Some call it “Tree Therapy” and others call it “Forest Bathing.” The sad truth is there is a growing body of evidence that suggests we have lost our connection with nature.
Getting back in touch with nature is gaining much attention lately, perhaps with the encouragement of forest-bathing celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The practice was developed by the Japanese during the 1980s and is a cornerstone for preventative health, stress management and healing in Japan. The Japanese have spent millions of dollars promoting and researching the benefits of forest bathing. The term Shinrin-yoku translates as “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing” in English.
It doesn’t require lying down in the forest or bathing in a pile of leaves. It can be as simple as a calm stroll through a natural area – sans technology!
In Japan, many who regularly commune with nature trace this practice to their native Shinto religion. A Tokyo-based non-profit called The Forest Therapy Society has designated 62 forests and wooded trails as therapeutic.
One of the principles is that plants and trees in the wild put out numerous chemicals in the air to signal other plants and ward off enemy microbes. These chemicals, called phytoncides, are thought to lower stress levels and increase our focus when we spend time in nature breathing in these positive chemicals.
The Science is Convincing
Four studies were done measuring the psychological effects of nature immersion. They found that those who regularly “bathed” in nature were more pro-social, focused on supporting others, and those who did not spend time in nature were more self-focused and self-centered. (1) The group that spent more time in nature were also found to be more generous in their decision-making. These studies suggest that nature immersion supports a more community-focused, giving mindset.
In another study, after just a 4-day nature immersion and a disconnection from any type of technology, creativity and problem-solving skills were enhanced by a whopping 50%. (3)
In other studies that were part of the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), nature immersion was shown to boost executive processing and cognitive functions such as selective attention, problem-solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking. (3)
The effects of forest bathing were measured by comparing the inflammatory markers of 2 groups of ten healthy adults. One group was immersed in a city and the other group immersed in nature – both for four days. The nature-immersed group saw reduced oxidative stress, lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels and less inflammatory markers along with greater signs of energy and vigor compared to the city-immersed group. (4)
Fake It Till You Make It… Into Nature
In another study, many of these nature immersion benefits were mimicked by exposing a group to a virtual reality nature experience. This suggests that if you cannot regularly expose yourself to nature, having pictures and murals of nature in your living environment may deliver some of the nature immersion benefits. (2)
Ayurveda and Nature
Nature immersion has become a therapy only because we, as a culture, have lost our connection to the natural world and its circadian rhythms. Ayurveda decreed many thousands of years ago that optimal health and full human potential depended on a lifestyle in sync with the natural cycles of nature. Living against this grain would deplete ojas or vitality, and cause stress, excessive desires and, ultimately, disease.
One of the primary ways of building ojas was to immerse oneself in nature on a regular basis. The science shows that this is still a powerful therapy today – perhaps more needed than ever before!