August 1, 2017 -- On a recent morning in late July, Ben Page leads six hikers about a quarter-mile into the Angeles National Forest about an hour north of Los Angeles. As they walk on winding paths under maple trees and past bubbling streams, he asks them to gather in a circle, stand, and notice the sights, sounds, and smells surrounding them.
Picking up a stick -- nature's microphone for the day -- Page asks who would like to share any thoughts on the experience.
Lilly Urban, a Los Angeles television editor, takes the stick. She tells the others how rapidly her mood has changed from the time she left her L.A. home that morning, traveling busy freeways to arrive on time.
"Nature is forgiving and welcoming," she tells the group. "It always changes your mood, in a positive way."
A Decades-Old Tradition
Urban was taking part in a decades-old Japanese tradition that is catching on in the U.S. called “forest bathing.” Known as shinrin-yoku, it literally means "taking in the forest atmosphere." Researchers, mostly from Japan and Korea, have shown that the practice can lead to impressive health benefits, not only lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but also lowering blood pressure and boosting your immune system.
"It's like a fast track to a healing process," says Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist and integrative medicine specialist at Van Diest Medical Center in Webster City, Iowa. She is medical director for the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and is training to be a forest guide.
Amos Clifford founded the association and started training guides in 2014. He says about 15 guides finished the initial training. Now, he has trained and certified about 270 guides, including the 190 in the U.S. Guides in the U.S. are most often found in California, the Midwest around the Great Lakes, and in New England states, he says, partly due to the abundance of forestlands in those locations. He estimates about 1,000 people in the U.S. have taken part in forest therapy.
Clifford says he has also trained guides in about 20 countries, including Serbia, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, Finland, Austria, New Zealand, Mexico and Vietnam.
Forest bathing works, Clifford says, because "it gives us a chance to unplug, relax, and reset, so the natural healing capacity of our body is revived."
The Forest Bathing Experience
Forest bathing requires a new way of looking at nature, at least for hikers, walkers, and bikers who take to the woods for adventure, says Clifford. "Usually we go through the landscape fast," he says. However, forest bathing "is more about being here [in the present] than getting there."
As guides, he says, "we get out of the way and let the forest do the work." These days, "most of us are in a low level of fight or flight," he says of anyone who lives in a fast-paced way. However, he says, "We are incredibly self-healing organisms."
Bartlett Hackenmiller cautions hikers and mountain bikers to leave their competitive, adventure mentality at home while forest bathing. "If you can take the time to slow down and just value nature, it's a beautiful change in perspective," she says.
Page, a certified guide and founder of Shinrin Yoku Los Angeles, keeps the pace slow, calm, and mellow during the 2 1/2-hour session. He cautions hikers accustomed to covering as much trail as possible that this isn't strenuous exercise. They cover less than a mile.
A Series of 'Invitations'
Page helps his participants connect with nature by issuing four “invitations.”
One invitation suggests that the group wander up and down the trails to observe natural movements within the forest. Some watch dragonflies hovering over a stream, catching the sun's rays and transforming their wings into a prism of color. Others hear the leaves of maple trees rustle with the breeze or spy an insect surfacing from piles of crisp, dead leaves.
Other invitations encourage hikers to walk barefoot in the creek, go on a treasure hunt, and to find a nice place to sit and then just be. The finale is a tea ceremony in the woods. The group sits on the ground, cross-legged in a circle, sips tea pungent with bay leaves, and nibbles crunchy, natural cookies.
Participant Maria Theriault, 32, of Toronto, said that during the treasure hunt experience, she found a narrow path between two rocks. She decided she needed to climb it, to make this an adventure. After climbing a bit, "I couldn't get any further," she says. That's when she decided "it didn't have to be this complicated." She sat down on a rock instead. "My husband came up and sat down beside me and took my hand. That ended up being my treasure."
A day later, Theriault says she still had a feeling of being very grounded. "I felt relaxed and connected with nature, less in my head, less worrisome about what needed to get done, what our plans were, where we should go next."
What the Research Shows
Forest bathing seems to work on a variety of levels to calm, boost immune functioning, and improve several aspects of health, researchers say. Among their findings:
- Walking in a forest environment is linked with lower levels of blood pressure, the stress hormone cortisol, and a lower pulse rate than walking in a city environment, according to Japanese researchers. They sent 280 men and women to both environments, then compared the responses. The forest environment won out. Lower cortisol, for instance, reflects less stress, which can play a role in a number of conditions, including headaches, high blood pressure, and heart problems.
- Forest bathing boosts so-called natural killer cells, which help stave off disease. In one study, men who took two-hour walks in the woods once a day for two days had a 50% increase in the activity of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that helps fight off infections and cancer.
- Forest bathing has a healthy effect on something known as heart rate variability, which looks at how healthy the balance is between the sympathetic nervous system ("fight or flight") and the parasympathetic system (the "recovery" system that lowers blood pressure and heart rate). These two systems need to be balanced so you're not constantly in a stressful fight-or-flight mode.
- Aromatic things that trees and other plants in the forest produce, such as phytoncides, have also been linked to anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and brain-protective benefits.
- Forest bathing is also linked with increased creativity, problem solving, and improved mood, other studies find.
U.S.- based doctors, including Philip Barr, MD, an internist and integrative medicine specialist at Duke Integrative Medicine Center at Duke University, think the practice looks promising. Barr predicts forest bathing, which he hopes to offer soon at his center, will go as mainstream as yoga or mindfulness meditation. "Those are the two things I would compare it to the most," he says.
In Barr's opinion, the most striking results involve boosting the immune system and the studies on how the therapy keeps a healthy balance between the "fight-or-flight" system and the "recovery" system.
Other research seems to find the results of forest bathing endure, he says.
Yes, It's A Walk In The Woods
While some scoff that people do not need a guide to tell them how to sit quietly in nature to relax, Barr says it's not any different from teaching people how to sit quietly and do mindfulness meditation.
Of course, anyone can head for the forest and do their own shinrin-yoku. But having a guide at least initially can help, Bartlett Hackenmiller and others say. "Once you do it with a guide, you can probably go off and do it on your own," she says.
The simplicity of the technique is what will appeal to people, Barr believes. There's no gym to join or yoga studio to find, he says. Initially, "you go with a guide and learn the technique." Then, you simply find a forest, he says.