Why Millions of People in Japan Take “Baths” in the Woods…
Every year, millions of people in Japan flock to the forest for a “bath.”
No, this isn’t some far-out hippie festival in the woods… (Trust me, I’ve been to plenty of those!)
And no, there aren’t special bathtubs in the middle of the forest, either.
This experience is something completely unique—and research shows it has some remarkable health benefits…
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The benefits of “forest bathing”
In 1982, the Japanese government’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries began researching a health practice that’s been around for centuries: the notion of fully immersing yourself in the smells, sights, and sounds of the woods to improve your overall well-being.
As it turns out, studies show that this practice—called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”—can improve sleep, decrease depressive symptoms, and improve cognition.
And the research is so promising that this practice of walking mindfully through the woods has garnered support from many of Japan’s major national health programs and is promoted country-wide. In fact, the benefits are so significant, forest bathing is being adopted in many other countries all over the globe.
Japan has gone so far as to designate 62 forests as “healing forests” throughout the country where you can enlist the help of a forest bathing guide to help you disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, reconnect with nature, and improve your health.
Dr. Qing Lee, the Chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, authored a book on the subject called Forest Bathing (I highly recommend reading it).
In it, he cites several remarkable studies supporting the restorative, rejuvenating, and calming benefits of time spent in the woods. He cites one sleep study that’s particularly fascinating…
Improve sleep and decrease anxiety with a walk in the woods
In this 2011 study published in the Journal of Bio-Psycho-Social Medicine, researchers observed the effects of forest bathing on subjects suffering from a variety of sleep issues. Seventy-one healthy volunteers participated in two-hour forest-walking sessions, once-a-week for eight weeks.
Researchers found that the forest bathing sessions significantly improved the study subjects’ sleep time, depth of sleep, and sleep quality. Additionally, the researchers found that these sleep markers were further improved when the walks were taken in the afternoon rather than the morning or evening.
How forest baths have transformed my recovery
I may be half a world away from Japan, but I can vouch for the healing benefits of forest baths first hand.
As I’ve mentioned recently, earlier this year I underwent five life-saving GI surgeries within a matter of weeks. The experience left me pretty shell-shocked to say the least. As a result, my anxiety rears its ugly head pretty often.
Fortunately, where I live in Pennsylvania, there are plenty of wooded areas. And they’ve become my refuge as I continue to heal, both physically and spiritually.
On my daily walks in the woods, I often practice brain humming or square breathing—two of my go-to techniques for re-centering and calming anxiety. (I love these exercises because they stimulate the built-in systems of the body, so you can do them practically anywhere.)
And sometimes, I just walk in silence and admire the splendor of birdsong or leaves rustling in the breeze.
Discover the healing benefits in your own backyard
Want to experience the benefits of a forest bath for yourself?
Below are a few tips to try during your next walk in the woods.
- Turn off your cell phone
- Walk in silence to better take in your surroundings.
- Focus on how your senses are experiencing the woods. For example, admire the sunlight filtering through the array of plants and branches. Breathe in the fresh forest air and take note of all the woodland aromas. Notice the rigid texture of a tree trunk or the cool sensations of a stream.
Most of the guided forest bathing programs in Japan are about two hours long. If you have two spare hours, by all means, I encourage you to do it. And if not—no worries—enjoy a stroll for as long as you’re able to!
Of course, I realize that people feel a sense of calm in different environments. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The same general concept can work anywhere! Say for instance, you may feel most at peace at the beach, hiking through the mountains, or in a cabin surrounded by new fallen snow.
Any place that helps you let go and find release, is where you should go—even if it’s just a local garden or park… or your own backyard! The key is to allow yourself to slow down and experience each sense for an extended period of time.
As you do, you may notice your stress evaporating and that you start to feel more “yourself” again. Take the time for yourself to rest and recharge.
Where’s your refuge? Drop by my Facebook page and share a photo of your favorite sacred, nature place—I’d love to hear all about it!
Jim Donovan, M.Ed.
P.S. – Of course, not everyone has a forest nearby. But in a 2017 study from the University of Sussex, researchers found that just listening to recorded sounds of the woods can have comparable, positive effects on the nervous system. If you want to bring the sounds of nature home with you, you might like my Sleep Now Audio Toolkit, which has seven 60-minute tracks of relaxing, nature sounds. Click here to check it out!
Berman, M. Jonides J., and Kaplan S. (2009). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature. Psychological Science. 19(12): pp. 1207-12. Retrieved from: researchgate.net/publication/23718837_The_Cognitive_Benefits_of_Interacting_With_Nature
Cassandra D. et al. (2017). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports. 7: pp. 45273 DOI: 10.1038/srep45273
Morita, E., Imai M., Okawa M., Miyarura T., and Miyazaki S. (2011). A before and after comparison of the effects of forest walking on the sleep of a community-based sample of people with sleep complaints. BioPsychoSocial Medicine. 5(13). Retrieved from: bpsmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1751-0759-5-13