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Forest Bathing

The Importance of Forest Therapy to Modern Life

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” Joyce Kilmer 1886-1918

Forests come in all types, from the virtually impenetrable jungles and rainforests of South America and Asia, scrubby thorn forests in the deserts along the tropics and the majestic and expansive boreal forests of the Polar regions.

Each forest consists of a specific selection of trees that have carefully evolved to support a very specific and extensive list of life forms. The tree itself is a wonder beyond imagination. In lieu of mobility and the capacity to relocate to more favorable surroundings, nature has gifted trees with the capacity and responsibility of changing their natural environment to create a location better suited to life.

Trees act as filters that clean and purify the air. Through the release of terpenes and other secondary metabolites, trees and forests cool the air and perform a wide variety of other functions. Leaves and branches soften the wind making a more suitable habitat for delicate plant and animal life, and they also catch falling rain and deliver it gently to the forest floor where roots bind soil together and prevent erosion.

forest therapy Understanding the “Breath of the Forest”

Depending on the times of day and seasons you choose to participate in forest therapy, the experience can turn out differently. Understanding the way forests “breathe” is an important step to understanding the way they can affect health in the short and long term.

Trees breathe in two different ways. The first way is photosynthesis; the form most people are familiar with. Photosynthesis involves capturing the light of the sun and transforming it to storable energy in sugar form. This process produces oxygen as a byproduct and supports all life on the planet in this way. The stored sugars can fill bellies and provide muscle fuel to support life.

But the other way the trees and plant breathe must also be considered - this is through cellular respiration. In this process, the sugars created by photosynthesis are broken up and their energies are used to support the life of the tree much in the same way humans and animals do. Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of this breathing process.

Consider how this will change what happens when you are walking through a forest on a warm summer’s day compared to a colder night in winter. During the summer, the sun is shining bright and the forest’s primary power systems, photosynthesis, are fully engaged. Oxygen levels will be very high as for result of the energy conversions, and the increased power allows the plants and flowers to be growing and progressing energetically.

During the summer days, the forest air is greatly enriched with oxygen and bountiful with the secondary metabolites working to create a better world beginning in the forest but extending across the plains, fields and all the way into nearby cities and more populated areas.

During the night things begin to slow down. As the sun’s rays vanish, photosynthesis is halted and the trees operate on purely cellular respiration and begin producing carbon dioxide. Less oxygen in the air tells most of the animal kingdom that lights out is a good time to conserve energy and most take this time to rest. 1

During the winter, the process is the same but greatly prolonged. With minimal sunlight available for photosynthesis, many trees go into hibernation where energy is rationed out, growth is halted and even the production of secondary metabolites used for cooling the atmosphere and countless other tasks is called off till the spring.

In the animal kingdom and even for much of human evolution, the winter cycles of the forests have signified a time of change, and without preparations and considerations for these changes, disasters were imminent. Time progressed and improved food supplies eliminated the threat of starvation, but this has not compensated for the healthy oxygen-rich air we had become accustomed to breathing during the summer months.

In today’s modern urban areas, people are beginning to feel the effects of various conditions that many medical experts believe could be caused by a “ Terpene Deficiency ”. Considering the important health benefits that come from a close connection with nature, it is not hard to imagine the consequences from such a dramatic separation from an age-old health care system.

The Importance of Forest Bathing and Terpene forest therapy Deficiency Syndrome

Understanding that humans spent much of their evolution in the trees and forests before moving out into the comparatively terpene rich atmospheres of the grasslands and savannahs, it is fair to assume that secondary metabolites produced by plants have become an integral part of improved human health. Scientific studies have established the important connections between these plants essences and human health from the very dawn of medical practice.

It is safe to assume that when these important health benefits are removed from human life, a certain amount of mental and physical upset is bound to occur. In this following section, we will take a closer look at some of the health conditions that can be found far away from the curative breath of the forest.

forest therapy Could SAD be a Form of Terpene Deficiency Syndrome?

SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, is a term used to describe a malaise that seems to come and go with the seasons. Those suffering from SAD experience a considerable disruption to their physical and emotional levels when the colder months set in. Up to 6% of the population has experienced these effects and the majority of sufferers are women.

Some of the most common symptoms of SAD include physical fatigue, emotional upset, lack of concentration, disrupted sleep cycles and weight gain. As yet, the medical community is not absolutely certain what causes SAD even though there are several known contributors including:

Reduced Serotonin levels due to diminished sunlight. This point is substantiated by the increased occurrences of SAD the further from the equator you look. Vitamin D is essential to producing this important neurotransmitter and requires sunlight to synthesize.

Reduced Melatonin caused by Artificial Light. Where serotonin keeps you happy and active, melatonin allows you to get better sleep cycles which improve health and happiness in too many ways to count. Melatonin is regulated by the rising setting of the sun’s light. Artificial lights and LCDs can mess with this balance.

But, another potential cause for this disruption of regular body function could be the sudden reduction in beneficial airborne compounds that have been working to balance and optimize physical function since time immemorial.

Myrcene is a common terpene found in the forest air which is not only an important anti-inflammatory but also has sedative properties that can improve sleep cycles. Limonene is an aromatic compound that has been documented to improve the mood and increases positivity and A-pinene is an effective bronchodilator which allows for easy breathing and better oxygen content in the blood. 2

Forest Therapy for SAD

Forest therapy has many implications for addressing the symptoms and underlying causes of SAD conditions. While the production of oxygen may be reduced as are the quantities of volatile organic compounds in the air, this doesn’t mean they are gone completely. It means that you may have to boost your efforts to get out and find them.

Getting a bit more exercise out in the fresh forest is a great way to avoid this condition. Fine-tuning your daily activities to reduce reliance on artificial light can help as well. Finally, you can look for other ways to supplement those healthy terpenes and secondary metabolites through the use of aromatics and essential oils.

Stress, Techno-Stress, Social Anxiety Disorder and Conditions

Stress, as we know it today, is very different from what it was a few thousand years ago. While you may feel stress after poor sleep, impending deadlines and other professional and personal situations, the physiological symptoms of stress were actually meant for another purpose altogether.

Stress is the act of the body straining itself in preparation to make a move for dear life; the heart rate quickens, muscles prepare for action, blood leaves the brain and organs in preparation to boost muscles for optimal function as part of the “fight or flight” response. This is great for outrunning a pack of giant hyenas, but completely ineffective when dealing with a classroom full of irate preschoolers, for instance.

Today, stress is not an infrequent occurrence as it once was, but a lifestyle that many submit to through no choice of their own. According to the statistics held by the APA (American Psychological Association), more than 70% of Americans suffer from stress while only a mere 34% are actively doing something about it. But, when the body is kept in a constant or even regular stress mode, serious conditions can begin to take route. 3

This has resulted in unseemly high levels of stress in a world where you will very rarely be chased by a tiger or lion our hunter-gatherer ancestors must be rolling in their ancient graves. Social relations, the incessant advance of progress and helplessness in the face of crisis are some of the most prevalent causes of stress and anxiety in the modern era. 4

Another big difference between stress today and stress as it was a few thousand years ago has to do with the environment. For example, a stressed out hunter in the forest, recovering from an exhaustive “fight or flight” will not be able to stay stressed and tense for very long. The very nature of the forest with its sights sounds and smells work to relax the mind, counter the effects of stress and reverse the effects of stress chemicals in the blood like cortisol and adrenaline. This is not a feature offered by the urban jungle.

