Forest Bathing: Nature’s Mindful Remedy

8 min read

Education & Career Trends: February 19

Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS

The term “Shinrin-Yoku” is usually translated to “forest bathing,” but a more direct translation could also be “taking in the forest atmosphere,” It’s about fully engaging with the environment.

  • Article by Denny Pencheva, published on

It was the early days of tech growth. In the 1980s, as the digital boom accelerated, the Japanese came up with an antidote to all the stress that came with it. Shinrin-Yoku, or “forest bathing,” is an immersive experience, deliberately connecting with the natural world to restore and heal.

As our screen time continues to grow and life seems to get crazier by the month, the practice is more relevant than ever. It’s not just about taking a stroll — forest bathing is an exercise in mindfulness that proves surprisingly effective and easy to introduce. It doesn’t take a seasoned hiker or even a large forest near you, either.

Here is what you need to know about forest bathing — or how hanging out near trees can help you feel better both physically and mentally.

A walk in the woods, and then some

So, what exactly is forest bathing? It does sound like a fancy name for a simple walk. Well, it is and it isn’t. What sets Shinrin-Yoku apart from a regular jaunt in the woods is the intentionality (or mindfulness) behind it.

The term “Shinrin-Yoku” is usually translated to “forest bathing,” but a more direct translation could also be “taking in the forest atmosphere,” It’s about fully engaging with the environment: feeling the texture of the bark, hearing the rustle of leaves, smelling the earthy scent of the forest floor, and even tasting the freshness of the air.

In his book on forest bathing Dr. Qing Li, Chairman of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, explains how the mindfulness aspect works:

Indoors, we tend to use only two senses, our eyes and our ears. Outside is where we can smell the flowers, taste the fresh air, look at the changing colors of the trees, hear the birds singing and feel the breeze on our skin. And when we open up our senses, we begin to connect to the natural world.

In short, forest bathing is a mindfulness practice. It’s not hiking because you’re not trying to reach a peak or cover a distance. Even sitting quietly for a few minutes in a forest counts as forest bathing. Being is the goal here, not doing.

The science behind the serenity

Mindfulness it may be, but does forest bathing come with benefits? It seems like it.

In an evidence review, Margaret Hansen, associate professor at the University of San Francisco, and her team looked at 64 studies on the physiological and psychological effects of Shinrin-Yoku. Immersion in nature, especially forests, was found to have a myriad of health benefits:

On a physiological level, forest bathing has been linked to reduced blood pressure, lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and enhanced immune system function.

In one study, participants were sent out either to an urban area or the outdoors. At baseline, there was no difference between the two groups on certain health markers. Just two nights later, the “forest group” had lowered their oxidative stress and inflammation. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between free radical production and your body’s ability to counteract harmful effects. Inflammation, on the other hand, is a natural protective response — but, when it becomes chronic it can harm healthy tissues and organs.

Both of these processes can contribute to disease and ageing, so, reducing them is a tangible and positive health outcome.

On the psychological front, the benefits are equally compelling. Regular forest bathing sessions have been associated with improved mood, reduced anxiety, and an overall sense of well-being. One pilot study conducted in Fukushima, Japan, explored the effects of a Shinrin-Yoku retreat on mental health. Forest bathing, it seems, increased self-compassion — it helped participants foster a kinder, more understanding relationship with themselves. Curiously, even looking at pictures of nature can reduce fatigue. For those who struggle with depression, nature walks have both helped mood and short-term memory.

Mindfulness, with a twist

Mindfulness, in essence, is about being present in the moment. It asks you to engage with whatever you’re doing without distraction or judgment. It’s a practice that has been embraced globally for its mental and emotional benefits. Forest bathing fits into the mindfulness spectrum — and, it’s rooted in ancient Buddhist and Shinto practices (it’s no coincidence that most Shinto shrines have a forest around them.)

