Originally from Japan, forest bathing—or shinrin-yoku in Japanese—isn't what it sounds like. Yes, it involves a trip to the forest, but you won't be stripping down and jumping into a serene lake surrounded by larger-than-life trees. Instead, it's a meditative moment or walk spent immersing yourself in all the forest has to offer: clean air, peace and quiet, and immune-boosting benefits.
Research1 has long shown the positive impact of nature and greenery on our overall health, and forest bathing is no exception. This spiritual practice is scientifically proven to boost the immune system2, lower your heart rate, reduce blood pressure3, and improve our overall sense of well-being.
Yes, forest bathing has been around for decades, but it's so popular this summer that the U.S. Association of Nature & Forest Therapy has plans to certify 250 new guides next year, and 2017 has seen the largest number of guides ever. In other words, this meditative exercise isn't going anywhere.
What forest bathing is.
Forest therapy was founded on the idea that as a species, we spent the first few million years of our existence in the forest. Now we reside in cities and suburbs and are surrounded by all kinds of stimuli. This has led to a tremendous amount of stress on our minds and bodies that result in negative health consequences.
By engaging in forest bathing, we're getting back to our roots in nature. A typical forest bathing session includes a walk in the woods and encouragement by guides to drop all racing, analytical thoughts and simply breathe. "Forest bathing calls for using all of your senses so you are practicing being present in the moment rather than focused on the future or worrying about what might happen or regretting what took place in the past," says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo. "Forest bathing encourages you to take deep breaths of clean air and to simply take some time out of your busy life to do something special for yourself. How could that not be effective?"
The health benefits of forest bathing.
Beyond the basic benefits of spending time in nature—increased well-being, lower blood pressure, the list goes on—forest bathing has some unique health benefits involving a compound called phytoncides4. "Trees shower (or bathe) themselves in an antimicrobial, antifungal, antibacterial compound called phytoncides," explains Ben Page, founder of Shinrin Yoku LA. "This is how trees combat disease. When humans inhale these phytoncides, it triggers the human body to produce a specialized white blood cell called NK cells, or Natural Killer cells." These NK cells are responsible for attacking cancerous and tumorous growths in the body, improving overall immune strength.
"The human body evolved to be quite self-sufficient over thousands of years in the forest without any medicine," adds Page. "So this ability to utilize phytoncides for immune health was one of the ways our ancestors kept themselves healthy."
Why 2017 is the year of forest bathing.
So, why is forest bathing more popular than ever this year? Amos Clifford, founder and director of U.S. Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, thinks it has to do with how much stress regular use of smartphones and other technology have added to our lives.
"I believe the reason for the growing popularity of this practice has to do with an instinctive reaction to the growing dominance of devices in our lives," he explains. "And when people practice forest bathing, the benefits are so immediately felt that people want more."
While the scientifically proven benefits are one reason so many people turn to forest therapy, Clifford adds that its popularity has a lot to do with the need for connection. "Many people who I have guided feel more connected, not just to nature but to themselves. Putting aside the habitual stressors of daily life, the constant immersion in technology, and the rushing about and exhaustion is a bit like waking up from a bad dream. As clarity descends, people remember who they are and what is important in life. They feel refreshed, renewed, and restored."
Need tips for calming down and dropping stress? Read up on how yoga changes the structure of your brain, and give this chill recovery method a try.
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist and former Senior Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen where she analyzed new research on human behavior, looked at the intersection of wellness and women's empowerment, and took deep dives into the latest sex and relationship trends. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis. She has written for HuffPost, Glamour, and NBC News, among others, and is a certified yoga instructor.