing forest therapy bases and or integrating access to nature as a primary public health initiative?

Japan, Korea, Finland, China

How do you practice Shinrin-Yoku?

“I always go to forest bathing once a month and visit city park every weekend. I always take hot spring after forest bathing.”

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Dr. Qing Li

Spending time in nature has many benefits for the mind, body, and spirit. Take time to learn more about Shinrin-Yoku in your efforts to maximize your health and well-being.

Five Ways to Connect to Nature in 2018

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Plott Balsam Mountain Range (North Carolina)

The new year is a fantastic time to rediscover how being in nature can help reduce stress and increase effectiveness. You do not have to make a large commitment of time, just block out some space in your schedule. Here are a few tips that I use to help stay connected to nature.

Develop a Plan Focused on Doing Things You Love

I like to spend time in nature by hiking, cycling, mountain biking, and kayaking, so I set goals in each of these areas to make sure I stay on track. It helps my physical fitness, and also my mental fitness. It is not about the numbers, but that helps me stay motivated. I had 1,300 miles in 2017, so I am aiming for 1,500 in 2018. My body, mind and spirit will thank me for every extra mile.

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Sunset over Great Smoky Mountains National Park as seen from Waterrock Knob Trail (NC)

 

Make Room for Silence

We live in a noisy world. One way to escape the stress that this causes is to allow the silence available in nature to capture your attention. This is not only calming but serves to help restore your attention capacities. Find quiet places to go on a lunch break or for an after work stroll. When you have time for more extended trips, find places that are not near areas with lots of human created noises (eg, roads, airports, neighborhoods).

Reflect While You Are in Nature

Getting away from the things that cause stress and spending time in nature is the perfect setting to reflect. Bring a journal and write about whatever is on your mind. Try writing with your non-dominate hand to help your mind slow down. Draw the things you see in nature. These simple approaches to reflection can help you relax.

Volunteer

There are numerous volunteer opportunities that can get you out in nature more. Perhaps there is a community garden in your area, or a trail maintenance and hiking club such as the Carolina Mountain Club in Asheville, NC. These are great ways to help the environment and make new friends.

Take a Social Media Fast

Social media diverts attention. When you are in nature stop thinking about what pictures you want to take to share on social media. Let yourself become immersed in the experience. You will remember much more about the things you saw during a hike if you are not constantly thinking about what you want to photograph.

Enjoy the new year and get outside as much as you can. There is bountiful research showing that time in nature truly does wonders for your mind, body and spirit.

I hope to see you out on the trail or paddling sometime soon!

The power of the forest is dying as natural silence goes extinct

It was in the forest that I found the peace that passeth understanding.”  Jane Goodall

Silence. Does the thought of if scare you or give you a sense of inner peace? Can you recall the last time you experienced silence? Have you ever?

The healing power of nature impacts, the mind, body and spirit. Research studies demonstrate this, and many of us know this intuitively. One of the primary attributes of nature that provides health benefits is the freedom from human created noise. Half the world’s population now lives in busy, loud urban settings, many not knowing the peace and healing that natural silence offers.

Gordon Hempton, acoustic ecologist, and  founder of One Square Inch of Silence in Hoh Rain Forest, believes that natural silence is going extinct. In an interview on PBS On Being, he indicated that he was aware of only 12 remaining places that offered natural silence of at least 15 minutes. I visited the Hoh Rain Forest several years ago and it is by far one of the most enchanting and peaceful places I have ever been. Hempton has worked tirelessly to help preserve quiet there.

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Standing Indian Mountain (North Carolina)

It seems as though the delicate balancing act between economic growth and preserving natural places for escape has been a struggle for centuries. This has become increasingly important now as our world population continues to expand, demanding more resources, with further urbanization, which creates relentless cascades of noise. The United States has had an on again. off again approach to protecting nature. Over the past eight years many natural areas have been protected. Unfortunately, we are now entering a time when those governing  the country apparently are cynical and uncaring towards the incredible importance of nature to our health, instead advancing legislation to make national parks, forests and wilderness areas more accessible to developers by handing the land over to states. We need more natural areas for recreation, not fewer as the United States and world populations continue to increase. Once these places are developed we are not getting them back. 

