Shinrin Yoku ~ Forest Bathing

by Melissa Saayman

The Medicine of Trees

Shinrin-yoku translates as “Forest Bathing” – the mindful practice of absorbing the forest atmosphere through the senses: touch, sight, scent, sound and taste. Most people would agree that spending time in a forest imparts a sense of relaxation and well-being. Speaking personally, having lived and worked beneath the Platbos Forest canopy since 2005, I have never felt healthier and more at home in the world. My practical experience of trees and forests verifies their beneficial effects on us. Through attuning to their powerful energy fields, my understanding and experience of the forest has further deepened and expanded to encompass the spiritual dimension of trees. Receiving their guidance, and observing how others receive insightful and often life-changing messages and energy-shifts from particular trees during my Tree Attunement Workshops, I respect trees as wise counsels and profound energy healers.

My spiritual and intuitive exploration of Nature is balanced with a thirst to understand how the healing occurs on a practical basis. The scientific verification of Shinrin Yoku is therefore an exciting new avenue of study which further confirmsmy appreciation and wonder for natural forests.

Mapping the Affects of Forest Therapy

Since the 1980’s studies in Japan (from whence the term Shinrin Yoku derives) have been directed at how and why a visit to a forest imparts a sense of well-being and an accompanying reduction in stress levels. Advances in technology mean that scientists are now able to maphow forests affect us on a molecular level via field tests, hormone analysis, brain-imaging equipment and laboratory testing. And their findings on forest medicine are astonishing: from lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol (the stress hormone), to significantly elevating natural killer (NK) immune cells (a type of white blood cell that destroys tumours and virus-infected cells). Thus forests have been scientifically proven to impact our physical health significantly. The effects on mental health are equally impressive: quiet, non-pressured visits to forests have been shown to boost empathy levels, relieve anxiety and depression, improve concentration and significantly increase problem-solving and creative skills.

Japan is a country of particularly high stress levels and the resultant diseases that unchecked stress causes. So impressed are they with the results of Forest Therapy that it is now integrated into the Japanese National Health Care System. Up to a quarter of the Japanese population participate in Shinrin Yoku each year.

Scientists postulate that the reason for the healing effects of Shinrin Yoku is partly due to our genetic, inherent affinity with Nature. Their studies show that it is not the actual walking that has the therapeutic effects listed above althoughthey do control tests by comparing the physiological results of subjects walking in a city environment: rather it is the quiet, mindful immerging of the self, via the senses, into the forest atmosphere. The healing is in the air (studies have attributed some of the healthful properties to soil compounds like actinomycetes, as well as essential oils released into the air by certain trees and of course the extra high levels of oxygen in a forest environment); the healing is also in the sounds of natural flowing water, bird song and the rustling of the trees in the wind. The greenery of the forest is soothing to the mind as is the lack of technological distractions – cell phones, ipods and other gadgets stay at home. The idea is to be totally present in the moment. But interestingly enough, tests show that even subjects who do not enjoy the actual experience of being in the forest derive benefit from it all the same.

Of further interest is the fact that the effects of Forest Therapy remain active in the body for a considerable amount of time after being in the forest. Immune biologists have run blood tests that show that after a three day stay in a forest, the NK immune cells increased by 40 percent. A month later, the NK count was still 15 percent higher than when they started. Urban walking trips, in contrast, showed no elevation in NK cells. For those that do not have time to allow for a three day retreat to the forest, studies have shown that even after just a single day in the forest, NK cells and anticancer proteins are boosted for at least seven days afterwards.

So convinced is the Japanese Government with Shinrin Yoku that there are now 48 official Forest Therapy trails in Japan – these are set to increase to at least 100 forest sites within the next ten years where the research will continue (since 2004 the government has funded $4 million into this research project).

Scientists involved with the research believe that being around big forest trees offers the greatest benefit. However, other natural landscapes and even house plants are shown to release some of the therapeutic compounds.

How Trees Heal

What is of interest to me is that whilst scientists can track the physiological and psychological effects of Forest Therapy, they don’t seem able to pin down precisely what it is that’s having the overall positive effect. They point to chemical compounds in the air, relaxing vistas of greenery and restful sounds, plus our inherent connection to nature (throughout our evolution, we lived 99.9 percent of our time in nature, and as a result, we are biologically wired to its rhythms). Certainly, all of these have a positive effect on our general well being.

In his book “Blinded by Science”, Matthew Silverstone presents another hypothesis that might further explain, more precisely, how it is that forests and trees have such a healing effect on us. Silverstone consulted hundreds of published scientific papers – some going back to the early 1900’s – that show that it is the vibrations of theelectromagnetic fields of trees that are at the root of the healing experienced. The principles of this are very simple and rest on the fact that everything vibrates; and that everything has its own unique rate of vibration. Different vibrations have different effects on biological behaviour: some are shown to be very beneficial to health: fresh spring water and the company of great old trees for example. Others are not so beneficial – for example mobile phones and computers – the electromagnetic fields that they emit are said to have been linked to recent increases in diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, chronic fatigue and ADHD.

Silverstone’s book provides compelling proof that the vibrational nature of the world around us profoundly affects our state of health. It takes the understanding of how and why Forest Therapy works one step further. It is of interest to me that the scientists involved with the research in Japan highlight that it is the trees in particular that seem to have the greatest power to influence our physical and mental health. Silverstone suggests that when we come into contact with a tree, our vibrations are lifted to resonate with those of the tree. Misaligned vibrations within our electromagnetic field are then reset to their normal, healthy state. To energy healers and practitioners of vibrational healing this will not come as any surprise but what is significant is that now there is the science to back it up. When we understand the practical implications of the vibrational nature of life, “tree hugging” and other concepts such as communicating with plants, trees and animals are seen in a different light and can no longer be viewed as weird and flaky. Indeed, the more we delve into the mysteries of the world around us, the more apparent it becomes that vibrations are at the very heart of the matter.