Linalool, for example, is a monoterpene and a common constituent in some of the finest and most relaxing essential oils. Linalool is also found abundantly in the forest air and has sedative properties that do not inhibit motor function when inhaled, making them on par with the highest grade psycholeptic drugs. This is the type of treatment found in forest therapy. 5

Forest Therapy for Treating Modern Stress Conditions

The forest air itself helps the body recover from the “fight or flight” mode and reinstate the “rest and digest” mode that improves energy assimilation, builds strength and a strong immune system. The congested and conditioned air inside most office buildings and modern cities is sadly lacking in these important stress-reducing secondary metabolites and the soothing nature of the forest.

Today, stress-related conditions can be effectively addressed through a walk in the forests and woods. It is important that this is done mindfully as this increases the efficacy of the soothing and sedating sights, sounds and other stimuli. 6

Diseases of Affluence and Unhealthy Modern Living Habits

It was once thought that super advanced technology and modern lifestyles would be the paradigms of physical health and mental stability. Nevertheless, the modern age has seen a rise in disease of affluence that seems to be a direct cause of the comforts and conveniences of modern lifestyles.

The largest category of Diseases of Affluence belongs to the NCD’s, or non-communicable diseases that include heart and lung diseases, strokes, organ conditions and diabetes. This contrasts greatly with the diseases of poverty that are communicable for the most part, such as viral and bacterial infections. 7

The causes of these conditions are numerous and many play into each other. The easy access to highly-unhealthy foods in large cities creates a lethargy and inactivity which can easily lead to more unhealthy food and even the inclusion of toxic habits like smoking and drinking. Poor physical conditions are exacerbated by efficient transportation systems that remove the need for an exertion of any sort.

Poor quality of air in the big city is another contributing factor to diseases of affluence and especially for those who never take time away from there a precision itinerary for a little fresh air and exercise. Excellent sanitation and longer lifespans are some other surprising causes for this category of diseases.

Forest Therapy for Diseases of Affluence

Since its conception many years ago (1982), Japanese “ShinrinYoku” practices have been beckoning urban dwellers to leave the land of straight lines and right angles for a world that offers some soothing asymmetrical sights, sounds, and smells.

The practice applies a bit of mindfulness in providing a sensory cleansing through full immersion in the nature of the forest. Accumulated stress is relieved, while the body is relaxed on all sides and the bountiful terpenes can greatly improve the respiratory system through bronchodilators like a-pinene, another volatile organic compound (secondary metabolites).

By directly addressing the immune system through balancing homeostasis, forest therapy may be the most effective treatment for a wide variety of diseases of affluence including lung cancer, diabetes, and conditions of the vital organs. 8

forest therapy How to Practice Forest Therapy: Some Simple Steps for Beginners

With all the information you now possess about the practice of forest bathing, it is time to begin your own treatment at the most natural health center, the forest. While there are some important benefits to working with a guide who is knowledgeable about the practice and the forests in your region, this introduction is for those who are looking to begin on their own.

However, you are strongly recommended to seek out a guided introduction to forest bathing if such a service is available in your area. Even if just for the first few sessions, an experienced introduction to this practice can be very illuminating and set you on the right path to better health.

Step 1: The Shinrin-Yoku Guidelines

Begin by understanding some basic principles of this practice:

The forest is like your partner in this deeply sensual form of therapy. Consider your environment the other party in the whole experience and keep yourself open to the positive nature and grounding energies.

Keep your focus on the sensations and physical experiences as they wash over your being. Bring your awareness to this and try to keep thoughts of achievement and thoughts in general out of the process as they may be counterproductive.

The time you spend in the forest is more important than the distance you travel. 2 - 4 hours is an optimal time for the mind and body to fully slow down and move in beat with the timeless forest.

The goal here is not to burn calories or improve the heart and lungs. In its most essential form, this should be considered “playtime”.

Pick a trail that doesn’t require any pathfinding skills or include many obstacles.

Unplugged is the way to go. Dress comfortably but not excessively, the goals is to minimize anything that distracts from the environment.

