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The Japanese Tradition Aligning Nature with Mental Wellbeing

Kate Byng-Hall explains how immersive experiences in woodland – shinrin-yoku – can be significantly beneficial for mental wellness.

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Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev

In a hectic world full of traffic jams, high-rise buildings and fast-paced expectations, it can be hard to catch a break. In fact, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush and forget the essence of what it means to be alive on planet Earth. That’s where forest bathing comes in.

The ancient Japanese practice of forest bathing (‘shinrin-yoku’ in Japanese) is considered a process of relaxation which can contribute significantly to wellbeing, and it makes total sense. All you need to do is retreat to a wooded area, forest or any other natural environment, and immerse yourself in the quiet while making sure you breathe deeply to absorb the calming energy of the trees.

An Age-Old Tradition

Shinrin-yoku has been a national pastime in Japan for centuries. It is designed to reignite individuals’ unity with nature and reduce stress in the process. The premise is that rather than walking briskly through forests or using them as a through-route to a destination, they’re treated as a destination in themselves; it’s by moving through them slowly and reflectively that their full benefit can be absorbed through an immersive sensory experience.

However, the practice was developed into a therapy in the 1980s when Japanese psychologists proposed that it could be used as a foundation for preventative healthcare and mental healing in Japanese medicine.

Researchers found that spending time in forests initiated calming neurological patterns in the nervous system, reducing the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the immune system through the release of phytoncides. In fact, just 15 minutes of forest bathing can be enough to reduce blood pressure and improve mental clarity, although two hours is the optimum time for the experience to have a lasting effect.

The practice is so simple that you can do it yourself, or treat it as a more formal form of ecotherapy and go on guided, meditative excursions. Ultimately, you don’t need any help to go forest bathing. Just turn off your phone, throw away the map, tune into your senses and wander aimlessly and silently through the trees.

Nature and Mental Wellness

This practice is not the only time the benefits of nature for mental wellbeing has been recognised. In 2018, research from the University of Derby found that ‘nature therapy’, or ‘ecotherapy’, can lead to significant increases in mental wellbeing.

Moreover, Stanford University researchers found in 2015 that using nature as a ‘treatment’ for mental illness can lead to a reduction in activity in the region of the brain associated with depression and anxiety. According to Gretchen Daily, co-author of the study and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, “these results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world”.

If you want to try your hand at forest bathing or any other form of immersive natural meditation, it’ll be easier than you may expect. Even if you live in an urban area, there are always natural areas and woodlands a short distance away, and even local parks or commons can be sufficient to engage in a truly de-stressing experience. Everyone deserves access to the calming effects of nature. We are creatures of the earth, after all.


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