The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, which translates into English as “forest bathing.” It has nothing to do with bathing in the normal sense of the word, however. Instead, the concept might better be described as “forest immersion.”
For some time now, Japanese people looking to reduce the stress of everyday living have been heading to the forest. Their approach to shinrin-yoku is simple: go out into the woods, shut off your cell phone, and take in the forest atmosphere to the maximum extent you can, without a specific goal or destination in mind. Use your senses as you wander. Breathe in the cool fresh air that leaves your nostrils tingling. Touch the rough tree bark and the soft moss. Listen to the wind rustle the leaves, and hear the birdsong. Sit down on the ground or a fallen tree and smell the humid mix of growing plants, decaying wood, and moist earth. Feel the tree shade on your skin.
The proponents of shinrin-yoku say that it produces all kinds of health benefits, in addition to stress reduction: improved functioning of the immune system, reduced blood pressure, improved mood and energy, heightened mental acuity, and better sleep. In short, regular leisurely, relaxed strolls through the woods can provide the kind of mental and physical health benefits that stressed-out Americans typically try to obtain through prescription drugs or some other artificial means. Should this come as a surprise?
One of the weirder things about modern America is how resistant some people are to actually experiencing nature. Every morning, as I’m on my morning walk, I travel past a small health club where people are jogging and walking on treadmills, watching TV — when they could be jogging around the same park I’m heading to only a few blocks away, where they could breathe some fresh air rather than stale sweat smells, experience the morning quiet, and chuckle at the quacking ducks waddling by. Why make that choice? Why do people hop in their cars rather than walking, even for short distances?
I don’t think you need to plan a trip to a primeval forest to experience the benefits of shinrin-yoku. I think any effort to get out into the natural world, in quiet way, walking at your own pace and listening and looking and feeling, is going to be a good thing on more levels than we can count.