While other mindfulness practices often emphasize an inward focus, forest bathing encourages an outward one. A study comparing mindfulness and forest bathing found that the latter offers a more intuitive approach, making it accessible to a wider range of people.

Achieving a meditative state can be tricky for those struggling with a mental health condition (hey, it’s tricky even if you don’t). The inward focus of traditional mindfulness can sometimes be overwhelming or downright counterproductive. Forest bathing provides an easier entry point.

Plus, the very act of being in nature amplifies the benefits. The forest setting (serene landscapes, no car horns, the smell of leaves and pines) naturally facilitates a meditative state. There’s no need to “try” to be mindful; the environment itself guides you there.

While both traditional mindfulness and Shinrin-Yoku aim to nurture the mind and spirit, the path they take is different. Forest bathing starts on the outside, meditation begins on the inside. Shirin-Yoku’s nature-based approach is very accessible, making it a great addition to your wellness toolkit.

Healing in times of crisis: Forest bathing during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic affected a lot of people physically or mentally or both. With lockdowns, social distancing, and the constant barrage of distressing news, many felt isolated, anxious, and overwhelmed. Forest bathing seemed to offer relief.

A pilot study conducted in a Mediterranean forest near Barcelona during the pandemic looked at the potential psychological benefits. The results were heartening. Participants reported significant increases in positive affect, vigour, and mindfulness. In the shadow of a global crisis, some simple time in the forest was able to offer healing.

But why was forest bathing particularly effective during the pandemic? One reason could be our deep-seated need for connection. We’re social beings but the pandemic cut our human interaction. Forest bathing, while a solitary activity, provided a different kind of connection — a bond with nature.

Plus, the forest may help us ward off disease. Shinrin-Yoku trips were found to increase natural killer (NK) cell activity, boosting the body’s natural defence mechanisms. Pine essential oil also seems to have antioxidant properties while other tree volatile oils have been studied for anti-tumor activity.

Practical tips: how to immerse yourself in forest bathing

For those inspired to embark on their own Shinrin-Yoku journey, the beauty of this practice lies in its simplicity. You don’t need any special equipment or training — just a willingness to connect with nature (and maybe some comfy shoes.)

Here are some steps to guide you:

  1. Choose your forest wisely: While any natural setting can offer benefits, a quiet, serene forest with minimal distractions is ideal. It doesn’t have to be a vast wilderness; even a local park with trees can serve as your sanctuary.
  2. Disconnect to connect: Turn off your gadgets. If you can, consider leaving them behind — but always keep safety first. Most forested areas aren’t the best places to go off without navigation or a way to contact others. You can switch your smartphone for a “brick phone”, though, if you know the area.
  3. Engage all of your senses: This is the mindfulness part. Feel the texture of the bark, listen to the birds, smell the earth…
  4. Walk slowly: This isn’t about exercise (although exercise is also key for health) or reaching a destination. Take slow, deliberate steps. Pause often. Sit if you feel like it. Let nature guide your pace.
  5. Breathe deep: Although forest bathing offers plenty of “outer focus” opportunities, try to also mind your breath. Take deep, calming breaths. Notice how your body feels with each inhalation.
  6. Practice gratitude: The forest is a great place to reflect and embrace gratitude. As you walk, consider all the things you’re happy about — whether it’s the trees and views or happy moments in your day-to-day.
  7. Conclude mindfully: As you prepare to leave, take a moment to sit or stand in silence. Reflect on your experience. This is also a good time to set an intention for the rest of your day or week.

In the end, though, there’s no right or wrong way to practice Shinrin-Yoku. It’s a personal journey. It’s also easy — it’s meant to be easy. What matters most is your connection with nature.

Take it from Dr Li, too, who offers a helpful tip from his routine:

“I go for shinrin-yoku every lunchtime. You don’t need a forest; any small green space will do. Leave your cup of coffee and your phone behind and just walk slowly. “

Have you checked out yesterday’s blog yet

3 Ways AI is Being Used in Mental Health Care

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the article mentioned above are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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