Forest Therapy: The Incredible Health Benefits of Bathing Yourself in Nature (Shinrin-Yoku)
BY JULIA PLEVIN
Photo: Andrew Preble
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, doesn’t require a bathing suit, although you might want to wear one because it’s great to include some water, such as a waterfall or a dip in a lake, as part of your forest bath. And forest bathing is not an epic trek through Patagonia or a calorie-burning ten-mile run. It’s also not led by a park ranger, and no maps are involved. There will be no compasses or hiking poles.
So, what exactly is forest bathing? Forest bathing is the practice of intentionally connecting to Nature as a way to heal. Part mindfulness, part child’s play, it’s a portal into true understanding of yourself and the world around you. Considered as a form of nature therapy, forest bathing is an embodied love note to Mother Earth and an evidence-based intervention to combat the life-threatening diseases that are associated with modern life.
If you’ve ever taken a walk in the woods à la Henry David Thoreau, you may be aware of the benefits of being outdoors. You breathe easier. The thoughts racing through your head slow down and magically begin to reprioritize themselves—the stuff that doesn’t matter begins to fade away. If you’re with friends, the conversations may go deeper. You may talk about dreams, intentions, desires, and manifestations. This is your soul talking. It’s always talking, but usually we are so stuck in our minds that we don’t take the time to really listen.
Being in the forest deliberately activates you. John Muir, who was unknowingly involved in forest bathing research for most of his life, said, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” Forest bathing encourages you to hug trees, feel moss, pick up leaves, taste raspberries, and listen to your deep truths. It’s about awakening all your senses, tapping into your wildness, and luxuriating among the trees. A forest bath cleanses your soul and allows you to find yourself soaking in nature.
The History of Forest Bathing
Forest bathing is based on the Japanese term shinrin-yoku (森 林 浴), which was coined by Tomohide Akiyama of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982, in part as a way beyond logging to garner value from the forest. In Japanese, the term comprises three kanji characters—the first character is composed of three trees and means “forest,” the second character is two trees and refers to the interconnectedness of the forest, and the third character connotes the luxury of being fully engulfed in the abundance that surrounds you.
The essence of shinrin-yoku, however, goes back a lot further than when the term was coined. As evidenced in haiku poems about nature and with the concept of wabi-sabi—the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete—much of traditional Japanese culture is based on a deep understanding of and connection to Nature. Ikebana, the Japanese art of arranging flowers, for example, dates back to the sixth century; it focuses on a personal and direct relationship with nature. According to one of Japan’s most influential modern ikeba practitioners, artist Toshiro Kawase, ikebana helps one realize that “the whole universe is contained within a single flower.”
Before forest therapy became popular, the ancient people of Japan honored sacred spirits that they recognized in nature, manifesting in mountains, rocks, rivers, and trees. Shugendō Buddhist priests, or Yamabushi, are mystics and warriors whose origins go back to at least the eighth century. These hermitic seekers live in the mountains, pursuing spiritual powers gained through asceticism. Their traditional role was to help guide people to one’s true nature and to teach discipline and warrior ways. Yamabushi believe that the highest truth exists in nature. Shugendō is a path to help people strip away excess, to understand themselves better through immersion in the power and strength of the natural world. Everything in nature is considered sacred and believed to have health benefits—be it a stone or a river—and practitioners use rituals to honor each of the elements: earth, air, water, and fire.
What religious ascetics have intrinsically known for two thousand years, modern researchers have confirmed with science and data. Japanese forestry administrator Tomohide Akiyama was aware of the pioneering studies of the immune-boosting effects of phytoncides, essential oils exuded by certain trees and plants, when he first proposed shinrin-yoku in 1982. Since then, much research has focused on the stress-busting and mood-enhancing benefits of exposure to phytoncides in nature.
Forest Bathing and Modern Life
Humans have evolved in nature; we’ve spent 99.9% of our time in the natural world, and our physiological functions are adapted to it. We’re evolved to find relaxation and restoration in nature. Nevertheless, today most Americans spend most of their time indoors, including a lot of time in enclosed vehicles. With the constant stimuli and stresses of modern life, our prefrontal cortexes (the fight-or-flight response center that controls the release of adrenaline) work on overdrive, which means we rarely ever enter rest-and-digest mode. As a result, we have chronically high levels of cortisol in our bloodstreams and are plagued with high blood pressure and other ailments.
We’re living in a pivotal moment in human history when the spiritual and the scientific worlds are merging. We’re beginning to understand what happens on both a physical and subatomic level as we engage with nature. It’s been scientifically shown that spending time immersed in forest therapy reduces stress, lowers heart rate, lowers cortisol levels, decreases inflammation, boosts the immune system, improves mood, increases the ability to focus, jump-starts creativity, increases energy levels, and makes us more generous and compassionate.
