Although people can’t change the fact that stress occurs in daily life, they can work on their response to the situations that cause it. Sometimes self-care can be as simple as stepping outside and taking a breath.
Forest bathing, a practice in which a person simply spends time amidst the trees, has been getting more attention as an opportunity to enhance the immune system and support emotional well-being. Research on this practice, which began in Japan during the 1980s, referred to it as shinrin yoku, representing the concept of immersion in the forest. The translation as “forest bathing” can be misleading as this is actually a fully clothed activity!
A helpful way to understand the concept of forest bathing is to frame it as “mindfulness in nature.” This is a practice that nurtures well-being with the simple invitation to be present moment-to-moment in a gentle, nonjudgmental way, allowing clients to open their senses to fully experience the natural world.
At Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, our guests have visited the resort to immerse themselves in nature and rejuvenate their bodies, minds and spirits for more than 150 years. Although forest bathing is considered newer to some, people have actually been practicing mindfulness in nature for ages. It helps refresh their systems, allowing them to return to daily life better equipped to conquer obstacles. Forest bathing is not only a great way to gain a deeper appreciation of nature, but it also helps reduce stress and improve overall well-being.
Forest bathing has been extensively researched in Japan and is linked with health benefits such as increasing fat loss, combatting depression symptoms and more. Studies have shown that when people are immersed in nature, their breathing slows and they experience greater concentration. With regular practice, forest bathing can also help clients remember how to activate that peace of mind—even when they’re indoors—anytime they’re faced with a stressful situation.
Being outdoors has physical benefits, as well. Some research, including a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study published in Environmental Health and Protective Medicine (2009), has indicated that when someone spends time outside, they’re exposed to phytoncides, which are volatile, antimicrobial compounds produced by plants and trees to protect themselves from harmful insects and germs. Time spent immersed in these phytoncides, combined with the decreased production of stress hormones, can boost immunity in addition to improving someone’s overall well-being.
In addition, simply walking slowly outdoors and focusing on breath while taking in the surrounding smells, sights, textures and sounds naturally supports relaxation and makes people feel more centered.
Nina Smiley, PhD, director of mindfulness programming at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, holds a doctoral degree in psychology from Princeton University. She is the coauthor of The Three Minute Meditator and Mindfulness in Nature, as well as the CD “Mini-Meditations That Will Enhance Your Life.” Smiley has studied mindfulness with Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of Insight Meditation Society, among others. She delights in sharing insights about meditation and wellness, and her work has been featured in numerous renowned publications.