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.


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.





Four Days Exploring Cutting Edge Forest and Nature Research

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

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

Researchers, educators and practitioners interested in nature, forests, outdoor recreation and their link to human health converged on Traverse City, Michigan May 19-23, 2013. The joint conference of the International Union of Forest Research Organizations and the Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals provided the forum for a dynamic exchange of ideas. Observing U.S. Forest Service staff engaged in lively conservation with researchers from Finland on how forests impact health was just one of many enlightening experiences from the conference.

Enjoying lunch at the Red Ginger Sushi Bar in Traverse City with International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine colleagues (Left to Right) Qing Li (Nippon Medical School, Tokyo), Liisa Tyrvainen (Finnish Forest Research Institute), Vicki Simkovic, ND (Ontario), Kurt Beil, ND (Portland, Oregon), Kalevi Korpela, University of Tampere, Finland, and Julia Africa, Harvard School of Public Health.

Enjoying lunch at the Red Ginger Sushi Bar in Traverse City with International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine colleagues (Left to Right) Qing Li (Nippon Medical School, Tokyo), Liisa Tyrvainen (Finnish Forest Research Institute), Mark Ellison, Vicki Simkovic, ND (Ontario), Kurt Beil, ND (Portland, Oregon), Kalevi Korpela, University of Tampere, Finland, and Julia Africa, Harvard School of Public Health.

Adding to the quality of the conference was the initial meeting of The North American Chapter of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM). Significant interest was expressed in the organization during the conference. Qing Li, MD, Ph.D, (Forest Medicine/Shinrin yoku researcher and vice president of INFOM from Tokyo)  presented information about the history and purpose of the organization.  I facilitated a discussion on the plans for the North American chapter and our next steps. When I first proposed the concept of a North American chapter to Qing Li, it was with the desire to bring together researchers and practitioners wanting to advance the quality of research being conducted, thus providing a more solid grounding for the use of nature as a healthcare treatment alternative.  That sentiment was echoed many times by participants during our meeting.

Several INFOM board members were in attendance at the meeting including Liisa Tyrvainen, Professor at the Finnish Forest Research Institute, and Kalevi Korpela, Professor at the University of Tampere, Finland.

Following the meeting Brian Luke Seaward hosted a screening of his award-winning documentary that recently aired on PBS, Earth Songs: Mountains, Water and the Healing Power of Nature”

Research presentations

The Sleeping Bear Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National LakeshorePhoto by Mark Ellison

Conference attendees riding The Sleeping Bear Trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Photo by Mark Ellison

One  strength of this conference was the variety of research presented. Topics of presentations included restoration of urban forests in Estonia, forest medicine as preventive medicine, nature based outdoor recreation and emotional well-being, the stress reducing effects of different urban nature areas, and addressing community health issues with parks and trails.

Next steps for INFOM

Conference attendees enjoy a short break    between sessions.

Conference attendees enjoy a short break between sessions.

The North American Chapter of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine aims to bring together researchers and practitioners  interested in strengthening the evidenced based research being conducted on forests, nature, and human health. One of our first initiatives will be to develop a list-serve to help facilitate communication. We will also develop a webpage for the North American chapter on the INFOM website. If you have an interest in becoming involved with INFOM please send your contact information. One longer term goal is to coordinate a “research round table” or conference to help facilitate the quality and quantity of research on this topic. will continue to provide updates on the evolution of INFOM in North America.

The Nature and Health Bookshelf

There are several recently published books that I recommend for an enhanced understanding of the connections between nature and health. The books cover different aspects of nature and health that provide a solid foundation on the topic.

Your Brain on Nature (2012) Eva Selhub and Alan Loganybonbook

Your Brain on Nature offers scientifically proven, nature-based methods for reducing stress, improving cognitive powers, and boosting the efficiency of exercise.




Forest Medicine (2012) Qing Li, Editor

The goal of Forest Medicine is to present up-to-date findings related to forest medicine research to show forest medicine picthe beneficial effects of forest environments on human health. The book is organized into sections focused on evaluation of the forest environment; effects of the forest environment on human health; effects of factors in the forest environments on human health;  greens areas and human health: epidemiological studies; and research into forests and human health, including recent trends worldwide. The book includes evidence from both experimental and epidemiological studies and covers recent trends related to forests and human health in Japan, Korea, China and  Europe. Forest Medicine can be utilized by the fields of forestry, horticulture, alternative medicine, environmental medicine, preventive medicine, public health and aromatherapy.

Forest, Trees & Human Health (2011) Nilsson, K.; Sangster, M.; Gallis, C.; Hartig, T.; de Vries, S.; Seeland, K.; Schipperijn, J., Editors. 

Forests, Trees and Human Health is the outcome of the European Union’s COST Action forest trees and human health picE39 ‘Forests, Trees and Human Health and Wellbeing’, and brings together work carried out over four years by scientists from 25 countries working in the fields of forestry, health, environment and social sciences. The focus is primarily on European health priorities, but also includes research from other regions including North America.  A strength of the book is that it extends across both disciplines and nations, serving as a reference for researchers in forestry, health, natural resource management and environmental policy. Forests, Trees and Human Health is the only unified body of work on this topic.

Green Care: For Human Therapy, Social Innovation, Rural Economy, and Education (2013) Christos Gallis, Editor 

Green care is described as the use of agricultural farms and the biotic and abiotic elementsGreen Care 7 10 HD of nature for health and therapy-promoting interventions as a base for promoting human mental and physical health, as well as quality of life.  This book presents scientific knowledge related to green care, its definitions and theories, and findings to show the beneficial effects of green care on human health and well being. Also discussed are the social, political, economic, and educational aspects of green care.

Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning (2011) Timothy Beatley 

Biophilic Cities outlines the essential elements of a biophilic city, and provides examples biopand stories about cities that have successfully integrated biophilic elements, from the building to the regional level, around the world. Beatley reviews biophilic urban design and planning, describing urban ecological networks and connected systems of urban greenspace, green rooftops and green walls, and sidewalk gardens.

Announcing the North American Chapter of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine

The Board of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM) in Tokyo, Japan recently approved a North American chapter of the organization. The purpose of INFOM is to promote research on nature and forest medicine, including the effects of forest and nature environments. INFOM aims to provide a platform for those interested in the practice of nature and forest medicine for promoting the effective use of forest resources on stress management, health promotion, and the prevention and rehabilitation of diseases as part of an integrated approach to medical care.INFOM

The initial meeting of the North American chapter of the society will be held at the IUFRO Conference on Forests for People May 19-23, 2013 in Traverse City, Michigan. The INFOM meeting is scheduled for Monday, May 20 at 6:30 p.m. Qing Li, MD, PhD, Associate Professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and I will host the initial meeting. Dr. Li has been at the forefront of forest medicine research on the practice of shinrin yoku (forest bathing), which is walking in the forest to obtain the health benefits. Dr. Li is the Vice-President and Secretary General of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, and I serve on the Board.

We invite you to become a charter member of this truly international organization of researchers and practitioners seeking to learn more about how nature impacts human health and effectiveness. If you would like more details about the North American chapter and how you can become involved please share your contact information.

Outside Magazine’s December 2012 Article on “The Nature Cure” Sheds Light on the Emerging Field of Forest Medicine

Outside Magazine’s December 2012 issue includes an in-depth article by Florence Williams entitled “The nature cure: Take two hours of pine forest and call me in the morning.”  Williams describes the emerging focus on the connection between nature and health as the “slow nature movement.” The article is the most complete review of its kind in a magazine that I have found, and pieces together the research taking place around the world. She cites the work of Alan Logan, Richard Louv, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan and others who have helped raise awareness of the links between nature and health.

Williams visited Japan to learn firsthand about the practice of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, which is walking in nature to obtain the health benefits.  Shinrin yoku is a Shinto and Buddhist inspired practice that “lets nature enter the body through all five senses.” She discovered that forest bathing has been standard preventive medicine in Japan for thousands of years. The stressed masses from Tokyo and other urban areas flee to the forest for rejuvenation, trying to escape “karoshi” or death by overwork. Between 2.5 million and 5 million visitors walk the “Forest Therapy Trails” in Japan each year. The Japanese government currently has 48 “Forest Therapy Bases” with plans to expand to 100, and has spent over $4 million on forest bathing research since 2004. The South Korean government believes in the practice as well and is investing $140 million for a National Forest Therapy Center to be completed by 2014.

Autumn leaves in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Williams interviews Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist and vice director of Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences. Miyazaki emphasizes that spending time in nature helps facilitate a feeling of comfort because our rhythms become synchronized with those of the environment. During her visit to Japan, Williams also talks with Dr. Qing Li, Senior Assistant Professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo who has done extensive research on how spending time in forests impacts the immune system. Dr. Li is asked how he utilizes nature for health and describes using cypress oils for aromatherapy nightly. He also suggests taking a vacation to nature, not the city; at least one weekend a month visiting a natural area; visiting a park at least once a week; trying to walk under trees when walking in urban areas; and going to quiet places, preferably near water.

Williams also reviews some of the recent research linking time in nature to improved health, and provides suggestions for how to connect with nature. This article is an excellent overview of where the emerging field of forest medicine is headed. A key observation made by Williams is that in the United States “researchers are mostly showing people pictures of nature, while the Japanese are pouring it into every orifice.”  To validate the claims that “nature heals” and gain acceptance as a viable preventative healthcare option, the Japanese approach to research must be more fully embraced in the United States. As research continues to reveal “a nature cure”, hopefully more in the U.S. will take notice and loosen their grip on their smart phone long enough to experience the benefits nature has to offer.

Your Brain on Nature Reviews the Latest Research on How Nature Impacts Brain Health

I just finished reading the recently published book Your Brain on Nature: the science of nature’s influence on your health, happiness, and vitality” by Alan Logan, ND and Eva Selhub, MD. The book reviews the latest scientific research on how immersion in nature impacts the health of the human brain. Research is cited from around the world, including recent work by neuroscientists, providing convincing evidence of the benefits of nature for brain health and overall well-being. Logan and Selhub provide expert insight about the necessity of restoring health and balance in a world that is heavily dependent on technology.

What sets this book apart is the depth and breadth of information shared. Research studies are discussed, and Selhub and Logan take the next step by providing suggestions for practical application. Another unique aspect of the book is the collaboration of professionals from the naturopathic and conventional medical communities. The combination of perspectives this offers is groundbreaking and refreshing.

Topics addressed in the book include how nature impacts cognition; the specific elements of nature that influence the brain; the practices of shinrin yoku and forest medicine, specifically the cutting edge research by Dr. Qing Li and associates of Nippon Medical School in Japan; how green exercise benefits brain health; horticultural and wilderness therapies; the importance of contact with animals for health; nutrition and brain health; and the healing power of nature and ecotherapy.

I highly recommend Your Brain on Nature. It provides a strong argument that nature offers significant physical, mental and social health benefits to humans. Based on scientific evidence from around the world, it is the most complete resource on this topic I’ve found, and I plan to use it in all of my classes and seminars. Your Brain on Nature would also be a valuable tool for healthcare providers who want to incorporate nature into their practice, as well as anyone who wishes to improve their own health.

Selhub, E., & Logan, A. (2012). Your Brain on Nature: the science of nature’s influence on your health, happiness, and vitality.  Mississauga: Wiley.