"In every walk in nature, one receives far more than he seeks" - John Muir
As nourishment for body and soul, I offer the restorative practice of Shinrin-yoku. Today's modern life demands and our increasingly "over stimulated" culture tethered to technology, has left us feeling stressed, mentally fatigued, encumbered with a myriad of health concerns and experiencing emotional, physical and spiritual disconnect from ourselves, each other and nature. The result is a drain on our vitality, creativity and our sense of wellness and wholeness. An antidote to this malady is the experience of a Shinrin-yoku walk in a peaceful natural setting, where we move from "doing" into "being" as we slowly engage our senses, cultivating mindful awareness of our surroundings, allowing natures own beauty and rhythms to rebalance us.
Imagine a therapy that has no known side effects, is readily available, and would improve your cognitive functioning, lower blood pressure and reduce stress at zero cost. It's called "interacting with nature."
Nature to the Rescue
Immersing our senses in the natural world has therapeutic value and has been well studied showing measurable improvements in health. The Japanese embraced this methodology of healing and refer to it as Shinrin Yoku or "Forest Bathing". First proposed in 1982 by the Forest Agency of Japan as a public response to karoshi (death by overwork), it has become an integral aspect of preventative medicine in Japan, with Physicians recommending deriving healing from spending time walking in the forest as part of a preventative care plan.
Research findings explain the relationship between natural environments and the physiological effects on the body such as a decrease in blood pressure and pulse rates, arresting of sympathetic nervous activity (fight or flight response), a decrease in cortisol levels and the boosting of our immune system. A mere 20 minutes of quiet time in nature, alters cerebral blood flow in a manner that indicates a state of relaxation.
Our lack of time spent in the natural world, referred to as "Nature Deficit Disorder" by author Richard Louv, has been associated with depression and cognitive decline. Studies show there is a mental and emotional restoration from being in nature such as positive mood, sense of wellbeing, increased mental cognition, stimulated learning and creativity, meaningfulness and the restoring of inter-connectedness to mankind and the earth. In one study alone, 95% of those interviewed said their mood improved after spending time outside, changing from depressed, stressed and anxious to more calm and balanced.
Natural settings offer a soft soothing focus for us to glance upon, providing relief from cognitive fatigue and constant visual stimulation, allowing our brains time to rest and recover. Nature walkers as opposed to city walkers, showed decreased activity in the subgenus prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination. A similar experiment found that a 50 minute walk in an arboretum improved executive attention skills such as short term memory, while walking along a city street did not.
When we breathe in Phytoncides, the organic compounds contained in evergreen trees, shrubs and other flora, our bodies respond by relaxing our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) thus lowering our stress hormones, and increasing the number and activity of white blood cells called NK or natural killer cells. These contain anti-cancer proteins and attack tumor and virus infected cells in our body. This increase in NK cells and their effects is sustained for 7 or more days after spending just one day in a natural environment.
Our sense of smell is linked to our limbic system located in the centre of the brain. It is responsible for regulating our emotional and mental functions such as learning, motivation, storing memories, regulating hormones, sensory perception and motor function. When we smell something, in this case breathing in the fragrance of the forest and natural world, the response is instant as are the effects on the brain's mental and emotional responses and on our body chemistry.
Equally important is our experience of connection. When simply viewing nature scenes, parts of the brain associated with empathy and love light up as opposed to viewing urban scenes where parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety become activated. It appears that nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment. Just getting in touch with your breathing can connect you to the nature in yourself.
What Sets Shinrin Yoku Apart
There are many wonderful ways of experiencing nature such as gardening, camping, hiking or learning the nomenclature of local flora and fauna. Shinrin Yoku is different. It is a slowing down....a disengaging of our analytical mind and awakening and attuning into our often underutilized senses, allowing ourselves to be more present and aware of ourselves and the natural environment. We create space and invite the possible unfolding of dialogue between person and place, open to what it might reveal and open to our own responses.
Tich Nhat Hahn, teaches a practice he refers to as "looking deeply". He shares that when we look at an orange, we see just an orange. But if we look deeply, we may see the sunlight that allowed it to grow. We may also see the wood of the tree from which it sprang. And the water and nutrient rich soil that fed it, and the hands of the person that picked it. It's about being "present" and looking beyond the surface, for looking deeply makes for a more connected and grateful life.
As a young adult I often sought out quiet areas in nature when seeking clarity or in need of comfort. Sitting there for hours I would relax into all that was alive and moving around me, unable at the time to make the connection as to why this felt "right". Today my time spent in nature, allowing myself to relax, becoming present in my surroundings, I receive the gifts of a sense of calm, mental clarity, creative stimulation and comfort. But more importantly I feel a profound sense of coming home, a remembering of all that I am a part of, and being drawn to an unexplainable receiving of wisdom and feeling of love.
Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a Physiological Anthropologist, feels we evolved with and in the natural world, so our cells, systems and rhythms recognize the cells, systems and rhythms of nature. He believes our bodies relax in pleasant natural surrounding because they evolved there.