Going home to the forest
It is calming, healthy and natural. In Japan it’s available on prescription and in the USA it’s predicted to become the new yoga. Inspire has tried Shinrin Yoku – forest bathing – in the heart of health trends, Los Angeles.
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The list of trends I’ve tested in the past year in the name of health is long. I’ve cycled in a darkened room to club music, done yoga while hanging upside down from a piece of cloth, and meditated in a group while rhythmically breathing in the scent of expensive candles. Just to mention a few.
That’s the sort of thing people do in Los Angeles. To counter the stressful lives many of us live, we are constantly seeking to have happiness and good health as well as a career. Right now I am one of eight LA residents who have gathered at Switzer Falls just northeast of the city in the hope of finding our inner peace in a new way: by forest bathing.
Technically speaking, no real bath is involved. Instead, what we will do today involves going into the forest with all our senses fully open to drink in nature’s beneficial forces. No hocus-pocus is involved either. Science has repeatedly proved that our blood pressure is lowered and our stress hormones reduced when we get out into nature. And considering that humans have only lived in cities for a brief moment compared with the millions of years we lived in the forest, it’s not so strange that nature does us good. Getting out into nature is like coming home.
Forest bathing is actually not a new phenomenon – even though it is only now that Shinrin Yoku has followed yoga and other strong Asian health trends to the Western world via Los Angeles. The concept was coined back in the 1980s by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Loosely translated, Shinrin Yoku means roughly “to take in the forest atmosphere” or simply “to bathe in the forest” and in Japan doctors write prescriptions for forest bathing rather than for medicines. State-funded rehabilitation forests have even been specially created for the purpose.
No such forests exist here in Los Angeles but the city does have a constantly growing number of entrepreneurially minded enthusiasts who want to promote the benefits of forest bathing. One of them is Ben Page, the founder of Shinrin Yoku LA and one of the world’s 18 currently certified guides in forest therapy. Dressed all in black, with a thick beard and wide-brimmed felt hat, he starts by pointing to a vine-like plant:
“Watch out for the poison oak. It’s the only danger in this forest – I haven’t seen any bears.”
A few nervous laughs ripple around the group before we start our walk with Page in the lead. It has rained and the otherwise almost unbearably dry California air is damp. There is a smell of autumn as we stroll through the sparsely growing trees. Soon we stop in a stand of trees and form a circle. Page asks us to share our sensory impressions with the rest of the group. Someone says they’re freezing; someone else that they’re already feeling calm inside.
After breathing deeply, closing our eyes and listening to the forest sounds, we continue along a narrow path. Page pulls a flute from his pocket and plays a few tentative notes. The forest is light and welcoming. We go slowly – so slowly that some of us find small detours. One person stops at a small stream; another pulls out a phone and photographs a bright yellow leaf. Page calls the group together again and describes his own relationship to forest bathing.
“I used to have tunnel vision – go to work…go home…buy food. I was never present and didn’t notice what was happening around me. Now I’m no longer in a fog. And since I started doing forest therapy I haven’t been sick once.”
Ben Page, Shinrin Yoku LA
He says some people could be scared off by the term “forest bathing” and prefers to say “forest therapy” when explaining what he works with. For him, the forest has become a place where he can let go of all his obligations and distance himself from everyday life.
“I usually say that forest therapy now is where yoga was thirty years ago. If someone said they did yoga back then, people thought it sounded odd but today there’s a yoga studio in every American town.”
On this afternoon our instructor is being followed by an eclectic mix of people or “species” as he calls us. Other members of my group are a married couple in their thirties, two woman friends and a mother-father-teenage son combination. As we continue our walk I ask Page if we are typical of the groups he leads.
“I’ve focused on young people in creative jobs but of course I welcome everyone,” he says. “What all the people who come here have in common is that they are stressed and desperately in need of a break. In LA everything happens quickly and everything is digital. People are addicted to their phones and have trouble switching off. Out here they don’t have to keep track of their phones, the time, or what they’re going to eat for dinner.”
When I ask him if people really need a guide to relax and enjoy nature, he answers that Americans do not have the same relationship to the forest as, for example, the Japanese in the homeland of forest bathing. He says Americans need someone who helps them to slow down, pay attention to their surroundings, and relate to nature at a deeper level. Sometimes just a couple of hours in the forest are enough for him to see a clear change in his tour participants.
