Shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing", is officially recommended in Japan as a support for mental and physical health care. What is it exactly and what are its beneficial effects?
Meditation is not the only practice known for centuries whose positive effects on our mental health have been confirmed by scientific research. Practised in Japan, shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing", also has beneficial effects on our nervous system. Fortunately, it does not require taking a bath in the forest. Its essence is immersion in the forest atmosphere.
Since the 1980s, shinrin-yoku has been formally recommended in Japan as a prevention and treatment aid for symptoms of burnout, neurosis and depression. Being among trees activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for relaxation. As a result, changes towards normalisation take place in the body. In people with high baseline blood pressure and heart rate, shinrin-yoku can cause them to fall, and in those with low values, to rise.
How does shinrin-yoku work?
Research is underway into the advantages of the forest environment over others in terms of why we find it easier to relax and adjust among trees. There are several "suspects" for this effect. Factors specific to forest air come to the fore: phytoncides (substances secreted by plants that inhibit the growth of micro-organisms) and essential oils.
Another explanation could be that simply returning to an environment balanced by nature in terms of light, humidity, smells, sounds and textures "reminds" our bodies of their "default or factory settings". We are increasingly aware of how disruptive modern lifestyles, usually disconnected from nature, are to our bodies and minds.
A great advocate of forest bathing is Dr Qing Li, an immunologist who has published many scientific papers on the subject. In excerpts quoted by Time magazine from his book "Shinrin-yoku. The Art and Science of Forest Bathing", Dr Li argues that "a two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down".
Dr Li stresses that the key to fully benefiting from forest bathing is to immerse yourself in the forest with all your senses. He recommends "letting nature in" through the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Shinrin-yoku can be a way of relaxation and tranquillity for those of us who find it too difficult to relax themselves with meditation.