The roots of forest bathing

Shutterstock3DMI, antart
Popular interest in “forest bathing” is spurring an evolution in the understanding of links between personal, communal and ecological well-being.

Editor's note: As more companies look to incorporate biophilic principles into building design, the concept of "forest bathing" is rising in popularity as a way for busy professionals to recharge and reconnect with nature. The full version of this article appears at Terrapin Bright Green.

By 2050, 75 percent of the world’s projected 9 billion people will live in cities and, in all likelihood, face significantly degraded environmental quality. Elevated incidence and duration of high heat coupled with increased air pollution and higher pollen counts are projected to increase deaths due to respiratory and cardiovascular illness.

Although not a replacement for well-maintained infrastructure and competent civic organizations, investing in urban ecosystem services will help attenuate these threats. Planners are increasingly attuned to the social, emotional and cognitive benefits of using nature and natural design cues.

As Tim Beatley has written, a biophilic city "puts nature first in its design, planning, and management; it recognizes the essential need for daily human contact with nature" at regional, municipal, building and resident-specific scales, ideally in a way which mimics the richness and interconnected vibrancy of an ecosystem.

When we think about landscape holistically — ecologies and biomes as the supportive framework within which we live and breathe, with streets and social networks and commerce as interstitial tissues determining flows — we rediscover through biophilic design an expression of space, place and time that is authentic. In an era increasingly characterized by displacements from geographical refugees to digital nomads with opaque identities, authenticity is at the heart of social medicine and trees are agents of authenticity in the public realm.

Medicinal trees

Trees and forests have particularly well-documented health benefits in urban settings. A recent study found that street trees, in particular, had more impact on perceived benefits to health and well-being than private backyards or courtyards; this startling finding, coupled with their well-known role in creating more temperate microclimates and filtering urban pollutants, reinforces the critical contribution of public canopies to equitably healthy urbanism. 

Throughout the world, trees contribute to healthy environments through the synergy of social narratives, physical structures, ecological functions and biochemical emissions. In Japan, mature stands of Hinoki and Sugi are thought to emit beneficial phytoncides that lower blood pressure, increase production of natural killer (NK) cells, and improve mood. Neem trees are the local "pharmacies" of many rural Indian communities, supplying everything from soap to anti-parasitic compounds to bug-resistant thatching.

The importance of the tree is most evident in hospital courtyards where patients were traditionally directed to recuperate beneath their leafy boughs. In Finland, stands of birches supply everything from the switches used in saunas to medicinal teas to soothing glades in therapeutic "Power Forests." These are but a few examples of the ways in which trees are believed to contribute to health, all informed by local practices, beliefs about the body and cultural attitudes towards nature.

Forest therapy programs in Asia

The unforgiving hardscape of many urban centers drives nature-therapy hungry residents to the hinterlands in search of restoration. Park prescription programs have taken off worldwide, with precedents in Asia serving as models for the integration of forests into national healthcare practice.

In Japan, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries developed the term "shinrin-yoku" or "forest bathing" in 1982 to describe "making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest"; today, shinrin-yoku is practiced at 62 Forest Therapy Bases (FTB), with as many as 100 ultimately envisioned across the archipelago. As with any successful practice, it thrives precisely because it has a culturally deep and economically distributed support system. For centuries, complex systems of silviculture were used to nurture groves of Sugi and Hinoki cypress trees, among others, to meet the colossal needs of Japan’s ceremonial and vernacular architecture. The architectural emphasis on aromatic woods with distinctive grains created a culture that privileged the sensory contributions of trees.

In the 20th century, Japan’s need for forest products was increasingly (and unsustainably) outsourced to its Asian neighbors and beyond. Efforts to stoke interest in well-managed native stock led the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute to conduct research in the late 1970s and 1980s into phytoncides. These compounds are produced by live trees as defensive or signaling agents but are also present in resin and have been associated with improvements to mood, immune function and blood pressure.

A neem tree
Nuk2013

A neem tree.

