Achieving better mental health may be as easy as taking a walk in the woods. Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, involves immersing yourself into nature to clear your mind and open your senses.
The practice, which began in Japan in the 1980s, has recently become popular in the United States. We asked Edwin Ozawa, MD, an anesthesiologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Mass. who regularly studies mindfulness, to explain the appeal.
“Forests lend themselves for contemplation,” Ozawa said. “Mindfulness (being present in the moment), or meditation is the basic practice of sitting and observing quietly or doing so while walking. The forest is the perfect place to start.”
How do you Forest Bathe?
With forest bathing, participants visit a natural area – a park, conservation area or even a back yard, and slowly walk, observing what is around them.
“In meditation, you find a focal point that you pay attention to,” Ozawa said. “The forest is a perfect place for this with many senses you can engage. There’s the tactile sensation you can focus on if you are walking on an unusual surface like pine needles or leaves. Or you can focus on what you smell as you are walking mindfully in nature. You can listen to the sounds of walking on the leaves or pine needles, of animals, birds, water, or of the wind in the leaves. And you can visually focus on the beauty around you: the moss on a tree or a wildflower. There are many opportunities to observe and be mindful in the forest.”
The Benefits of Forest Bathing
Forest bathing is good for the mind and the body. Research shows that this mindfulness practice has health benefits including lowered heart rate, decreased anxiety, reduced inflammation and stress levels, less depression and more.
If you can’t make it out for a walk in the woods, Ozawa said mindfulness can be practiced anywhere.
“You can turn any task you do into a meditative focus,” he said. “Washing dishes, folding clothes, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, cooking, really anything that is repetitive. It’s something you can do for yourself every day.”
The Center for Healthy Living at Winchester Hospital offers many programs for wellness and mindfulness.