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.

 

 

 

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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? 

A Walk in Nature is Good for Your Health Even if it’s “Brrr” Outside

By Florence Williams, Guest Writer

By all accounts, the weather for most of this winter has been unusually lousy all up and down the East Coast. As the Washington Post’s weather team explains it, an amplified jet stream pattern has created a “sliding board of significant cold air deliveries,” not to mention broken chunks of the polar vortex barreling down from Hudson Bay. Translation: Brrr.

Photo by Mark Ellison

Photo by Mark Ellison

Yesterday morning was cold and gray in D.C., the temperature on my phone reading 28 degrees. On the streets and sidewalks, icy patches remained of the previous day’s sleet.

Still, I knew I should go for my regular walk along the C&O Canal. It’s mostly scenic, although to get there I have to cross a freeway. And in winter, with the leaves gone, that freeway sounds and looks closer to the canal once you’re on it. I knew my feet would be cold and the ground hard, potentially treacherous is spots. No doubt about it; walking in the dead of DC winter is kind of a drag.

I know what you’re expecting me to say, that once I was out there it wasn’t so bad and I had a rewarding experience communing with the ice crystals and the clouds and the bracing breeze. But I’m not going to say that, because the fact is I didn’t enjoy it very much.  On these cold days (and we’ve had a lot of them – January and February so far have been among Washington’s very coldest), it takes me a full 20 minutes of vigorous walking to stop being stiff with shivers. Even after that point, I still grumble. Oh man, it sucks out here. Sometimes the wind bites into my collar and the balls of my feet go numb. I’d rather be holding a hot cup of tea and wearing sheepskin slippers in the breeze of my heat duct.

Cross-country skiing is a great way to enjoy the solitude and beauty of nature in winter.  Photo by Mark Ellison

Cross-country skiing is a great way to enjoy the solitude and beauty of nature in winter.
Photo by Mark Ellison

So why do I go? We all need a little sunshine, but this dark winter I haven’t even had that justification.  I go because of how I feel after. On these days, I like not the walking but the having walked.  I like the satisfaction of conquering my couch potato instincts, but more than that I tend to have a good day.  I can focus at work, my mood is even and I tend to sleep better.

Neuropsych research backs me up.  Marc Berman, now at the University of South Carolina, found that even when his research subjects walked through an arboretum in a Michigan winter, they performed better on cognitive tests than they had before the walk and better than subjects who walked through an urban setting.

We might not always crave spinach either, but that doesn’t mean we should only reach for pie. Regular walks in nature are usually pleasant, but even when they’re not, they’re “good for us.” Of course saying something is good for you is a sure way to make it a chore. How to avoid that? Other experts suggest keeping it fun, maybe by walking with friends or keeping your mind engaged. For me, knowing I’ll  sleep and work well is usually (but not always) motivation enough. For those other days, please pass the tea.

Florence Williams

Florence Williams

Florence Williams
Florence Williams is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for New York TimesNew York Times MagazineSlate, Mother JonesHigh Country NewsO-Oprah, W., Bicycling and numerous other publications. Her first book, BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History  (W.W. Norton 2012) received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in science and technology and the 2013 Audie in general nonfiction. It was also named a notable book of 2012 by the New York Times.

Five Ways Nature Can Prepare Your Brain for Success in 2014

Organizations are always looking for ways to improve workplace productivity, develop leaders, and help employees work more efficiently. Spending all day inside, in a cubicle that reverberates with stress drains attention, saps creativity, reduces productivity, and negatively impacts leadership ability. To lead effectively the brain needs to be at optimal functioning capacity.

Cross-country skiing on the Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina, USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Cross-country skiing on the Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina, USA)
Photo by Mark Ellison

As we kick off 2014, why not resolve to deal more effectively with your workplace stress in a way that will jump-start your brain for success: spend time in nature. There is a growing body of research that shows time in nature prepares the brain for optimal functioning. Time in nature also helps to tap into the things we are passion about, develop a sense of purpose and increase productivity.

Going into nature provides restoration and the opportunity to disconnect or escape phones, computers, televisions,noise and other stress inducing variables which have a negative impact on physical and mental health. Here are five ways getting away from stress and  spending time in nature can impact your effectiveness at work, and possibly make your boss happier:

1. Improve attention capacity and the ability to focus: Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is based on the concept of soft fascination, or the soothing sights and sounds of nature that are relaxing, allowing attention capacities to rest,  leaving room for reflection. One type of soft fascination is the sound of birds, which a recent study found to be the most preferred form of fascination.

