Photo: Michelle Hickey
Escaping stress by slowing down to connect with nature is at the heart of Shinrin-yoku; a practice that began in Japan during the 1980s to enhance health, wellness and happiness. Shinrin-yoku translates as “taking in the forest atmosphere” or “forest bathing”. Time is spent moving through the forest in a mindful way that cultivates presence, opens the senses and creates opportunities for nature connection while breathing in the forest air. The Japanese government has conducted many studies to confirm the benefits of Shinrin-yoku, including reduced blood pressure and heart rate, reduced cortisol levels, improved immune function, improved attention and focus, reduced anger and hostility, and an improved sense of well-being.
It’s a common practice to go for a walk in the woods to relax or to enjoy a nature vacation to escape work, and people intuitively understand that connecting with nature reduces stress. The difference is that during a Shinrin-yoku walk, the focus is on the journey, not the destination. Walks are typically a mile or less, ranging in duration from two to four hours. Mindfulness and a nature connection are encouraged through an evolving series of suggested invitations offered by a guide.
This is not a typical hike in the woods. Shinrin-yoku is a slow, meandering walk, replete with long pauses for observation, connection and sitting. Slowing down physically and mentally can feel challenging at first, but over the course of the walk, it gets easier. The body and mind adjust to the slower pace and the senses open to a wider experience. Stress, anxiety and the need to get something done is replaced with calm. Stress and anxiety are released with every exhale, while each inhale increases calm and healing.
Breathing in the forest air could be lifesaving. Science has discovered that trees and plants also exhale many beneficial compounds for humans, including phytoncides—antimicrobial volatile organic compounds that activate natural killer (NK) cells in the human immune system. NK cells eliminate virally infected cells and detect and control early signs of cancer. In one study, a significant increase in NK cells was detected and the boost remained for at least seven days and for up to 30 days. Some doctors now prescribe nature connection to patients with high blood pressure and high cortisol levels (stress) instead of prescribing drugs. The research is compelling.
Shinrin-yoku is gaining in popularity in the U.S. Locally, Morton Arboretum (MortonArb.org) has hosted two guide trainings by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, training more than 30 guides. Morton Arboretum and The Resiliency Institute (TheResiliencyInstitute.net) both offer public Shinrin-yoku walks. Visit their websites to join a walk. To schedule a private walk for a group or event, or to add Shinrin-yoku to programming at forest preserves, park districts or counties, contact The Resiliency Institute.
Michelle Hickey is the co-founder of The Resiliency Institute nonprofit, located at 10S404 Knoch Knolls Rd., in Naperville. For more information, visit TheResiliencyInstitute.net. See ad at NAChicago.com.