Japanese Forest Bathing – Shinrin Yoku Tradition

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Culturallyours Podcast Japanese Tradition Of Forest Bathing

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Japanese Forest Bathing - Shinrin Yoku Tradition
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Show Details

In this episode, we explore the concept of Shinrin-yoku as it is know in Japan. It is the ancient practice of forest bathing which simply is the art of getting outdoors into the woods and natural spaces as a way to re-establish our innate connection with nature.

The core element of any shinrin-yoku is to develop a sense of being and belonging. Using nature to understand where you are in the universe of your life, engage all your sense to feel connected with all that is around you and to lean in to all that the forest provides. It involves the practice of actively communicating with the land – something perhaps we all really need right now more than anything else.

Show Notes

Karthika explores the Japanese concept of Shinrin-Yoku which is also known as forest bathing. Forest bathing is the practice of spending time in nature and the outdoors at a pace that allows for connection, sense of being one with nature and internal wellbeing. Therapy is not an extractive process, where we treat forests as a resource from which we extract well being for humans. Instead, it is a deeply relational practice, characterized by a sense of loving and tender connection.

The Transcript

Dear 2020, this stuff was not on my vision board for the year! – Anonymous

We are almost half way through the year and I think most of us can safely say that this year has been and is likely going to be nothing like we ever imagined. Plans have not only changed but shifted almost a 360. No-one knows what the rest of the year will be like. As we all try to grapple with our lives, our careers, our families, our health and our communities and neighborhoods, people are finding ways to slowly bring some semblance of order and normalcy back to their lives. As the season changes and warm weather makes its way to much of the Northern Hemisphere, I know, I for one long to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. There is nothing I like more than walking barefoot on the grass – I don’t know why but it calms me and almost grounds be back to earth – literally and figuratively. There is nothing I like more than being outdoors and being in nature. While my summer and I suspect yours as well, is going to look nothing like what it did before, I find myself looking into ways I can explore the outdoors safely – not just for myself but also people around me.

There is something that keeps drawing me to Japanese culture – whether it is the concept of Wabi-Sabi (the perfectly imperfect) or Kitsugi (the art of golden repair), Japanese esthetics and sensibilities speak to a deep rooted connection with the elements around us – mind, body and soul – within us and around us. I absolutely fell in love with the concept of Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing as it is know and today on the CulturallyOurs podcast, I want to talk to you about this practice of enjoying nature and the outdoors with the intention of being more connected with the natural world around us.

Shinrin-yoku as it is know in Japan is the ancient practice of forest bathing. Forest bathing is not what you might think but simply the art of getting outdoors into the woods and natural spaces as a way to re-establish our innate connection with nature. Since time immoral, humans have always existed in and around nature. But as we evolved, cities and urban jungles soon replaces that of the natural world and we soon started to increasingly get estranged from the wild.

The concept of Shinrin-Yoku was developed in the early 1980s by Tomohide Akiyama, the then Japanese minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries who saw it as a way to connect an ancient Japanese practice with health-oriented ecotourism.

A Shinrin-Yoku session or retreat is typically a guided activity that begins with an invitation to interact with the natural world – taking in the natural world with all of our senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. You smell the air, listen to the birds, explore the textures, taste the forest – simply taking it all in. After a designated amount of time in the wild, the group gathers to share experiences. They discuss how different senses engaged, what thoughts or feelings emerged, what inner truths came forth. Sessions often conclude with a brief tea ceremony.

Benefits of slowing down in nature

Before you dismiss Shinrin-Yoku as all fluff, there is actually hard science and data behind its benefits. Research has shown than there are health benefits of interacting with nature, including Japanese studies on forest medicine showing how exposure to trees reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol. But the benefits of integrating with nature are far more than just physical – they are emotional and spiritual. We shared a detailed article on the benefits of an outdoor inspired lifestyle earlier.

What’s more, our immune function improves thanks to phytoncide an essential oil that trees release to guard against insects and disease. The oil increases our production of natural killer cells that fight cancer and other diseases – and the cells remain elevated even after we have left the forest. Not only does shinrin-yoku make you feel better in the short term but a regular walk in the woods also can act as preventative medication in the long run. The best part of all this is that it isn’t tied to level of activity as in you don’t need to go on a brisk walk or elevate your heart beat to enjoy these health benefits.

One key differentiator for practicing shinrin-yoku is th element of being still while in nature. Multitasking like listening to a podcast, audio books, talking on the phone, checking your step count or heart rate monitor are all discouraged. The idea being that when you are in nature which is considered a living breathing mechanism, it takes the natural environment about 20-30 minutes to ‘get used to’ your presence and settle down. You then become a part of the natural world as opposed to a visitor or intruder getting higher benefits than if everything is disrupted.

Getting started with Shinrin-yoku

When starting shinrin-yoku, it is best to

  • stand still and orient oneself to the different directions around you
  • spend a few minutes facing north, then south, then east and then west with your eyes closed and then repeat with your eyes open.
  • connect with your life by asking yourself what each of these directions represent to you, what memories come up and what emotions surface?
  • acknowledge them for what they mean to you and pick a direction that means the most to you.

Next pick a tree that stands out to you and introduce yourself to it. Feel it, touch it, smell it and even get up close and listen to it. notice subtle details around where it sits in relation to other trees. Trees are living breathing mechanisms that often lead entwined lives with everything else around them. As you familiarize yourself with them, you begin to establish a relationship with them that makes sense.

Core elements of shinrin-yoku

The core element of any shinrin-yoku is to develop a sense of being and belonging. Using nature to understand where you are in the universe of your life, engage all your sense to feel connected with all that is around you and to lean in to all that the forest provides. It involves the practice of actively communicating with the land – something perhaps we all really need right now more than anything else.

Forest bathing is not the same as hiking. The key differentiator is that forest bathing is about being present right where you are. It is not something to rush through and the goal is not physical exercise per say. You find that what calls to you the most and stay to establish a relationship and connection. Whereas hiking is all about getting to the destination. The pace for hiking tends to be faster than forest bathing. In fact, in some cases, forest bathing is typically a mile or less and around two to four hours long. You come out of it feeling very relaxed and grounded instead of sweaty and spent like typical hiking.

Forest Therapy is best seen as a practice, not a one-time event. Developing a meaningful relationship with nature occurs over time and is deepened by returning again and again throughout the natural cycles of the seasons. A forest bathing session in Spring is likely going to be very different from the forest bathing session in the fall. Embracing those seasonal changes and seasonal influences is key to getting the most out of your shinrin-yoku. Like yoga, meditation, prayer, or working out, shinrin-yoku is a practice.

Shinrin-yoku is being practiced widely in many part of the world. To find a forest bathing session near you, check out The Association of Nature And Forest Therapy. Shinrin -yoku is very accessible practice. It can be applied to a wide variety of people. You really don’t need much to get started with this practice. You don’t have to have a forest nearby to be in nature. Any space that has nature around like a state park, a garden or even your backyard can take the place of a forest. At the end of the day, it can be whatever you want it to be. Forest Therapy is not an extractive process, where we treat forests as a resource from which we extract well being for humans. Instead, it is a deeply relational practice, characterized by a sense of loving and tender connection. This connection leads naturally to an ethic of tenderness and reciprocity. Forest therapy is about creating relationships between humans and the more-than-human world, in which the relationship itself becomes a field of healing and a source of joyful well-being.

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