In a study spanning visitors to twenty-four forests, Japanese researchers showed that when people strolled through a forested area, their levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, plummeted almost 16% more than when they walked in an urban environment. The effects were quickly apparent: within minutes of beginning a walk in the woods, the subjects’ blood pressures showed improvement. Results like these led Dr. Qing Li to declare “forest medicine” a new medical science that “could let you know how to be more active, more relaxed, and healthier with reduced stress and reduced risk of lifestyle-related disease and cancer by visiting forests.”
In forest therapy programs in Japan, groups are led through immersive nature walks, where they are invited to slow down and rediscover the world around them. They may be invited to try out forest bathing activities like smelling fragrant leaves or listening to stories of where beloved foods, such as chestnuts, come from. There are breaks for healing bento lunches, meditation, and soaking in the negative ions from nearby waterfalls. These programs may also include nature yoga, woodworking, and soba noodle-making. Such courses are offered across the country, often in small towns accessible by high-speed rail. The Japanese version of forest bathing blurs the line between eco-tourism and nature-focused healing.
With this influx of evidence on the health benefits of nature therapy, the practice of forest bathing has begun to spread to other parts of the world, including Korea, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Forest bathing is the antidote to modern life. This practice may have started in Japan, but it’s evolving into a new way of living, which is actually the original way of living—in right relationship with the earth.
For thousands of years, human cultures have had their own versions of shinrin-yoku—of sensorial practices for soaking in the healing powers of the forest. Each culture may have unique practices and rituals, but all are based on the same big secret: Nature is everything. Nature keeps us healthy and can provide the medicine we need. Spending time with nature provides us with inspiration and well-being. True innovation and the most advanced technologies originate from the planet. You can read this or hear it a thousand ways, but it’s not until you experience this secret that you begin to embody this deep knowing. As you do, maybe you’ll begin to see nature connection as I do—a basic human right and prerequisite for true healing.
Welcome to the New Environmental Movement
Shinrin-yoku represents a realignment with the natural world. Indigenous cultures the world over are innately aware that the health of communities depends on the health of the environment. People who live on the land where they and their ancestors grew up are inherently connected to that land. They know how to speak Nature’s language and know that we all are connected to the earth. As Native American faith-keeper and indigenous rights advocate Chief Oren Lyons says, “The environment isn’t over here. The environment isn’t over there. You are the environment.” All of us have much to learn from people whose rituals and traditions have preserved a strong connection to the planet.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have considered ourselves conquerors and manipulators of the natural world: Man versus Nature. This feeling of separation from Nature made it okay to destroy the planet for our benefit. But what we haven’t realized is that we are destroying ourselves, too.
As a society, Americans have reached the apex of separation from Nature and are suffering as a result. Chronic illness, including cancer, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, and attention deficit disorders, are widespread and on the rise, even with all the preventive health care available. These issues affect adults and children alike. With the current status quo, chronic diseases are expected to affect almost half of all Americans by 2025.
The pain and suffering we feel on an individual level is reflected back to us in the state of the planet. Since 1970, the world has witnessed a nearly 60% decline in wildlife across land, sea, and freshwater and is heading toward a decline of two-thirds by 2020. As the world population continues to grow, demands for food, water, energy, and infrastructure are putting more pressure on the earth. Massive deforestation, rapidly melting glaciers, coral reef destruction, soil erosion and degradation, extreme weather, and worsening air quality are just a few of the many signs that we’ve been ravaging Nature at an ever-increasing rate.
It seems clear that we simply cannot go on doing what we’ve been doing. But where do we begin? These problems are massive, systemic, and overwhelming.
Sometimes things have to come to a breaking point before they can begin to get better. I believe that all of the calamity and upheaval we are experiencing is heralding a new epoch. At this moment, Earth herself is becoming conscious, enabling humans to awaken to higher values. We have an unprecedented opportunity to create the world we want to live in—one filled with compassion for the whole web of life, and one that we will be proud to gift to our children worldwide.
This shift away from disconnection to the beginning of reconnecting to Nature marks the end of what author Charles Eisenstein refers to as “our journey of Separation” in the essay “The Three Seeds.” He writes that the purpose of this journey that started thirty thousand years ago with a tribe called humanity was “to experience the extremes of Separation, to develop the gifts that come in response to it, and to integrate all of that in a new Age of Reunion.” We are being called to embark on the journey of reconnection to our personal inner nature and outer nature. Forest therapy is a rewilding from the inside out and the outside in, as we learn to integrate our hearts and minds and live in harmony with the earth.
Environmental activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy recalls the Tibetan legend of the Shambala warrior. “There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger,” she says. “It is now, when the future of all beings hangs by the frailest of threads, that the kingdom of Shambala emerges.” This kingdom is not some place you can go, but rather a knowing in the hearts and minds of Shambala warriors. The warriors are sent to dismantle the dangerous powers-that-be with the weapons of compassion and insight. We all have the potential to be Shambala warriors.
