Shinrin-yoku is the latest trend, roughly translated from the Japanese, which means “bathing in the forest,” or “forest bathing” for short. Since the 1980s, it has been an officially recognized form of therapy and relaxation concept in Japan and is becoming increasingly popular in the West. The healing effects of the forest ambiance have been documented in many clinical studies. Lower blood pressure, reduced levels of stress hormones, a strengthened immune system, and elevated mood states are only some of the positive effects that research findings attribute to intensive sensory perceptions experienced in the woods.
Forest bathing does not require any mystical attitude towards nature, as the atmosphere of the forest takes care of everything in and of itself. The trees’ crowns dim rays of sunlight, and their leaves filter out pollutants. Also, each tree evaporates up to 500 liters of water a day. This results in cooler temperatures and fresher and more humid air. The trees also emit oxygen and ethereal oils, which contain terpene. This substance stimulates the production of so-called killer cells that boost our immune defenses. Together with the soil and decomposing vegetation, these oils result in a unique and unmistakable odor, to which most people react positively and associate with nature and childhood memories. Our other organs are also influenced by the forest’s biochemical processes, the swaying of branches, the rustling of leaves, the vibrating, the crackling, and the release of vapors. This all-encompassing sensory stimulation enables us to remove ourselves from everyday life pressures and observe these challenges from a better perspective with greater clarity. And suddenly we recall that we are also a part of nature and that it is not just a resource for us to exploit.
We spoke with Lia Braun, psychologist, sociotherapist, and, since 2016, forest therapy guide, on the practice of forest bathing, its positive effects, and its potential for creating a new link to nature.
Ms. Braun, you have been a certified forest therapy guide since 2016. Could you briefly explain what this means and what you do?
I offer guided tours into the forest, so-called forest therapy walks. These provide participants with a short break in the woods and serve to enhance well-being and health. Here, people are invited to leave their everyday concerns behind, open their senses, and enjoy the stillness. A clearly defined plan of guided activities provides this hiatus in nature with structure. The walks last for a few hours, but are quite accessible and do not require physical exertion. The time spent in the forest is structured so that participants are encouraged to experience a sense of connectedness – with oneself, with nature, and with others.
What kind of training is required to become a forest therapy guide?
When I undertook training four years ago, the program included theoretical instruction and two-track guided practice sessions. Trainees first become knowledgeable about the research, as this forms the basis. Undertaking group activities requires familiarizing oneself with the sequence developed by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (editor’s note: The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (ANFT) was founded in 2012 and is a scientifically based association and training institution for natural healing and therapeutic treatments, in particular, that of forest bathing, inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku). Also, part of the training is learning how to scout for a suitable forest patch and contact the landowner or forest ranger. And not least of all, you have to develop your own language to invite participants to engage in activities. Also useful are less common formulations that figuratively encourage participants to see the world with new eyes and to embrace experiences beyond the ordinary. The second strand of the practice stresses a deepening of one’s affinity to nature and how to become familiar with the land, indigenous animals, local plants, and the elements.
“The forest is the therapist. The guide opens the doors” is the motto of the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy. How do you open doors?
When the forest is referred to metaphorically as the therapist, it is my task as a guide to invite participants to explore this encounter and to stimulate and accompany it. I begin with a warm welcome and providing background information, such as an overview of the process. I always encourage them to be fully present, slow down, and connect with the earth, grasses, and trees. I would almost like to say “to be innocent,” with a childlike curiosity with no particular expectations or agenda. During this intuitive exploration, I constantly invite the circle of participants to be totally aware of their inner experiences in the moment. This is not hocus pocus, but rather quite simple, although perhaps unusual – like a voyage of discovery without a predetermined destination. What I would like to convey is the willingness to be surprised. It’s what opens the doors.
And if you open the doors, who is it that takes or books your tours?
People who are looking for some time out. Some of them lead very challenging lifestyles and hope that by bathing in the forest atmosphere, they will be able to unwind. Others are driven more by the desire for inspiration. The variety, beauty, and magic of the forest stimulate creativity. Forest bathing imbues us with a unique sense of well-being and instills us with feelings of our interrelatedness within a greater whole. Some participants value their time amongst the trees because it allows them to get to know themselves differently, discover impulses, or even find answers.
I have heard that many come back again and frequently make appointments for future sessions with you. What is so appealing about being led into the forest with a group of other people, often those you don’t even know, as opposed to just going for a walk alone in the woods?
Both activities have their place. Assuming that one feels comfortable alone in the forest, time alone here can function as a special retreat, perhaps a time of contemplation apart from people and established conventions. Apart from this, however, there also appears to be the wish to both enjoy this free space at one’s own pace and be able to follow one’s impulses while at the same time being part of a guided group. This makes it easier to relinquish or dispense with things. For instance, you don’t need to remember the path, keep track of the time, or have everything under control. Besides making it possible to encounter oneself and life in the forest in a very simple way, I regard interconnecting as a group as being at the real heart of the practice. I believe that we need new ways of being together and being oneself in the presence of others. That is why I call it a practice because it is truly a discipline that requires work.
