Most cottagers understand the calming power of trees. That moment when you arrive and step out of the car, breathing in the aroma of pine and spruce, or stretch out in a hammock, watching the golden cottonwood leaves tremble against a deep blue autumn sky, is cathartic. Canadians are forest people at heart—with 979 million hectares, or 40 per cent of our country’s landscape, forested—and we seem hardwired to find solace in the woods.
The practice of Forest Bathing is growing in popularity around the world as more trained outdoor guides offer this kind of mindful meditation while walking in the woods. Also known as Japanese forest therapy, or shinrin-yoku , it is recognized in Japan as an important relaxation and stress management technique, and is part of the country’s preventative medicine regime.
Scientists have now quantified that relaxing feeling you get while surrounded by tall trees. Under their canopy, real healing can occur, especially when forest bathing becomes a regular practice. They’ve also warned that when we stop spending time outdoors, we suffer both physically and mentally from a syndrome dubbed “nature deficit disorder”. Children are particularly vulnerable as the rapid changes in technology and social media pull them further from the natural world every day.
In his book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help you Find Health and Happiness, Dr. Quin Li, an associate professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, outlines the work that has been done by the Japanese government to study the effect of forest bathing on human health.
I recently went on a guided walk through the impressive old growth forests around Qualicum Beach, 150 km north of Victoria with Ronda Murdock and her husband Gary, who run Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours on Vancouver Island. Ronda is a leader in the art forest bathing and, after a career in the BC Forest Service, Gary is a wealth of information about the towering Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce, edible plants, mushrooms and shaggy mosses we find in this pocket of coastal forest on the edge of town. “I invite you to use your sense of sight and sound to notice the movement in nature,” Ronda explained, as I stood among the tall trees. “In forest bathing there is no talking—walk slowly, look and listen.”
Murdock cites the “$4 million in Japanese research” which proves that spending time in the forest can significantly reduce the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body, improve brain function, concentration and memory, reduce blood pressure, and even boost the immune system. Researchers also found the natural aroma of the forest—the essential oils or phytoncides that trees emit to protect them from insects and disease—activates natural killer cells in humans.
Li, who also heads The International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, says any time in the forest improves your health, but a weekend at the cottage every month may be the best medicine. He says that three days and two nights of forest bathing triggers the maximum stress reduction and immune boosting reaction, physical chemical and hormonal changes in the body that last up to 30 days.
If you can’t spend that much time outdoors, Li recommends a day trip to a forest once a week (a prescription that works well for weekend cabin-goers) or, if you have less than an hour, try to reach a city park every day. Being in nature, he says, also reduces the “inward thinking” that leads to anxiety, depression and addiction, while promoting positive and relaxing “outward thinking”. But you need to slow down and smell the spruce.
Here are some tips to help you tap into the healing power of trees, and make your next walk in the woods more meaningful:
STOP: Forest bathing requires you to slow down, walk deliberately and pay attention to everything around you, engaging all of your senses. Turn off your phone. Don’t speak to your walking partners, rather listen and observe nature. Immerse yourself in the forest, and literally bathe in the moment.
SEE: Focus your eyes on the high canopy, and look at the tiny plants at your feet. Can you see your breath or the riffles in the river, the swaying moss dangling overhead, the dew on a spider’s web? Admire the many subtle shades of green.
SMELL: Breathe in the aromas of the forest, the phytoncides or essential oils that trees, especially conifers, emit for their own protection. That essence of cedar and spruce is nature’s aromatherapy – it reduces stress and can even boost a type of white blood cell (NK or natural killer cells) that attacks tumors and viruses in the human body.
TOUCH: Want to hug a big tree? Murdock says it’s important to approach the gentle giants in the forest with the same respect you’d give any elder. Stand close to a tree, close your eyes and ask permission, she says. If you feel the tree pull you in, put your head against the tree and wrap your arms around it for a hug and a moment of gratitude. If you feel a push, not a pull, “find another tree.”
HEAR: Listen to the birds, the wind rustling leaves, the creak of old branches. Murdock says: “Cup your hands behind your ears, making them big, like a deer’s,” to amplify the sounds of the forest. You’ll be amazed at what you’ve been missing!