|Whitney and Thayer Woods in Cohasset is one of the South Shore’s many serenity-inducing forests.
You’ve heard of sunbathing, but what about Forest Bathing? Neither involves water: just like sunbathing is simply relaxing in the sun and soaking up the warm rays, Forest Bathing involves spending time in the woods, not doing anything in particular, just experiencing the forest.
The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku. Their government coined the term in 1982, but the practice is based on ancient Shinto and Buddhist teachings, through which one connects with nature through all five senses. Japan believes enough in this stress-combatting form of preventive medicine that since 2004 it has invested $4 million to research it. Already there are 40 official Forest Therapy trails in Japan, with more on the way.
The researchers at the forefront of this movement are Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a physiological anthropologist at the University of Chiba, and Qing Li, an immunologist at the Nippon School of Medicine. They employ such tools as field tests, hormone analysis, and brain-imaging technology to measure the effects nature on the body, mind and spirit.
For example, Miyazaki had test subject take walks in both forest and urban environments. He monitored the subjects’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and found that a stroll in the woods signals a 12.4% drop in cortisol, while an urban amble does not. The forest setting also helped decrease blood pressure and heart rate. The subjects also reported lessened anxiety and improved mood. Meanwhile, Li’s studies documented a considerable improvement in immune function as a result of time spent in a natural setting.
Being in nature has all sorts of other documented benefits. Studies have shown that a natural setting can improve athletic performance, reducing fatigue and anxiety. It can also help to relieve depression, and improve both one’s cognitive abilities as well as one’s capacity for empathy. Most of us know this – at least on some level. There is a reason why we are drawn to beaches, mountains, meadows and forests, not just for the activities associated with these places, but for the way they make us feel. We have an innate understanding of nature’s ability to soothe.
And yes, most of us need soothing. Modern living – in American society, and plenty of others — involves significant levels of stress. Our fast-paced, instant-gratification-based culture leaves little room for long-lasting serenity or contentment. Craig Chalquist, co-author with Linda Buzzell of Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, writes, “Much of modern culture is dedicated to helping us numb ourselves. We become apathetic, paralyzed, to protect ourselves from feeling overwhelmed.”
Spending time in nature can offset that numbness, and help us reconnect with the selves that exist beneath all that stress. Good news: we don’t need an official Forest Therapy Trail to reap the benefits.
We are fortunate, here on the South Shore, to have access to over a hundred open space parcels. Choose one, and get moving down the trail. As soon as you lose sight on the outward signs of civilization – streets, buildings, telephone wires — you will start to feel it, especially if the place you choose has little or no cell phone reception. There is no need to multitask. The pressure backs off, distractions lessen, it’s easier to breathe – and think — more deeply.
Just “be.” There is nothing you have to do, to get your dose of Forest Therapy. You can walk; you can sit still; you watch the birds overhead, or lift up a rock and see what lies beneath. Let your mind wander. The key is to be present with nature – to focus on it – rather than, for example, clocking your mileage so you can tick of “exercise” on today’s To Do list.
Speaking of that To Do list, I’m going to make a recommendation. Richard Louv, who wrote Last Child In The Woods, as well as The Nature Principle, will be speaking at the Inly School in Scituate, on Wednesday, April 3 at 7pm. Louv – who introduced the term “nature deficit disorder” to the lexicon — is another prominent figure in the study of nature’s affects on the psyche. If you want to learn more about the documented health benefits of spending time in nature, this event is a great first step.
Sources: “The Nature Cure” by Florence Williams and “Free Medicine” by Madison Kahn (Outside, December 2012). Also “Whole Earth Mental Health” by Katherine Rowland (Guernica, September 20, 2012)
by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com