PUBLISHED IN VINTAGE LIFE MAGAZINE OCTOBER 2016
In America they are calling it the next ‘yoga’ and in Japan it has become practically an institution, but this 'next big thing' in wellness may turn out to be a very nice surprise.
Have you ever been for a stroll in the woods, only to come home feeling relaxed, recharged and full of feel good' energy? Although connecting with nature is something that we as humans have been doing since time began, the Japanese have now distilled that experience into a regular practice that has been proven to deliver amazing health benefits.
The Japanese practice of 'Shinrin-yoku', which translates as 'taking in the forest atmosphere' or 'forest bathing' (metaphorically speaking of course), has been around for the last thirty years. Shinrin-yoku was introduced by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982, to encourage healthy lifestyle choices and to decrease stress.
Shinrin-yoku excursions are typically short trips to the forest for relaxation with no set destination. The walk itself is the destination. Participants are encouraged to focus on their senses of sight, smell and sound, to really take in what is happening in the forest around them. By doing this the participants bring themselves into the present, meaning that Shinrin-yoku is actually a form of mindfulness practice itself.
The ideal length of forest bathing time is around two hours but the suggested pace is more of a saunter than a sprint. The most important thing is to take your time and focus on those experiences that are awakening your senses.
Some fun forest bathing mindfulness exercises could include:
Closing your eyes and counting how many different birds, animals and insects you can hear.
Touching the bark of every tree you pass and comparing them. Are some smooth? Some rough?
Looking up and enjoying the beautiful forest canopy.
Breathing in the fresh forest air and noticing the difference to the normal city environment.
Or for a more relaxed approach you could simply stroll and take in the beautiful scenery, sit and read a book, or rest and watch the clouds for a while.
It's not hard to imagine that Shinrin-yoku packs a punch with its benefits and the research certainly falls in its favour.
Researchers have discovered that the forest environments of Shinrin-yoku promote lower concentrations of cortisol (the stress hormone), lower pulse rate and lower blood pressure. While further trials testing the effects of Shinrin-yoku on NK (or natural killer) cells, which form part of the immune system that fights cancer, found that amazingly, NK cell activity increased after forest bathing, and that increased activity lasted more than seven days after the trip to the forest.
Researchers have also begun to study phytoncides, the essential oils released by certain trees in the forest, and their connection to that increase in NK cell activity as well. In controlled experiments, exposure to these antimicrobial volatile substances did at least partially contribute to an increase in NK cell activity. In a separate experiment, Hinoki cypress leaf oil (one of the most common trees in Shinrin-yoku forest destinations and also a source of phytoncide) has also been shown to induce physiological relaxation.
Shinrin-yoku has also been shown to decrease anxiety, depression and anger, and increase vigour.
The only problem for some of us may be...no forests nearby! Well here is some great news for you, no forest, no worries!
Various green spaces including parks have also been shown to offer improvements to mood, lower levels of anxiety and sadness, and lower stress. So in other words, if you don't have a forest on your doorstep, you can make-do with whatever nature you can find nearby.
I actually practice Shinrin-yoku at my local park, picking up gum nuts, feeling the bark of the few trees and watching the swallows swoop down as they catch their breakfast. Often if I stand nice and still they fly around me and I can imagine that I am Snow White for a moment, which is lots of fun and gives me a kick!
Why don't you head on out to your local 'forest' and see what you can sense as you stroll. Wherever your forest bathing takes you, I'm sure you'll be in for a nice surprise.
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