Eastern practices – such as meditation, t’ai chi, and yoga – have gained great popularity in Western culture during the past several decades. Although these practices differ, they share a common goal in helping individuals to focus attention and be mindful.
As reported in an article published by the Washington Post last week, a newer Eastern therapy practice – Shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” as it sometimes is called – is starting to gain popularity as well. In fact, some have suggested this practice is on a trajectory to become “the new yoga.”
Literally meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere,” Shinrin-yoku originated as a formal practice in Japan in the early 1980s. Whereas other Eastern practices often direct attention toward the body, forest bathing encourages individuals to slow down and notice the beauty of their natural surroundings. In Japan, Shinrin-yoku now plays an important role in preventative medicine and normal medical practice. In some parts of the United States, guided trips are becoming popular, though of course individuals can practice on their own as well.
Some preliminary research suggests that practice of Shinrin-yoku stimulates positive effects, including lower stress and better immune system functioning. It also coincides with research showing many positive effects of time spent in nature.
One possible explanation for these findings is that nature often elicits feelings of awe. In one relevant study, for example, Paul Piff and colleagues randomly assigned some study participants to gaze for one minute at a stand of towering eucalyptus trees, while another group was told to look at a nearby tall building instead. Those who focused on the trees felt more awe and later were more likely to help a person in need, show greater ethical decision-making, and report less feelings of superiority to others.
If it is awe, the benefits of forest bathing shouldn’t be limited to forests. Anything that stretches individuals beyond their ordinary frame of reference – that is vast and overwhelming – is likely to stimulate positive health effects.
In nature, for example, you could sit by a large open area of natural beauty, such as a nearby vista, lake, or river. Perhaps you could behold a local stand of towering trees or the intricate details of flowers around your home. If there is a particular wild animal that lives near you that causes you to stop in your tracks, you could identify when they are most likely to be observed in their natural habitat and go there at that time. A starry night, the northern lights, the rising or setting sun, and the unfolding of a storm all provide opportunities to be awestruck.
The greatest benefit, though, may not come from merely being exposed to such natural settings. Rather, as in Piff et al.’s study, the key may be in relaxing and allowing yourself to be fully absorbed in what most astounds you.
Thankfully, natural beauty is not rare, if only we pay attention. As Aristotle once said, “in all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous.”