Your Guide to Forest Bathing

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Shinrin Yoku, which means “forest bathing” in Japanese, is neither an ancient esoteric practice nor bathing in a wooded stream. The term was coined in 1982 by the director of Japan’s Forestry Agency as part of a public relations campaign to encourage more people to visit the country’s national forests. Over the next 40 years, shinrin yoku has attracted the attention of medical researchers including studies have shown that a walk in the woods is not only enjoyable, but improves cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and pulse rate, boosts the immune system and lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Shinrin-yoku also inspired the “forest therapy” methods developed by Amos Clifford, who used them to help thousands of people experience the emotional and physical rewards of spending time in intimate communion with nature. Clifford, 67, began his career as a wilderness guide and trained as a psychotherapist before founding the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. A practitioner of Zen Buddhism for twenty years, Clifford is also one of the initiators of the Sky Creek Dharma Center in Chico, California. He now lives in Prescott, Arizona, where I reached out to him at his home to talk about shinrin-yoku, forest therapy, and intriguing connections to Buddhist practice.

—Jeff Goldberg

What is the difference between a forest bath and a hike? Bathing in the forest is more about being here than going there. If I took you on a hike, we’d probably cover three or four miles in a few hours. If you came for a walk in the forest with me, we would do about 200 meters.

It’s like immersing yourself in a small pool of forest. That’s right. We bathe our senses in the ambiance of the forest, using all the senses. Before starting a walk, we have the people we accompany do a sensory inventory. Notice your skin, how the forest touches you, notice what you hear, notice the tastes and smells, notice how your body feels there.

So what are you doing ? Then we start walking very slowly through the forest. It’s a bit like kinhin, Zen meditation while walking. It takes practice. Walking slowly can be uncomfortable until you get used to it. It’s easy to pick up the pace and start walking at a hiking pace. To help people slow down and concentrate, we ask them to pay attention to what’s moving in the forest: trees moving in the breeze, birds flying, the ever-changing movement of a stream. Paying attention to what is in motion gives our mind something to engage with, like counting your breath in seated meditation.

Do you walk in silence? Part of the time. We do the sensory inventory and what’s moving in silence, and at the end of the walk we all find a “place to sit” and sit in silence for 20 minutes. But as we walk, we invite people to share what they’re going through, and when it’s over, we come together for tea and a chat. Sometimes we make ‘trail tea’ from herbs we have picked up along the way.

You mentioned kinhin and seated meditation. Are there any other similarities between forest bathing and Buddhist practice? As Forest Therapy, I think it’s important to keep the work we do secular. There is no direct affiliation with any spiritual tradition, and we do not define it as a spiritual practice. But an obvious parallel strikes me. Where was the Buddha at the time of his enlightenment? He was under a tree. It’s not just the setting of the story, the bodhi tree is an essential part of the story. And when the Buddha awoke, he asked the earth to be his witness. Enlightenment occurs in relation to more than the human realm; it encompasses all of nature.

You wrote that forest bathing also has a lot in common with Shintoism. How? When you are in Japan, you really see it. You walk beside these trees which are Shinto shrines, with ropes around them and prayers hanging from the ropes. There is a shrine with a beautiful tree right in front of the busiest station in downtown Tokyo. In the Shinto tradition, trees, rivers, mountains and even stones have their own spirit, a sentient seed within. Young trees have a spirit called a kodama. When they grow old, they can be inhabited by a real god called a we. Shintoism embodies the kind of genuine relationship with the more-than-human realm I’m talking about.

With all the the research that has been done on the health benefits of shinrin-yoku, what was the most surprising scientific discovery for you? Everything is interesting. Blood pressure improves, heart rate variability improves. The studies showing that chemicals released by trees called phytoncides boost the immune system are really interesting, but I’m not surprised by anything. Science only confirms what we already know. When we take our time and slow down and walk through the forest, or sit near the base of a waterfall, it’s good for us.

Enlightenment occurs in relation to more than the human realm; it encompasses all of nature.

Are the health benefits what attracts people to forest bathing? In my experience, no one comes to lower their blood pressure or improve their heart rate variability.

Why do they come then? They don’t necessarily know. As guides and therapists, we know they come for whatever reason they have and what they find will stand between them and the forest. Our job is to optimize the conditions for them to make this discovery.

Do they know the science? Did they do their homework? Occasionally a guide will say that some people showed up in bathing suits because they thought they were going for a swim in the forest. So no, not everyone does their homework.

Recently, Canadian doctors were allowed to prescribe national forest passes to their patients. Japan has also incorporated shinrin-yoku into its healthcare system.

Do you think forest bathing could fit into the American healthcare system? It could happen here. When I started the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs in 2012, I met with people from Kaiser Permanente in Oakland to see if they would consider covering forest therapy in their health care plans. I was really excited about what it would be like if we could mobilize the largest healthcare network in the country to connect people to nature.

What did Kaiser say? They said, “Well, we might be interested if you have trained guides in all of the markets we serve nationally. I was like, okay, I’m going to train a thousand guides. Today, we have trained over 1,600 guides in 65 countries.

Are you covered by Kaiser now? Not yet.

Do people have deeply emotional experiences on your walks, flashes of satori? They wouldn’t call it satori, but they can have very intense experiences.

What types of experiences? They may experience fear, they may experience grief, they may experience a heightened sense of curiosity about the world around them, they may experience disorientation. Often people will burst into tears. Their experiences can be very different. My goal is to open their senses and open their hearts. I know nature can do it – and when people have these kinds of intense experiences, I feel like their hearts have opened up and nature and I have succeeded.

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