Sunset at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park Photo by Mark Ellison

Sunset at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park
Photo by Mark Ellison

2. Enhance creativity: Research by faculty at the University of Utah and University of Kansas found that spending time in nature can improve creativity up to 50%. Being more creative on the job means you can generate better ideas and more innovative solutions to problems.

3. Increase cognitive ability: Spending time in nature increases cognitive abilities. Part of this is clearing the mind of distractions.

4. Improve memory: Heavy multitasking can make it difficult to remember things. Research has found that time in nature positively impacts the ability to remember.

5. Reduce stress and elevate mood: Our brains on stress are a jumbled mess. The stress that builds up in our mind impacts the entire body in a negative way if not properly dealt with. This can have negative consequences on the ability to work with others, and cause issues of workplace incivility. Time in nature reduces stress and elevates our mood, which can impact productivity and the ability to work with others. A recent study conducted by Lisa Nisbet for the David Suzuki Foundation 30X30 Nature Challenge found that spending time in nature increases happiness and self reported levels of productivity!

Here are a few suggestions on how to incorporate nature into your health and personal development plan in 2014:

1. Practice mindfulness/meditation in nature: You have to take time to slow your mind and body down and be in the present moment for your brain to begin to let go of stress and “cognitive leftovers” from the days activities. This is at the heart of mindfulness, which is now being utilized in cutting edge leadership development programs, and identified by the Center for Creative Leadership as “one of the five big leadership ideas.” Nature is the perfect setting to practice mindfulness and meditation. Janice Maturano recently published a book on this topic, Finding the Space to Lead.  Try this as a mindfulness exercise in nature:

Sunlight on a mountain stream (North Carolina) Photo by Mark Ellison

Sunlight on a mountain stream (North Carolina)
Photo by Mark Ellison

Find a quiet place in nature and just be. Close your eyes and for 15 minutes enjoy the sounds of nature. Notice what is happening in the environment and you: sounds, sensations, thoughts and feelings. Then, focus on your breathing. Don’t manipulate it, just breath in and out through your nose. Your mind is going to wonder, each time it does, return your attention to your breath. As thoughts and emotions come and go, don’t linger on them, let them go, they will pass away.

2. Green exercise: Exercising in nature essentially multiplies the benefits of exercise, helping the body and mind. Find a greenway or nature trail where you can go for a walk on your lunch break, or after work. Don’t listen to music, enjoy the sounds of the birds, the wind, and notice the beauty of nature. If you have more time, plan a hike for several hours, or bike on a rail trail.  I incorporate time in nature into my overall tracking of health goals. Just as I track the  minutes of cardio exercise, yoga, and the number of steps taken each day, I also record the time I spend in nature.This is easily done in an Excel spreadsheet where I can analyze trends in my health behavior.

3. Nature journal:  Take 15 minutes a day to start a nature journal. All you need is a notebook, a pencil or pen and a nature spot. Keeping a nature journal can help you clear your mind and focus on nature more directly. When you do a journal entry, record the date and time, weather conditions and your impressions of the setting. Identify something in nature that captivates your attention and draw it to scale. An excellent resource for learning more about nature journaling is a book by Clare Leslie and Charles Roth, “Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You.”

4. Practice Shinrin yoku: Shrin yoku is spending time in nature, just enjoying the experience, taking in the beauty and peace it offers. A good resource for this is a book written by wilderness guide Amos Clifford, “A Little Handbook of Shrin yoku.” 

5. Be a Nature Advocate: Advocate for policies that bring nature into your work environment or for access to nature near the workplace. This could be as simple as having plants and pictures of nature in the workplace, and  tables outside for meetings or lunch breaks.

An excellent resource on nature and the brain is Eva Selhub and Alan Logan’s book Your Brain on Nature. It is great read, and references many research studies.

Spending time in nature does not need to be complicated or time consuming and can last as little as fifteen 15 minutes or an entire day. Remember, the amount of time you spend in nature, and the quality of the environment you are in will directly impact how well nature heals your mind and body. Incorporate time in nature into your health routine and  reap the benefits it offers your brain in 2014.

Note: The North American Chapter of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine will host a webinar on January 28, 2014 at 7:30 p.m. EST. Dr. Lisa Nisbet, assistant professor of psychology at Trent University in Ontario will discuss her research on nature relatedness and happiness. Register online at http://www.anymeeting.com/PIID=EA52DE87814E3D.