When concepts cross cultural boundaries, they rarely survive intact.
In 1892, Swami Vivekananda introduced a form of physical, mental, and spiritual exercise called “yoga” in the United States. Needless to say, the hot yoga, restorative yoga, and yin yoga practiced by an estimated 36.7 million people in the US are entirely different than what Vivekananda practiced in the early 1900s. In 1957, Americans were confused and amazed by an exotic black sauce called Kikkoman, which they used as an “all-purpose seasoning” for classic American foods like roast beef. Cinco de Mayo, which celebrates General Ignacio Zaragoza’s victory over superior French forces at the Battle of Pueblo, has nothing to do with imported beer and salsa. Similarly, the Feast of Saint Patrick is a commemoration of the death of Saint Patrick, who brought Christianity to Ireland. It is worth noting that he was not a leprechaun.
Formerly having lived in Japan, the door has swung both ways for me. I have been frustrated by a lack of nigiri-sushi in the United States and been very confused as to why you can only buy “natural cheese,” “pull-apart cheese,” and “melty cheese” in Japanese grocery stores.
Recently, shinrinyoku (森林浴) has become very popular in the US, China, Thailand, and Korea. It translates loosely as “forest bathing,” although it has nothing to do with bathing in the traditional sense. Shinrinyoku is a form of therapy involving immersion in a forest, often while walking or hiking.
The term was originally used in 1982 by the Japanese Forestry Agency, although the practice itself was said to have been started in Nagano Prefecture’s Akasawa Nature Relaxation Forest. Nagano’s hinoki (Japanaese Cyprus trees) have been there for nearly 300 years, making them particularly magnificent for establishing a newfound sense of connection to the natural world.
In the US, shinrinyoku has taken on a meditation-like quality, often done as a group guided by an expert who can provide provocations, set the pace, and look after the well-being of the forest visitors. Some guides encourage momentary breaks throughout the walk to share individual experiences with other members of the group. For many guides and practitioners, it is an exercise in mindfulness that encourages a sense of interconnectedness and spiritualism.
But to be frank, that all sounds like a bit much to me. I’m jealous of people able to engage with the forest in such a way, and I am impressed and ecstatic that they are able to delve so deep and find what they need in a natural environment so openly. But I think their stories are examples of how forest bathing can be done, not necessarily how should be done.
The term shinrinyoku is hopelessly broad in its usage. The way it is often used in Japanese medical research papers, it includes everything from fifteen minute jaunts in the park to camping to having a picnic. Some psychological research involves test subjects just interacting with wood in an indoor environment, particularly using their sense of touch and smell. To me, its breadth is where its power comes from. Forest bathing isn’t for anyone in particular, and because it isn’t for anyone in particular, it is for everybody to enjoy exactly how they see fit.
Some developing cities in Japan have made sure to leave behind small patches of untouched forest, so even their urban population can walk through the woods on their way home from the train station. To the salary men of big cities like Nara, shinrinyoku isn’t necessarily a way for them to find something deeper, or develop a sense of interconnectedness. It is like a holistic smoke break. It is a way to let go of all the things they have to do, all the things they have to worry about. It is a way for them to just be.
On the other end of the spectrum, shinrinyoku is a powerful tool for children. Their version of mindfulness often involves climbing, running about, and touching flora and fauna. They tend to engage in a more kinesthetic appreciation of the woods. In my mind, the day-to-day routine of the nature school at which I teach is shinrinyoku. Eating lunch outdoors with my students while listening to the myriad birds singing their distinct songs isn’t a guided meditation, but it is powerful in its own right. It instills in them an appreciation of both the tangible aspects of nature (like the warmth of sunlight and the coolness of shade) and the intangible aspects (like the passage of time from one season to the next).
It is my opinion that the principle behind shinrinyoku can be exercised not just in forests, but in any natural environment that inspires a sense of wonderment for its beholder. When my wife and I went to Santa Fe for our honeymoon, I had never been to a desert in person before. I found myself transfixed by the landscape. At Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keefe spent many of her years and did much of her painting, I felt incredible insignificance along with a sense of peace and relaxation. At higher altitudes of our hike, there weren’t even plants to be seen. The natural desolation inspired in me a sense of cleanliness, almost like seeing a blank canvas for the first time after seeing a lifetime of colorful paintings.
Most of the literature I have read on shinrinyoku in Japanese tends to be medical in nature, listing the physical and psychological benefits of forest bathing. Most of the literature I have read on shinrinyoku in English tends to be more spiritual, focusing on reconnecting with the environment and developing a fuller appreciation of it. I think both are right, and I think for some people, both might be wrong, too. It is not my place to tell people how they should engage with the woods, just like it isn’t my place to tell people what true yoga is, how they should use soy sauce, or what Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day mean to them.
To me, shinrinyoku is one of many words used to convey the same two principles:
First, when all is said and done, people should just spend more time outdoors. Being immersed in an outdoor environment has been shown to bolster the immune system, strengthen respiration and cardiovascular function, and exercise gross motor muscle groups. It also decreases stress levels, helps to regulate emotion, and provide a reprieve from sensory overload. Time in the woods is good for the body and the mind.
Second, introspection is the key to enjoying the great outdoors. Our natural world is so diverse, so immersive, and so hopelessly complex that it has something for every person (whether they care to identify themselves as an “outdoorsy type” or not). Each person is unique, so it follows that each person has different therapeutic needs. A greater understanding of our weaknesses and strengths can help us develop a more concrete idea of what nature can offer to help mitigate what ails us. In other words, the form nature therapy takes is entirely dependent upon who the patient is and what they struggle with.
Get a group of friends together to go on a hike, or go it alone. Go get lost in the great unknown, or go walk your dog on the path at your local park. Walk, run, crawl, jump, or climb. Bring guided meditations, or let the birds sing you theirs. Think deeply about how you want your journey into nature to look.
Make up your own mind, then just do what feels right for you.