The absence of noise is not a luxury. Studies have found that increases in noise are associated with increased crime, stress levels,  and numerous other associated health problems. As a society it seems as though we have become obsessed with creating noise, and needing to have noise to feel safe. How many people do you know that have to always have a television on, have ear buds to listen to music, or be talking?

I am interested in your feedback. Do you value silence? Are you comfortable with it? Where do you go to experience it? How do you benefit from the experience? 

Hiking in Nature = Improved Mental Health?

By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D.

Fall is a wonderful time to be in nature. The leaves are turning radiant hues, the air is crisp, and the sky is a deep blue. Nature has even more umph to refresh our mind, body and spirit.

Shining Rock Wilderness in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina

Shining Rock Wilderness in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina

Researchers at Stanford University recently found that walking in nature is not only awe inspiring but provides measurable mental health benefits and may even reduce the risk of depression. Specifically, the study found that people who walked in a nature area for 90 minutes compared to participants walking in an urban area, had decreased activity in the brain associated with a key factor for depression. “These findings are important because they are consistent with, but do not yet prove, a causal link between increasing urbanization and increased rates of mental illness,” said co-author James Gross, a professor of psychology at Stanford.

The study authors note that city dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders as well as a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders compared to people living in rural settings. People born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.

This research is important as urban planners identify how to best use limited resources, and national and state parks grapple with how to manage the demands of a growing population on finite public lands. People who live in settings that have constant noise and little nature need a place to escape. It is also critical that children are introduced to nature and learn how to utilize it for maintaining good mental and physical health throughout life.20151006_180640_resized

Continued research on the connections between nature and human well-being are vital. Important work is being done by The Natural Capital Project which is focused on quantifying the value of natural resources to the public and predicting benefits from investments in nature. It is a joint venture of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

Being able to quantify and predict the benefits that nature offers to human health may be the strongest case that can be made for preserving nature. A world void of places to escape in nature is truly a depressing concept, one hopefully we will never have to experience. Our mental health hinges on it.

Finding Quiet Can Be Elusive, Even in Nature

By Mark A. Ellison, Ed.D.

Perhaps you noticed that we live in a noisy world. Maybe it is the constant hum of traffic, or the construction near your office, or the neighbors that are constantly using lawn equipment. It is difficult to escape. Over half the world’s population now lives in urban settings, making it extremely difficult to find quiet if you live in these settings. Even in rural areas, finding places free of human created noise is not easy.

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The National Park Service recently created a map that indicates that many people live in areas where night skies and soundscapes are very degraded. The blue areas of the map below indicate places where noise is less prevalent. Unfortunately, most of the eastern United States is brightly colored indicating significant noise and light pollution. The park service also found that even in more natural backcountry settings noise is prevalent due to hikers, maintenance equipment and other sources. Excessive noise is harmful not only to human health, but to wildlife as well. Certain species of animals avoid noisy places. America_Quiet

Fortunately there are places such as the “One Square Inch” project in Olympic National Park that are treated as sanctuaries for silence, to experience the quiet of nature, and used to help build awareness of the need for more areas like it.

A number of research studies have linked excessive noise with increased levels of violence and crime. Humans need to experience some levels of quiet and solitude to remain healthy. Nature provides a primary escape for this. However, if the dwindling areas of nature are not protected, there will no more places offering this type of escape.

Many of us struggle to hear our “inner voice”, to live a balanced life, and to take time to reflect. The Cherokee have a term for living life in balance, duyuktv. Take time to find a quiet natural area nearby and soak in some of the restorative power of nature, to find a sense of balance, of duyuktv. Once you have captured that restoration, share it with others. Then, work together to help protect the natural areas where you live and explore.