Japanese 'Forest Bathing' Is the Anxiety Reliever You Need Right Now

Transform a slow hike into a healing ritual.

In the primeval forests off the coast of southern Japan, ancient cedars loom high above the muddy path. I take a deep breath. The scent of evergreens and centuries-old bark fill my nostrils as a coolness settles on my skin. While the previous days have been spent on arduous hikes among the 7,000 year-old trees of Yakushima, my final day here involves a more slow-paced, internal endeavour. I’m attempting the art of shinrin-yoku: forest bathing. 

When I first heard the term, I pictured myself destressing in a steaming hot spring surrounded by trees. But there is no water involved. Instead, you submerge yourself in the atmosphere of the forest itself. With extreme focus, the goal is to achieve a sensory connection to the environment that promises elevated moods and reduced anxiety.

It may sound like an ancient zen art, but the practice of forest bathing was only officially coined in 1982, when Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries introduced it as a way to help people cope with overwork, economic hardship, and other modern-day stressors. It’s a healing practice, and a means to achieve greater wellbeing through nature.

And as the world spins into a stressful new era, it might be more relevant now than ever. 

Japanese Forest
Forest bathing is an exercise for every sense. | Manuel Ascanio/Shutterstock

Forest bathing isn’t as simple as you might think

Leading forest-therapy expert Dr. Qing Li has been researching shinrin-yoku for decades. As the President of the Society of Forest Medicine, the professor has conducted a lengthy series of experiments exploring its benefits. He describes it as "a bridge between us and the natural world.”

Like me, Li’s first experiences took place in the forests of Yakushima. “It was in Yakushima that I became convinced that forest bathing was absolutely essential to human health,” he explains.  

The premise of shinrin-yoku seems pretty self-explanatory: spend some time in nature, feel better. But Dr. Li laid out some specific guidelines: Sessions should last for at least two hours, though longer is better. Cameras and phones should ideally be left at home, but books are OK, since they are free of what Dr. Li calls "technostress." This is not about exercise: In a two-hour visit you should only walk about 1.5 miles, taking the time to pause and absorb your surroundings. “It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch." 

Admiring the dappled sunlight (known in Japanese as komorebi), the subtle colors of the forest, and the sounds of its inhabitants are important. But according to Li, it’s your sense of smell that’s key to tune into, and part of what distinguishes forest bathing from, say, spending time at the beach.

 “Aromas from trees have the main effect,” he says. His studies have supported this, showing increased immune system activity for not only subjects who spent time in forests, but those who were exposed to cyprus essential oils for consecutive periods indoors.

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In Japan, the proven health benefits of forest bathing are manyfold

An intrinsic awareness of nature permeates Japanese culture, from festivals commemorating seasonal change to countless idioms used in everyday life. Yet Japan's rapid shift to modernity contrasts sharply with its naturalist disposition. 

In less than a century, the country has changed from an almost equal division between rural and urban living to a landslide 91% residing in cities. The result, studies have shown, is increased rates of depression and health problems. This is further enhanced by the extreme societal pressures of working life in Japan, where work-related deaths from heart failure and suicide became so prevalent in the '60s, it was even given a name: karoshi’, meaning “death by overwork.”

After forest bathing was introduced to the masses, the ministry launched a series of studies to back its benefits with science. Dr. Li cited the reduction of stress hormones like cortisol, and the alleviation of "fight or flight" response in favor of the "rest and recover" alternative. Subjects exhibited lowered blood pressure and better sleep, with increased immune-system activity for up to 30 days after their sessions. Further studies showed improvements in friendliness along with a reduction in anxiety, hostility, and acute stress.

Just as important, forest bathing helps eliminate "technostress” -- a.k.a that feeling you get when you’re glued to a phone that offers up constant updates on the stresses of a world gripped by pandemic -- allowing for a much-needed mental break: time free of external stimuli perfect for collecting thoughts, clearing the mind, or meditating. 

MORE: Based in New York? Here are some safe NYC spots for forest bathing. 

How to practice shinrin-yoku during quarantine

Obviously, we don't all have access to ancient, lush forests. In a time of social distancing and lockdown, many of us don’t even have access to parks. Luckily, forest bathing is as much a matter of mental presence as it is physical.

Along with Dr. Li, researchers have been conducting studies to test the efficacy of sessions spent in slightly more accessible areas. They found that two-hour strolls in city parks still measurably reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Li’s simple rules of slow-paced walking, stopping to rest, and focusing on the five senses can be applied to any green space: It just takes a little practice.

For those on strict lockdown without access to greenspaces, Dr. Li suggests experiencing forest bathing on a smaller scale. Garden-therapy can work in a similar way, while house plants provide the same stimulating sights and smells even when you’re stuck inside.

Try some mindful gazing at trees from your windows, balcony, or back steps. Or cue up some forest sounds for background noise while you work, read, stretch, fall asleep, what have you. Practicing shinrin-yoku indoors not only invites nature into your home and offers a reason to unplug, but allows you to escape the confines of your space. All it takes is a little mental focus.

Lily Crossley-Baxter is a Tokyo-based writer and world-traveler who finds equal joy in cycling around her neighborhood as she does exploring the depths of Borneo's jungles. Bylines include the BBC, The Independent, and The Daily Beast. Follow her delicate balance of mis/adventures @lostandfoundlily