The Heart of Healing

Speaking of the heart brings me to another important body of work that further deepens our understanding of how we receive, perceive and understand the vibrational messages from the world around us: “The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in Direct Perception of Nature” by Stephen Harrod Buhner. This is perhaps the most important book I have read for through it I understand the process by which I am able to download and assimilate the messages from the trees at Platbos. Guided by the trees themselves, I learnt that the portal to connecting with them was through my heart. Buhner explains the reasons for this beautifully by seamlessly weaving together analytical, cutting-edge discoveries in neuroscience and the complex workings of the heart with poetry and penetrating insights.

I was fascinated to learn that over 50 percent of the heart is made up of neural cells like those found in the brain: it is in fact a brain in its own right and has an electromagnetic field that is five thousand times more powerful than that of the brain. The body is encapsulated within this field that has been measured to extend at least ten feet from the body, but as is the case for all electromagnetic waves, there is no fixed boundary as to how far the heart’s electromagnetic field can travel. It is a constantly shifting, dynamic field that alters in shape in response to both internal and external environments.

Built into the heart is an innate sense of curiosity: it actively searches out other fields it encounters. In addition, heart cells are programmed, from the very start of their creation in the developing foetus, to entrain or oscillate with the heart cells of the mother: the heart beat of the infant seeks to harmoniously synchronize with that of the mother. This tendency of the heart to entrain and find harmony with other electromagnetic fields is thus inherent and continues throughout life.

The heart’s electromagnetic field contains complex frequencies of neurological, biochemical, biophysical, and electromagnetic information which are generated by minute and exact alterations in heart activity. The field thus functions as a dynamic language with encoded information that is communicated from the heart to the body via the blood stream and to the world outside the body via electromagnetic waves. The heart is an extremely sensitive organ of perception – as its electromagnetic waves encounter the electromagnetic field of other organisms (all organisms, plants included, posses an electromagnetic field), a complex exchange of information and energy takes place between the two electromagnetic fields. If the two fields are synchronized harmoniously, even more complex information is processed and significant alterations in the physiological functioning of each organism occurs.

The Language of the Heart

The way in which we perceive these incoming, radiating fields of energy is unique: we experience them as emotions. Whether the electromagnetic field is that of a person, tree or rock, we feel a broad spectrum of emotional impressions that is our experience of the information encoded within the organisms’ electromagnetic field and the subsequent alterations that have occurred within our field. In a similar way to how we perceive colours and tastes, the range of complex emotions we can experience is created through an intricate combination of a few basic emotions: glad, sad, mad and scared. In subtle nuances, these combine to create complex emotional states such as love, jealousy, fear and joy.

By understanding the vibrational nature of the world we live in and the heart’s innate capacity to entrain with the energy fields of other organisms, we gain a deeper understanding of how and why trees and forests bring about such significant changes in our mental and physiological functioning. Trees have been described as “standing meditations”. Still and ancient, grounded in the Earth yet always reaching up to the sun and other heavenly bodies, their electromagnetic fields are both incredibly stable and yet vitally dynamic. It is no wonder that they have such a profound effect on us.

Knowledge of the deeper functioning of the heart is certainly not new. Heart-centred consciousness is our birth right and is a natural state of being. Yet, as modern humans have become estranged to nature, so equally have they become estranged to their own true nature. Fortunately we can reconnect with the intelligence of the heart, and when we do so, a vast new world of possibilities opens up to us. It is not just our physical and mental health that benefit from entraining our heart’s electromagnetic fields with those of the wilderness. When we enter into this new yet ancient state of being, our perception of the world expands in a magical way and the spiritual teachings of the Oneness of the Universe are directly experienced. Just as the ancients first learnt of the medicinal properties of plants and the secrets of the animal world around them, we too can learn firsthand from the plants and animals via the electromagnetic field of our hearts. When we enter into a personal relationship of this kind with Nature, our wonder for the mysteries of life grows and our consciousness continually expands and evolves.

The True Value of Forests

“Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better” ~ Albert Einstein

The scientific verification of the healing powers of Nature is critically important. Our modern world rests on a skewed value system that is essentially based on the exploitation of Nature for financial gain. In this system, both Nature and humanity loose. The Japanese government is leading the modern world in seeing again, through the eyes of science, the inherent value of leaving the natural forests intact. By finding non-extractive ways to use forests yet still deriving great benefit from them, they may well, indirectly, champion the preservation of the world’s forests: As a result of the research in Japan, the South Korean Government is committing over $140 million for a new National Forest Therapy Centre in that country and Finland is following suit with their own research. Soon, Forest Therapy sites will be found the world over.

Of course science has long-ago proven that the health of the entire planet rests on the preservation of what remains of the old-growth forests. Yet humans are prone to self-centredness and an inability to ‘see the wood for the trees’. Hopefully the results of Shinrin-Yoku research will be the final confirmation needed by the world’s policy makers to protect forests: if not for the good of the vast array of wild life that dwell in them, then for the good of humanity. Either way, the science of Forest Therapy is sure to have a positive outcome for the forests.

And perhaps, as more people reconnect with the ancient trees of the forest , their sense of awe will grow in step with their physical well-being, and they will come to ponder, once more, at the wonder of the silent, towering giants that seem to know us better than we know ourselves.