Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Forest bathing (2/22/2017)

Wow, I learned a new phrase this week: “Forest-Bathing”.  So, now some of you have also.  It has nothing to do with taking a bath or a shower in the woods, although I have always wanted to build an outdoor shower and in our case the shower would look out into the forest, so technically it could be forest bathing.  No, it is spending time in the woods and letting the woods come over you and improve your health. 

Readers of my blog know that I frequently write about "Nature Deficit Disorder", in fact there are 31 posts (32 with this one ... check the "labels" section) by now in which I mention it or at least somehow write that at times I need to reconnect with nature; just to get my sanity back.  Well, it seems that forest-bathing or shinrin-yoku as it is called in Japan is real!  Shinrin-yoku is a very important national public health program that was started there in 1982.  Now research is showing that regular bathers have lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and less variability in their heart rates.  A Japanese study even showed that it increased the activity of the natural killer cells in the human immune system.  These cells appear to fight off viruses and tumor formation and they seem to be associated with cancer prevention according to an article written by Ephrat Livni in 2016. 
Walking through the woods this past weekend it was so warm that even this early in February the turtles were out sunning.  I wonder what they could find to eat.

A much more detailed article was written in 2012 in the Outside magazine, and it seems that an aromatic volatile substance called phytoncides may be involved.  Trees give off these substances and Dr. Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo found that when he locked up subjects overnight into a hotel room with this substance piped in the air they also had high levels of the killer cell versus subjects who were locked up without the substance in the air.  Moreover, the killer cells levels stayed elevated in the subjects' systems for a few weeks.  Just breathing the extract from a tree under laboratory conditions gave the author of the article an instant 12 point drop in blood pressure.

But what does forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku entail?  In my eyes it is kind of what you make it.  From what I understand it is a combination of spirituality, meditation, and at the same time a form of aromatherapy.  The phytoncides that the plants give off is a chemical that seems to have a lot of, yet to understand functions.  However, one thing it is sure, it seems to be good for our well-being when we breath it in.  You may not smell it, but it is there.  It is the fresh smell of the forest.  That together with living in the moment the shedding of all your daily worries and concentrating on the beauty around you and being one with nature is what forest bathing is.  It does sound a lot like taking care of the nature deficit disorder, isn't it?

Believe it or not there is actually an organization that teaches you to become a Shinrin-yoku or Forest Therapy Guide.  I would love to do this, but of course it is in California and probably too expensive for my pockets (I really need to start advertising on this blog).  However, I feel I can probably do it without the "formal" seven session training, but it would be nice.  Monica Schwartz took the course and this is the link to her blog about the course.

In her blog about the course Monica details a lot about the spiritual and personal aspects of the program, and her growth as a teacher.  Her website/blog (which is titled Life out of Bounds) is a wonderful place to visit anyway.  The course appears to be on seven Saturdays near the San Francisco area.  It starts with a ritual where people collect a piece of nature (in her case it was a rock from a creek) and put it in a circle, symbolically leaving their worries or baggage behind before spending 20 or 30 minutes just lingering in the woods.  They are called back, share their discoveries and feelings, maybe have a reading and then they go out again for another 20 or so minutes.  Monica brought a camera (she is a photographer) and took photographs, others did other things.  After a third session there was another discussion and that week's session was done.  All very simple and very spiritual.  The leader in her session made tea from the local herbs which they all tasted but I do not think a tea ceremony is a requirement.  One of the members of Monica's group just meditated in a place and played a native American flute.  Wonderful, everybody can experience it in her or his own way.

There is even beauty in this fallen tree.  It amazed me how well distributed the roots were.  I follow a bonsai webcast and this gentleman always talks about raking out the roots to get an even distribution in the pots.  What a gorgeous example and what a shame for the tree.

Forest bathing is really a way to recharge, a way to meditate, and a the breath in those phytoncides.  I need to do it more often, now I know there is real scientific evidence for its benefits.  Come and join me.

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