Forest bathing: A practice with roots in Japan gains a foothold in Canada

Digging into 'Shinrin-yoku', its links to health benefits and how it's practiced here

Digging into 'Shinrin-yoku', its links to health benefits and how it's practiced here

(Getty Images)

This article was originally published August 9th, 2017.

When you enter a forest with Ronda Murdock, you introduce yourself to plants, you imagine your feet planting roots and you just might make friends with a tree.

This is forest bathing. It's a meditative-like practice which involves immersing oneself in nature, sometimes with a guide, like Murdock, and interacting with your surroundings using all five senses. It has origins in Japan, where it has links to ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices and was dubbed Shinrin-yoku, meaning "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing," by the government in 1982. There, it is now considered a cornerstone of preventative health initiatives after the government poured USD $4-million into intensive research on the benefits of forest bathing.

But what is it, really?

It's tricky to pinpoint what exactly forest bathing is and what it isn't. It can involve anything from snapping twigs and sniffing them, to watching birds flit from tree to tree. The point, according to Murdock, who leads forest bathing or "forest therapy" walks on Vancouver Island, is to slow your mind and hone your senses. It's not about getting exercise, nor is it about getting into nature – it's about being in the moment and absorbing your surroundings, she said.

"Some people, they're very surprised at some of the things they notice," Murdock said. Some people comment on how moss is draped over trees like a party dress or how fragrant the air is. "If you go for a hike you just wouldn't notice those things."

On Murdock's walks, which usually last around two hours and cover a distance of only about half a kilometre, she takes a group of between one and 10 people into the forest and asks them to "shake the road dust" off their bodies, relieving stress. Next, she asks them to close their eyes and take a deep breath, imaging that their feet are growing roots into the ground. Then she asks them to pay attention to their senses – the feel of the breeze on their skin, the scent of the earth, even the sound of golfers hitting balls at the nearby golf course.

"I've had people that are used to being in the forest and at the end of (our forest bathing walk) they say, 'Wow… I've never walked in a forest like this," said Murdock. "It just changes what they think about being in nature."

As she walks, she invites guests to engage with the forest in different ways, talking to plants, paying attention to movements and letting themselves move toward whatever tree or space is calling to them. No walk is the same, and she tailors the experience based on her surroundings and what her guests ask for.

It sounds relaxing, but it's also scientifically proven to be beneficial.

One 2010 study from Japan examined the benefits of forest bathing – taking participants to 24 forests in Japan – versus spending time in a city. The study found that participants who spent time in a forest had lower heart rates, lower blood pressure and lower concentrations of a stress hormone compared with those who walked in cities. Other studies have found links between Shinrin-yoku and increased immune function. Some researchers think that the process of breathing in phytoncides, organic compounds released by the forest, might be related to helping people relax. Still, it's not entirely clear why forest bathing causes these benefits.

Philip Barr, a physician at Duke University told NPR he's impressed with the primary research coming out of Japan.

"Forest bathing could be considered a form of medicine," Barr said, noting the practice could be particularly helpful for people who are stressed out. "And the benefits of nature can be accessed so simply."

In Japan, Shinrin-yoku is taken so seriously that the government has specific Shinrin-yoku  

designated trails, based on studies determining how their specific health benefits.  

In North America, one organization called the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, is working to train certified forest therapy guides. B.C.-based forest therapy guide Haida Bolton completed the six-month program in November and believes people leading forest therapy walks, which participants often pay for, should be trained to ensure participants get an "authentic" experience. All guided walks should start with a closed-eye introduction to the forest, include invitations to engage with nature throughout and end with a tea ceremony, she said.

But is it a stretch to ask people to pay – three hours with Bolton costs $50 – for a walk in the woods?

"It's like going to a yoga class," Bolton said. "Sure, you could do yoga in your own living room, but sometimes you want to share that experience … or you want someone to guide you."

To her, forest therapy is an opportunity for adults to unplug, be playful and embrace a childlike sense of wonder.   

"It's kind of like a nature camp for adults," she said.

Katrina Clarke is a Vancouver- and Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. Find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.