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What Is Forest Bathing and What Does It Do for Your Health?

An ancient practice with modern healing benefits

Sara Russell

Forest bathing author and researcher Olga Terebenina dreams of spreading awareness about how time in nature offers us a chance to heal ourselves and the world around us.

When was the last time you left your phone at home, stepped outside, and allowed yourself to mindfully indulge all five of your senses? We worry about our phones running out of battery but neglect to recharge ourselves. We often push ourselves with various substances and pharmaceuticals to push through or numb out, when what we really need is to slow down and recover.

Olga Terebenina hopes to change that. As co-founder of The Forest Bathing Institute, Terebenina dreams of spreading awareness about how time in nature offers us a chance to heal ourselves and the world around us. She’s also currently  working with the National Health Service in the UK to create a new kind of prescription: forest bathing.

What Is Forest Bathing?

Forest Bathing, or Shirin-yoku, is a mindfulness practice that involves bathing in the atmosphere of nature for health and well-being. The term was coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries in 1982, but has ancient roots in Shinto and Buddhism.

Essentially, you go into the forest, slow down, and become mindful. Through your five senses, you absorb the chemistry of the natural world, including phytoncides: organic compounds derived from plants that have been known to decrease depression and anxiety.

“In Japan, there is a comparison sometimes between the [antidepressant] pill and the effect of a two hour [forest bathing] session,” said Terebenina. And what they found is that a two hour session can actually be as effective in some conditions as taking the physical medicine.”

Terebenina has been involved with studies around people with anxiety, depression, and stress and has found that forest bathing can be an effective antidote.

“Many people who suffer with anxiety would have rumination of thoughts… being in nature seems to just stop this process,” said Terebenina. “People feel very much connected with the world around. They feel like they can trust people more. So there are ample benefits of time in nature, as well as improved sleep.”

What Does Forest Bathing Do for Your Health?

Terebenina has experienced the benefits of forest bathing firsthand, having suffered her own mental health pains

“I found it really troubling because not even medication could help me and I tried different types of therapies,” Terebenina remembered. “I started meditating, but even [with] meditation, I think for beginners, you have too many thoughts.”

But as she explored the healing effects of nature, she noticed the noise in her mind subsiding.

“I think it's really unrealistic to think that suddenly all your worries are gonna go away,” said Terebenina. “But they're not as loud, they're softer, they're quieter. And then after some time, your normal state is that those worries are just quietly there. They're still coming out at some point, but normally quite quiet throughout the day.”

In the space that’s created, good can pour in.

“Things can come out like revelations, like creativity, boosts of this inspiration that I didn't even think I could have," said Terebenina. "You suddenly think of yourself as bigger than you are. You're not just this human with lots of problems currently piling on top of each other, struggling to survive, struggling to be who you are, but you feel bigger than yourself, part of something. And that's such a uniting experience. I think we as humans maybe got away from that.”

Terebenina added that this increased separation caused by modern society may be contributing to a global anxiety and depression.

“I see lots of people struggling with anxiety, even younger ones. And anxiety and depression seem to be some of the main predominant illnesses of our generation” said Terebenina. “But the more we can actually connect with something that's bigger than us, funnily enough, the more we can let our being connect with that outside of ourselves. Sometimes it lets those worries heal and slow down and they're still there, but they are letting go of the grip that they have on you.”

How to Start Forest Bathing At Home (Even Without a Forest) 

In that connection to something larger outside ourselves, forest bathing encourages a sense of yugen, a Japanese word for the profound sense of beauty and mystery of the universe that feels too deep for words.

Terebenina says such moments become doorways to something more, moving us, “suddenly out of our minds, into our hearts, into our souls connecting us."

Terebenina added that the cumulative affects of consistent forest bathing can be life changing.  

“The more you…just go into nature and experience things like this without actually striving to experience it…the more they string on each other and become a bigger experience," she said.

Funny enough, when people start to feel the positive change created by connecting with nature, they think they’ve added something to their lives. But Terebenina reminds us that these feel good sensations are actually the result of removing unnecessary things in our lives. 

"It does bring a sense of relief, peace. Many people think there is something added on top when you reach that place, but actually lots of things are taken away...and you just feel relief," said Terebenina. "You don't have to be just you. You are part of everything.”

If you don’t live by a forest, don’t fret: there are simple ways to nourish yourself with atmospheric awe. Terebenina suggests connecting "with nature even if you are sitting indoors just by looking outdoors. Looking at the sky, looking at the tree outside of your window, looking at the bird, the sunshine.” Terebenina also suggests adding plants or pictures of nature around your house if you live in an area where you don't have many natural elements around.

“There are no rules," said Terebenina. "Just feel what's good for you.”

 

Sara Russell is a relationship coach and the host of the Trends w/ Benefits Podcast.

Photo by Patrick on Unsplash

 

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