by Rhana Kozak, PhD, Nature Bathing Guide
Shinrin-Yoku or the art of Forest (or Nature) Bathing is different from simply taking a walk outside. Rather, it is an invitation to enter into a state of mindfulness or active, open attention to the present moment and the beauty of the natural world surrounding you. Ideally, the perfect atmosphere is one much like San Diego Botanic Garden, a safe, easy place to access the natural environment, with minimal distractions in the midst of a balance of tree cover and open space.
When engaging in the art of Nature Bathing, practiced and studied for many years in Japan and Korea, some interesting physiological and psychological effects can occur in participants including reduced blood pressure and stress levels, increased production of cells protecting you from disease, an improved sense of well-being, and even weight loss!
In the late 1990s, Dr. Qing Li at Nippon University became interested in the effects of Nature Bathing on people. Through his personal experiences, he became convinced that nature is essential to human health. By 2004 scientists in Japan began their research studies on the physiological changes taking place in forest bathers and what caused these changes.
Dr. Li and his research team found that the air in forest environments is rich in terpenes, the marvelous fragrant substances produced by plants. In fact, at last count, there are more than 40,000 individual terpenes in the natural world!
These molecules are volatile (fragrant) and lipophilic (fatsoluble) which means they enter your system as you breathe. Terpenes enter into your body through your olfactory sense, and cross over to your limbic system where they influence neuronal activity.
So, for instance, when you walk through a grove of pines – or even rest near one tree like a Pinion, Cypress, Ponderosa, Juniper, Cedar, Redwood, Jeffrey or any other of the 111 conifer species – and breathe deeply, physiological changes occur. Two terpenes, a-pinene and b-pinene, the fragrant molecules these trees emit, are straightening your spine, lifting your outlook, opening your lungs and connecting you to nature. And, as it turns out, these substances not only protect the trees from predators, they reduce your blood pressure, increase your natural killer cells (or NKs) those cells that protect you from disease, improve your cognition, and restore your sense of well-being. Marvelous indeed!
Dr. Li’s research shows that these therapeutic effects can occur in as little as a 2-hour excursion in nature, with these positive effects lasting for several weeks thereafter. And if you happen to spend an extended time Nature Bathing, the beneficial effects only multiply!
M. Amos Clifford founded the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) in the U.S. in 2012. I was fortunate to attend one of the first Forest Therapy Guide emersion trainings offered by ANFT at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. The purpose of a guide is to assure the safety and relaxation of the participants while offering activity invitations as an open structure that makes it easy for people to set aside their phones, worries and stress and enter a restorative state for a couple of hours.
Here at San Diego Botanic Garden, I have the opportunity to witness the myriad benefits of Nature Bathing first-hand. A grant supporting visits by residents of our neighboring Seacrest Retirement Community made it possible to record pre- and post-visit blood pressure readings. During the study, groups of 5 – 8 residents ride in our open-air shuttle bus through the Garden, with samples of flowers and plants passed amongst them to stimulate their sensory experience and positive memories. These Nature Bathing tours consistently result in lower blood pressure readings amongst Seacrest residents. It is apparent from our findings that the pure joy of being outdoors and lower blood pressure coincide!
San Diego Botanic Garden offers numerous children’s educational programs for school-aged children. Hamilton Children’s Garden is a model for unstructured play that includes key elements of water, grasses, an edible garden, a tree house and other features that accentuate creativity and exploration. Plant Adaptation tours, offered at the Garden for children, end at Hamilton Children’s Garden for playtime. A delighted mother of a bright and precocious 7-year-old boy Max turned to me during one of these excursions and said: “My son is another person when he is here. How can I have more of this in his life?” Nature brings out the best in everyone.
Our Garden is an ideal setting for Nature Bathing, and we offer 2-hour, guided Nature Bathing experiences monthly. Classes are loosely structured. After a brief introduction and an invitation to set aside stress and worry, you begin your Nature Bathing experience by exploring one section of the Garden. After 20 minutes of unstructured sensory exploration, we gather for a brief sharing of thoughts, questions and insights. Next, we move to another Garden area for another 20 minutes for further immersion in the natural wonder and beauty of the Garden.
Following the Japanese tradition of tea, we rest in the Herb Garden to explore the fragrances of the health stimulating terpenes, sip tisane and taste local fruits. The completion of our Nature Bathing experience is in the Bamboo Garden. Resting on the ground, connected to Earth, we gaze up through the Bamboo forest and into the sky. Amidst the whispers and song of bamboo, as your parasympathetic nervous system takes over, you ‘tend and mend’ while assimilating your own ‘nature bath.’
Forest and Nature Bathing is a global movement in answer to the digitization of our modern lives. We now know that everyone benefits from regular immersions in the natural world and that this connection is essential to our own personal, professional and social health.
Rhana Kozak, PhD is a SDBG docent, Nature/Forest Therapy Guide, SDBG Nature Bathing Guide, and practitioner of Applied Ecopsychology.