UCSF Sustainability Stories
Deborah Fleischer and Ana Toepel, Green Impact, March 2020
Forest Bathing May Be Just the Medicine You Need
Have you heard of forest bathing? Even if you haven’t, chances are you’ve had the experience of spending time in nature and returning home feeling happier, more relaxed, uplifted, or a bit more in balance. Throughout history, spiritual traditions have encouraged people to go into the wilderness to discover a deeper experience of life. Forest bathing is a new way of describing this ancient practice. The modern term comes from Shinrin-Yoku, a Japanese mindfulness practice that means literally “forest bath.”
Forest bathing is different from just walking in the woods; participants go into the forest not for exercise or enjoyment, but with a specific intention to connect with nature and to find healing, solace, and well-being. They are contemplative, quiet, sensitive, and aware of the present moment. Forest bathing involves soaking in the forest atmosphere with all of our senses, paying attention to what we see, hear, smell, and feel. Carla Brennan of Bloom of the Present Insight Meditation explains that in forest bathing “we let ourselves steep in the rich, diverse living environment of the forest and see what effect that has on us.
Brennan expresses further that forest bathing “fosters our relationship to something bigger than ourselves and to the beauty and mystery of the more-than-human world.” With life today becoming more and more disconnected from nature, the current increasing popularity of forest bathing may be a signal that we all have a longing to experience our interconnectedness with the natural world
Forest Bathing Makes You Happier and Healthier
Evidence that nature has health benefits for body and mind is so great that doctors in Scotland are now prescribing it to patients, expecting it to improve patients’ blood pressure, reduce their risk of heart disease and strokes, and give their mental health a boost. UCSF’s own Dr. Daphne Miller prescribes outdoor activities for her patients, known as a “Park Prescription.” Miller explained, “Nature has the possibility to be a health care intervention, almost like a pill. In many of the studies, there is a dose-response relationship. The more you get, the better the outcome.”
Research in Japan has shown that viewing forest landscapes leads to lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure. Additionally, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, found that “leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, show a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate.”
According to Brennan, the boost to the immune system can come from the compounds that trees emit. She shared that forest bathing can also provide relief from our obsessive thoughts and relentless schedules, offering the opportunity to slow down and “move at the speed of life.” Our mood can become more balanced and elevated, with a greater overall sense of well-being and belonging. Forest bathing also puts us in touch with the natural cycles of life, which may be why people sometimes report feeling more connected to their purpose and to what is most important in life after the experience.
The health benefits of being surrounded by trees spurred a Singapore hospital to turn its environment into a “forest-like sanctuary” with the intent to lower patients’ blood pressure, and it’s been a big success. Here in the U.S., Practice GreenHealth is also promoting the health benefits of exposure to trees. Partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation, they’ve launched a new program called Tree Campus Healthcare that will expand the number of trees at hospitals and health facilities.
Tips for Forest Bathing
Brennan explained that you don’t even need a literal forest to do forest bathing: “Any place where there are some plants, trees, and wild creatures can be a spot for forest bathing—yards , small parks, and larger parks.”
Brennan’s tips for making the most of your forest bathing experience:
- Clarify your intention first. Drop your everyday concerns and disconnect from technology.
- Be quiet, move slowly, pay attention, and open all your senses.
- Find a forest bathing buddy who can also be silent and walk slowly and attentively. Share your experiences with each other afterward.
- Choose a “sit spot” and sit silently there for at least 10-15 minutes regularly, making observations and witnessing the changes throughout the cycles and seasons.
- Consider keeping a log of observations, insights, and reflections.
- Connect to your breathing and to your body as you walk among the trees. Remember that we are exchanging our breath with the trees.
- Go with an attitude of gratitude. Extend a simple gesture of appreciation to the living things and places you come in contact with.
Forest Bathing Resources