After experiencing forest bathing, your participants describe themselves as being revived, feeling renewed, and full of energy. How do you explain this?
Entering the forest is, at the same time, entering one’s own ecosystem. Roots are beneath you, around you are the tree trunks, and above are the crowns of trees. You are in the midst of trees and held and supported by trees. This can be perceived through the senses – the fresh air, the dampness, the dimmed light, the earthy, resinous scents, the sounds, and the creatures in the forest… It is like being immersed in another world that follows a different set of rules. In the ANFT, we call this the “drop-in.” It is far easier to experience this immersion in nature and being in the moment directly through the senses than with the rational mind. These activities take place in a different area of the brain, and this can also be measured. And this marks the difference between observing nature rationally and from the outside with the experience of being truly immersed and even comprehending oneself as an integral component of nature.
Are there people who cannot connect with the forest? Or perhaps even fear it?
Most participants already have an affinity with nature and see guided forest bathing as an opportunity to expand or deepen this experience. Those who do not have good experiences with the forest rarely feel attracted by my offering. There are, however, exceptions. I recall a young participant who had previously spent very little time in nature, but somehow felt a longing for the forest and decided to take part in forest bathing. I was very touched by how joyfully he experienced his encounter with the land and vegetation.
Do you encounter many prejudices about your profession? For instance, does the word “esoteric” come up when you tell people what you do? How do you respond?
No, I don’t encounter any prejudices in everyday life. People who come to me are usually interested in what I do. This word is only ever brought up in interviews, and that is why I have to smile. I understand that critical questioning is part of good journalism. I am also prepared to have my work scientifically scrutinized.
There are already many studies on this topic. The ideas and the tradition of forest bathing are based, among other things, on research findings that confirm that contact with the forest calms the human nervous system. How does this work? What can the forest do, if one allows it?
In contrast to life in the city, the forest allows us to experience its variety without us suffering from sensory overload. The body calms down automatically when it perceives certain elements of the landscape. Where there is an abundance of green, there is life. It’s where there is sufficient oxygen and water, nourishment, and protection. The autonomous nervous system apprehends this as a sign of security. And the results can be measured – blood pressure normalizes, concentrations of stress hormones are lowered, one’s overall mood is improved, and there is a greater sense of creativity. The longer one stays in the forest, the more lasting are the effects.
Forest medicine, a branch of research developed in Japan, focuses particularly on the effects of so-called phytoncides, substances that help trees fight off pests and diseases. It has been demonstrated that the human immune system reacts to these substances. Trees and humans thereby communicate with each other at a physical level, and not only through oxygen. Humans have always adapted to nature, as it is from nature that we have emerged.
One of your participants has said that her experience in the forest with you has allowed her to find herself once again, whereas she feels lost in everyday life. Are urbanization and our technological society the reason for our lack of connection with ourselves?
In addition to the advantages offered by life in the city, people experience more stress on account of noise, light pollution, contact with pollutants, and the hectic pace. As the feeling of well-being increases when one immerses in nature, it becomes clear that a lack of contact with nature will be experienced as a deficit. Research findings confirm this. For example, those who live in areas with a high concentration of trees lining the streets are healthier, experience better social relations, and suffer less crime. On the other hand, through increasing technology, we are always and everywhere connected. But this makes it all the more difficult to distance oneself and to find peace of mind.
Since the 1980s, forest bathing is a recognized form of therapy in Japan and, as a result, is much more intensively practiced. Japanese doctors prescribe their patients stays in the forest for several days to chop wood and live self-sufficiently. Do you think that such therapies will soon be prescribed here as well?
In 2017, the first medicinal and spa forest was inaugurated in Europe during an international conference in Usedom, Germany. In cooperation with local rehabilitation clinics, a pilot project was initiated to train forest therapists. Certificate programs are currently being offered at a number of German universities and technical institutes. In addition, therapeutical elements from forest bathing are now scientifically monitored in studies. Outdoor stress management courses are even covered by medical insurance in Germany within the system of illness prevention programs.
Nowadays, forest bathing is being offered not only by therapeutic centers but also by individual guides with the most varied backgrounds. Do you see a danger that the concept of forest bathing or the original idea behind it could thereby be watered down?
The Japanese shinrin-yoku, bathing in the forest’s atmosphere, inspired people long before they exactly knew what the Japanese were doing. Individuals would vary their emphasis depending on their cultural and professional backgrounds. That’s why so many different approaches have developed worldwide, and later in Germany as well. Many regard forest bathing merely to manage stress under the supervision of a trainer in the woods. Others emphasize that a new and different relationship with nature is an essential factor. As achieving human health is also dependent on the well-being of nature as a whole, I follow an approach based on these two pillars. I want to encourage a new kind of togetherness between man and his environment – for the benefit of all. I, therefore, observe these developments less with concern as out of curiosity. This is also an opportunity! Shouldn’t we take advantage of it to transform our lives?
Lia Braun offers guided forest bathing in the Berlin Düppeler Forest. You can contact her here.