Finally, find your own way. Below are listed some steps to get you started, but the more you put into forest bathing, the more you are going to get out of it. Find what works for you and enjoy the time you are putting in.

Step 2: Choosing a Location forest therapy

All-Encompassing Location: You don’t need to get lost to forest bathe, but your location should be far enough away from human development to convince the mind it is once again home in its natural environment, as it has been for millions of years.

Convenient Location: Forest Bathing brings about many great results in the long term and you will indubitably want to practice as often as you can. Try using Google Maps to locate the closest forested areas near your home. Just make sure you aren’t trespassing.

Diverse Locations: While the woods and forests provide a specific set of benefits, there are natural places of all types that can provide this sensory therapy. Deserts, meadows, the seaside, creeks, ravines, lakes, and rivers are all great options.

Sounds of Nature: Sounds are a big part of washing away the stress and iteration of modern society. Choose a place where the babbling of a brook, the rolling of oceans waves as well as the choral symphony of birdsong floats through the air.

Step 3: Arrive

This is not just about getting to the trail, arriving is the moment when your awareness is pulled to three important factors in your therapy.

The Place: At your starting location, take a moment to build awareness on the things you begin to notice in your environment. Name the things that enter your awareness; it could be the motion of the wind in the trees or the sound this makes. Continue until you feel a deeper connection with your surroundings.

Your Self: Now awareness must be built around your body. Feel the balance of weight as you stand. Pick up a rock the size of an apple and roll it from one hand to another feeling how the weight of the rock is transferred through your muscles and tendons. Trace the feelings to the soles of your feet.

Turn On the Senses: Your body must be connected to its exterior through the senses. Take some time to stand where you are and build awareness of the sensations all around you with your eyes closed. Take time to notice smaller sounds and sensations that were not readily noticed before. Scan your surroundings with ears keen and eyes shut, look for the song of the furthest bird.

Open your mouth and breathe just loud enough to meld your breath into the breath and voice of the forest. This is a powerful tool for dropping the barriers that seem to separate you from the forest. Feel the air as is passes through your mouth and throat. What does it taste like? Find the flavors!

Finally, open your eyes and see the forest again and allow the forest to be manifested in all its splendor.

Step 4: Walk Slowly

forest therapy Take some time to walk slowly and become aware of the movements in the forest around you. By keeping your eyes on the constant movement of the forest, you begin to tune your motions to the world around. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed and distracted - allow the motions you see to reduce your motion to appropriate speeds. If you get confused, look around and match your movements to what you see. Nothing moves too fast in the forest.

Step 5: Make Friends

The great forest all around is communicating with you and you should make the effort to respond. Approach the colors, shapes, and sounds you hear as a good friend and offer your friendship out loud to consolidate the mental exercise.

Take time to absorb your new friends in all their sensory splendor; rocks are strong and smooth, trees are aromatic and graceful and the river may display a thousand emotions. Reflect on this and tell your friends what you hear them saying to you. Thank your friends and move on to make many more before your hike is through.

Step 6: The Sit Spot forest therapy

Take some time and find a place to sit. This can give your body a break from the physical activity and allow for you to take a moment to just be. One practice that can be cultivated here is called the slow reveal. As simple as it sounds you begin to slowly gain awareness of the world around you. Take time to notice what is around, you will find that you will begin to notice more and more as time goes on. After 10 minutes you may begin to notice some shy animal friends making their way through the forest with you.

Step 8: Give Back

Finding a way to give back completes an important circuit in the mind and builds awareness of an important world beyond our day-to-day lives. It is also the first step in any successful relationship. You don’t have to invest a fortune in reforestation or give up every Sunday to volunteer planting trees - even just a thought, a smile and a verbal acknowledgment of the greatness of the forest and its inhabitants is a sufficient gesture. 9 , 10 , 11

Photo Credits: 271EAKMOTO/, Manop_Phimsit/, BogdanSonjachnyj/, VaclavVolrab/

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