The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku -“forest bathing”

CBC tapestry Sunday radio show this last week featured a story about Bruce Sweet, a retired United Church minister, who inadvertently became a certified “forest therapist”.  He later realized this was a formalized practice from Japan called “shinrin-yoku”, translated as “to take in the forest atmosphere”.  It was developed in the 1980s and has been linked to benefits such as reduced stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus, increased energy levels and improved sleep.

Now Bruce leads people on walks through the forest, and teaches them how to walk very slowly in silence, and to become more aware and deeply tune into their forest surroundings.  He helps people to listen to the sounds, to notice the colours and light and shade, to perceive the sensation of the air around and feeling of the ground beneath them. People emerge from a walk like this spiritually restored.

ATP ficus tree featured prominently at the entrance

For many of us, this experience happens naturally as we enter a landscape like a forest, especially one with a canopy that surrounds us and it removes us from the sounds and sights of the city streets. But in reality, nowadays a walk in the woods does not guarantee relaxation and connection.  In our busy schedules and attachments to our cellphones that can direct so much of our attention, any walk, be it in the city or the forest, can pass us by without notice. One needs to be mindful and intentional about noticing the surroundings, to get the effects of nature.

As a child my extended family would often meet at my maternal grandmother’s home – a small house overlooking the ocean from a cliff on Vancouver Island.   We always felt restored after visiting her. I realized while listening to this CBC’s Tapestry last Sunday, that my grandmother was sort of a “forest therapist” who taught us something akin to the Japanese practice of “shinrin-yokin”.  When she died, and our family sold her home, I was worried that we had not only lost our grandmother, but we had lost something more essential – a spiritual connection that I perceived when I was on her land.

I was wrong.  Over the years I have found this connection to nature – it is close by all the time.  A walk in the forest or in a prairie field is very immersive – it does something to the mind if you are open to it.  It connects us to something bigger than humanity and our human worries – something we belong to so critically and essentially.  A walk in the forest not only can relieve stress; for me, it offers a perspective that is broader in time and meaning than the issues my mind may be struggling with.  Indeed, this can affect my mood, my resilience, my compassion for myself and others, and my health and happiness.

And this is why I emphasize plants in my clinic….this is not just for you, my dear clients (many of you really like and enjoy the plants, helping you relax before or after the treatment!).  This is for me also.  Here we help you slow things down.  Here we offer a bit of nature too.   When you come to visit my clinic, I am sharing with you a little of what my grandmother helped me to see.

Gord Grant