Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bathing in the Forest

How is your Japanese? Mine is pretty lousy. I only know two terms:

yama gāru (山ガール)
shinrin-yoku (森林浴)

The first term translates to "mountain girl." It refers to a trend in Japan in which it is fashionable for young women to dress in functional and colorful outdoorsy clothing. I was told I looked like a yama gāru when I traveled to Japan for work a few years back. I was sporting my I-work-for-a-Seattle-tech-company "uniform" -- jeans, trail shoes, a merino wool sweater, and my bright red Gore-Tex jacket. I was flattered; for the first time in my life, I was fashionable.

The second term describes something I love to do: "take a forest bath." This isn't the strip-down-to-your-bare-skin-and-bathe-in-a-forest-stream kind of bath. No siree. This term refers to the medicinal qualities of being amongst trees.

I love bathing in forests.
(Photo: Ferit Fındık)

As an avid reader, I'm often surprised how certain books seem to magically appear in my life at just the right times. For the last little while, I had been grappling with the take-aways from my Baja trip: I didn't enjoy being in the desert landscape, and I didn't enjoy mountain biking. But I like nature, and I like biking. So what gives?

Your Brain on Nature, by Eva Selhub and Alan Logan, addressed this question with utmost clarity. The book discusses the science behind nature's influence on our health, happiness, and vitality.

Intuitively, I know that spending time in nature is good for my well-being. You likely feel the same way. For thousands of years, healers prescribed nature as a means of healing physical and mental ailments and diseases. In the last hundred years or so, our culture has preferred to prescribe drugs instead. Despite this, copious research has proven the physical and intangible benefits of nature, particularly greenspaces, as a powerful drug:
  • reduced blood pressure
  • lowered stress and anxiety
  • boosted immune functioning
  • elevated moods and mental states
  • accelerated resiliency and recovery from surgery and illness
  • deepened cognitive functioning, intuition, and reflection
  • increased flow of energy and vitality
  • heightened sense of pleasure and happiness
  • enhanced emphasis on intrinsic aspirations

The term “Vitamin G” widely refers to the medicinal nutrients obtained by being immersed in nature. An extra strength dose of Vitamin G can be obtained by incorporating mindfulness while in nature. How does one be mindful in nature? By slowly traveling through forests while engaging all of the senses -- by observing how the treetops are projected against the clouds up above, by running fingers along the slender veins of leaves, by listening to the sounds of the wind rustle the trees, by smelling the aromatic fragrance of the duff, by tasting the freshness of the air.

Not every benefit of nature can be overtly detected by the senses. Did you know that trees emit olfactory-provoking chemicals? Some of these chemicals stimulate and uplift while others sedate and relax. Even though we cannot sense these chemicals, they influence our nervous systems, thereby shaping our stress levels, mental states, and immune systems. Likewise, negative ions (or charged molecules) are abundant in forests and around moving water. Negative ions have been scientifically proven to impact health and longevity.

Vitamin G, olfactory-provoking chemicals, and negative ions galore!

It is advised that Vitamin G occasionally be consumed in solitude. (Yes, that means without friends and without digital devices). Despite our culture's equation of solitude with social isolation and loneliness, in reality, solitude in nature insulates us from the detrimental side effects of our insanely fast-paced environment. The stresses of urbanization, the bombardment of digital technologies, and the urgency of our instant gratification culture are mentally fatiguing on all of us. This mental fatigue impacts our ability to contemplate, reflect, and introspect. In essence, this mental fatigue affects our ability to see the forest for the trees, figuratively speaking.

Another benefit of forest bathing is the immersion in natural sunlight. Natural light is critical for establishing positive moods and sufficient energy. Many of us, especially those who reside in the more northern latitudes, have personally experienced the impact of low winter light on our energy levels and frames-of-mind.

I am reminded of the days when I worked at Amazon and when the campus had just moved to its new location in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. Employees at my level were granted office spaces; more junior employees were placed in open-space cubicles. Though the buildings were brand-spanking new and beautiful, the workspaces were terribly designed. The offices were placed in the inner regions of the buildings, which had no access to natural light, while the cubicles were placed up against the large windows. The offices were lit with one lowly energy efficient light fixture placed above each desk. My office at Amazon reminded me of the all-nighters I would occasionally pull in college -- working in a cramped space, under a dim light so as not to wake my roommate. Hell, even my "eye pastures" (the potted plants on my desk) wilted in the poor light of my office. I joked with colleagues that my office was my prison cell. Within the first few weeks, sun lamps were ordered for the occupants of offices -- the effect of the low light was clearly impacting moods, productivity, and job satisfaction. How sad that I secretly wanted a demotion so I could work from a sun-soaked cubicle!

I've spent the last few weeks housesitting for a home located in the countryside. Every day I've gone on a long walk -- sometimes multiple walks. These walks are intoxicating and addictive; they feel so incredibly good. I turn off my phone and leave it behind, as I don't want for my bathing to be interrupted by "infotoxins." Despite the miles I walk, I always feel refreshed, both physically and cognitively. As Your Brain on Nature states, "green exercise is like exercise squared." Moving your body in nature provides a triple-health-whammy: physical benefits from the movement of your body, mental benefits from the solitude, and emotional and spiritual benefits from the mindfulness.

I often say nature is my church and trees are the idols I worship. It is in nature that my most transcendental experiences have occurred. These have been moments of extreme contentedness, vitality, and well-being -- moments of deep connection to something larger than myself. I suggest we put less emphasis on drugs and more emphasis on nature for healing and prevention. Nature is the ultimate medicine -- it's inexpensive, inexhaustible, and side-effect free!

So, why did I feel so drained traveling through the desert? Because there were no trees! I need greenspace to feel alive; the drab desert sucked the life out of me. And why did I end up not enjoying mountain biking? Because my focus was on the trail! In order to receive the amplified benefits of forest bathing, I needed to be mindful of my surroundings.

What have I learned? I have learned that this yama gāru is at her best when she basks in shinrin-yoku.


  1. This post has made me incredibly happy and incredibly sad. Happy because I understand everything you have said about being amongst the trees, experiencing it with all senses, the healing qualities, and standing alone to hear the forest breathe...

    Sad because it has been entirely too long since I have done so, which met help explain why I am not so happy.

    But after reading this, I am very glad I hit up Amazon so the manchild at Western now has a hammock to string up in the trees to do homework. All the while getting the benefits of a forest bath.

    Loved this Sarah, thank you

    1. It sounds like it's time for you and your Michelle to go hang out with some trees, my friend. Maybe enjoy a lazy afternoon in a hammock built for two? ;)

      Thinking of you~


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