If you’ve been dwelling in despair, it may be helpful to know that several cultures predicted our current difficulties centuries ago: people from Tibet, Latin America, Siberia, and North America prophesied about the future of humankind. The Andean Quechua Inca, New Mexican Hopi, and Mayan cultures share a prophecy of the eagle from the North and the condor from the South, in which the condor, representing intuitive, nature-connected ways, is close to extinction, while the eagle, symbolizing the dominant forces of industrialized society, reigns supreme. The prophecy foretells of violence and materialism that proceeds a moment of awakening, when the eagle and condor realize that they are capable of more love and awareness and decide to join forces and learn to fly in the sky together again.
The urge we feel to rewild and speak our truth is Mother Earth’s own desire. She’s done waiting patiently while we selfishly ravage her. She’s speaking to us and through us. We’re living in an amazing moment of transformation.
As we do shinrin-yoku, we begin to understand how to communicate with trees and plants. We gain the ability to interpret a slight breeze or a bird’s call. We fall deeply in love with the earth. The more we tap into Mother Nature’s rhythms, the more we understand that she wants to help us evolve and live with a higher purpose—all we have to do is learn how to listen. Earth will show us how we can best serve her. As we heal the planet, we heal ourselves.
Try It Out
To try forest bathing, simply step outside. You may want to go to a nearby park or perhaps you have some trees in your backyard. There’s no need to go deep into a forest to receive the benefits of spending time in nature, which can even be a form of preventative health care.
Forest bathing is all about getting in touch with your true nature. There are no specific guidelines to follow; no rights or wrongs or shoulds or must-dos. It’s about what feels right to you. Everything I recommend is an invitation for you to try if you feel inclined. If you’re not inclined, you may choose to simply sit under a tree and do nothing. You’ll get all the health benefits that way too!
I’ve found that the quickest way to get into a forest bathing state-of-mind is to give an offering to the Earth. Its best practice to give to Nature before we ask for anything—whether that is for healing or clarity or anything else. An offering can be anything from some flowers to a splash of water to a song or dance. It’s less about what it is and more about the purity of your intention. This is a way of greeting the land and asking for permission to be there. You can also ask for protection as you go about your shinrin-yoku journey.
Once you’ve greeted the land with your offering, begin to awaken your senses. It’s not always possible, but if you’re comfortable, try taking off your shoes as you do this. In addition to the many benefits of earthing, of having your feet connected to the Earth, you may find that thoughts drain from your head when you have a direct connection to the Earth. Take a moment to acknowledge all of the beings that have stood on that same land over many thousands of years.
Now take a look around you and notice all the shapes, colors, and patterns of the natural world. Our eyes have a fractal structure; when we see fractals in nature, a resonance occurs, and it allows us to relax.
To experience even more forest bathing benefits, close your eyes and listen to the sounds around you. You may be surprised by how much more you can hear with your eyes closed. Shift your attention to what you can feel—perhaps the breeze on your skin or the soil beneath your feet. Take a few deep breaths and notice what you smell in the air. Perhaps you smell the phytoncides, the essential oils that trees emit, that boost our natural killer (NK) cell activity. Stick your nose in the dirt and take a big inhale of Earth! And finally—stick out your tongue and notice what you can taste in the air. It’s really fun to taste the raindrops when it’s raining!
With all your senses awakened, you may feel more alert and connected. If there are still thoughts running through your mind, imagine emptying a thought with each step that you take. As you walk slowly, allow your heart to direct you. Follow your curiosities instead of the beaten path.
At some point you might find a spot to sit. Go ahead and take a seat and just stay there as long as you’d like. Notice how the environment changes over the course of a few minutes. After your first-ever forest therapy session, come back to that same place over a few days, weeks, seasons, or years and you’ll really experience the subtle shifts. You may even find that you begin to learn the language of birds, trees, insects, and clouds and that you start to receive messages from them.
This is the simple art of forest bathing. You can absolutely forest bathe alone, and you will receive many benefits from this practice. I also find that it’s important to do this work together. At this moment in time, the reconnection that’s being called for is trifold: to ourselves, our communities, and the planet. Forest bathing in a facilitated group is really powerful because we all bring back unique discoveries from our time in nature, and as we share, we learn a lot from each other and weave a new story.
As shinrin-yoku has increased in popularity recently, it’s possible to find forest therapy guides in many locations around the world. Resorts are beginning to offer these practices, and many guides are on AirBnB Experiences. The Forest Bathing Club is launching a training program in 2020 for people who are looking to start their own branch of the club in their local community. Sign up at to hear about the training at forestbathing.club