Sometimes just a couple of hours in the forest are enough for Ben Page, the founder of Shinrin Yoku LA, to see a clear change in his tour participants.
“People get overwhelmed! They remember moments from their childhood – how as a five-year-old they talked to trees and how magical it was just to touch something – the feeling of rubbing their hands in mud or discovering how amazing a bird sounds. Such experiences make people feel a sense of belonging and give them a really powerful sense of their own self.”
It soon becomes clear what he means. He asks us to find a tree, sit on the ground with our back leaning against the trunk, feel how the tree is supporting us and find out what it wants to tell us. In twenty minutes we will meet up again. “Twenty minutes is a long time to sit alone in a forest,” I think, and find a tall tree not too far from our meeting place.
Frozen and tired, I sit down by the tree trunk and look up at the tree’s leaves. I breathe in and fight an impulse to check my phone. Then I notice how good the air smells, how comfortable it is to sit on the soft ground and lean against a sturdy tree trunk that seems custom made for my back. In some way the tree and I belong together. Twenty minutes pass surprisingly quickly and when we meet up again the previously timid group has a sense of new life. People now speak warmly and enthusiastically about “my tree” as if it were a pet or an old friend.
“Here in the US we read a lot about the environment but we have no direct relationship with it,” Page says. “My job is to get you to become healthy and help you to create a relationship with nature. When you see how the forest is helping you, you will also want to protect it.”
Making friends with a tree may sound fluffy but around the world new studies appear regularly showing the forest’s positive effect on our health. In my home country of Sweden, for example, Ann Dolling, senior lecturer at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umeå, has researched how people with severe exhaustion disorder can benefit from spending time in the forest with no demands on them.
“We’ve seen that people feel better mentally, that their mood is improved. After being in the forest they are more energetic and more peaceful,” she says when I speak to her by phone the day before my visit to the forest in Switzer Falls.
She explains that our brains are not designed for the tempo we are exposed to on a daily basis – the many decisions we are constantly and often unconsciously making. It might be such a small thing as which sweater to wear or whether to sit down at the computer before or after having a cup of coffee. She says that in nature you only have to make one decision – where to put your feet so you won’t trip
“When you’ve made all these decisions you’re up at quite a high level of adrenalin,” she explains. “You’re in a constant fight-or-flight mode of behaviour that can make you ill. Just doing nothing lets your brain rest and your hormone system fall back down to normal levels.”
Her words are given added weight by research that shows clearly how people with burnout have a lower heart rate and blood pressure after an hour in the forest compared with an hour in a city. At Stanford University in California actual changes in the brain have been recorded after people spent time in the forest and Japanese researchers have noted a reduction of the stress hormone cortisol. The results point in one direction: the forest makes us feel well. The solution to stress, burnout or depression is therefore not to shut oneself away to find peace and quiet.
“You can’t put someone in an empty white room – they’ll go mad,” Dolling says. “Nature gives us sensory impressions – it’s about absorbing the surroundings. Not just with our vision but also with our hearing, sense of smell, and the feeling of the wind, warmth or cold against our skin. It’s important that humans can experience their senses.”
Studies in the USA and especially in Japan point to the importance of phytoncides in forest bathing. These are antibacterial compounds that coniferous trees give off to protect themselves from insects, bacteria and fungal attack. Some researchers say that by spending time under the trees in a coniferous forest, people can also absorb these phytoncides, thereby increasing the number of white blood cells that reinforce our immune system. Dolling has heard of these studies and thinks it is an interesting avenue for further research.
“There’s a lot we don’t really know for sure yet – things we think are good and that may turn out to be so one day after more research,” she says. She again emphasises how the forest’s stress-reducing effect can help us feel better:
“I would assume that allowing our body to calm down and function at a good level would improve most of our systems.”
Back in Switzer Falls it is getting dark and before we finish our forest bath with a tea ceremony – tea brewed with bay leaves that Ben Page has picked in the forest – we are instructed to pick up a stone, feel its weight in our hand, and explore it with closed eyes.
“How does the stone feel?” he asks. “How many sides does it have? Does it have indentations or cracks? Does it feel good in your hand?”
He tells us to transfer one of our problems to the stone. In return we must move the stone to a nicer place – letting the stone show us the way. My stone ends up under a bush and I build a small altar of branches around it. Now it is lying there, in a carefully chosen place in the Los Angeles forest, together with my anxiety.
It actually feels really good.
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