Mature aromatic Sugi and Hinoki forests, such as those found at the FTB in Nagano prefecture, are among those considered rich in bioactive compounds and thus ideal for therapeutic exposure. Each base develops an identity rooted in its most prominent ecological characteristic.

More compelling still is the way in which access to bases is facilitated by partnerships. Not all bases track the demographics of visitors, but those that do report two broad categories of attendance: older retirees whose goals include fitness, leisure, and socialization; and workers, predominantly younger and female, who attend through subsidized shain ryoko or company trips. In some cases, visits may include optional "health checks," which range from complementary therapies (including dietary management, "forest yoga" and aromatherapy) to biometric tests such as the measurement of blood pressure and heart rate. The "health checks" are not standardized across or within bases, and the data is rarely transmitted to external medical practitioners.

Concerns about proven clinical efficacy or employee privacy do not prevent companies from supporting visits. Indeed, municipalities often partner with companies, reinforcing connections between modes of production and regional talent or resources. The Linan FTB has agreements with 25 companies and organizations including Nissan Motor Company and Mazda Motor Corporation. Other bases reported partnerships with a policeman’s union, a juku or "cram school," and a music conservatory. In Japan, local populations and those who have a subsidized attendance through a company or clinic are most likely to visit an FTB.

Aspects of Japanese forestry practice arrived in Korea at the start of the last century through extensive resource extraction and subsequent reforestation. The Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910 stripped mountain flanks of timber, and subsequent wars reduced what remained as people scavenged for fuel. Regeneration started in earnest in 1960, where nearly 2.5 million individual Hinoki trees planted in the Jangseong forest alone for their speedy growth and pest resistance. Half a century later, Jangseong is a jewel — one of the most ambitious forest medicine programs in the world.

The National Assembly enacted the Law on Forest Welfare Promotion in 2015 to provide an institutional base for promoting systematic "forest welfare services" customized by life stage from cradle to grave. These activities include but are not limited to cultural, recreational, educational, and therapeutic services at 34 national healing forests.

The Korea Forest Service is also tasked with facilitating the training of 500 "Forest Healing" instructors and plans generate comprehensive medical research on forest healing through interdisciplinary approaches with a shared database across the 34 sites.

Evolving American approaches to forest bathing

Back in the United States, popular enthusiasm for the health benefits of time in nature has grown exponentially; proponents have described the forest bathing trend as analogous to "where Yoga was 30 years ago." Federal and state agencies, professional groups, non-profits and insurers are among those that actively support initiatives to connect people with nearby nature through education, recreation, and parks prescription programs (PDF).

However, a critical difference in our American experience is the lack of a centralized administrative organization or authority charged with consolidating research and guiding the integration of therapeutic natural areas into managed care protocols. Progressive examples include the Green Road project where forests are incorporated in treatments at one of the leading U.S. military trauma treatment centers, and the Wounded Warrior project, where veterans can rediscover their resilience in natural settings.

The theme of "access to nature for health" has been taken up by ad hoc partnerships in many settings. Clinicians, insurers and employers interested in a crisp "dose-response" relationship or a "return on investment" analysis have had to content themselves with a somewhat fuzzy yet consistent value proposition, one maybe initially foreign. They find a willing partner in the U.S. National Park Service’s Healthy Parks Healthy People program which works tirelessly to advance the role of parks, public lands and waters in promoting health.

Kuguri-sugi in Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine Yakushima Island, Japan.
aido

Kuguri-sugi cedar tree in Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine Yakushima Island, Japan.

Nature and health programs can struggle with perceptions of exclusivity. The diversity of the American population means that we come to nature from a wide variety of cultural, linguistic and historical backgrounds. Although forest bathing is often compared to yoga because both practices foster contemplative time and restorative movement, the analogy is misleading for two reasons. First, while yoga is notionally suitable for anyone, it’s often practiced in this country as part of a bespoke wellness regimen that is not available to everyone. Second, the deep spiritual teachings embedded in the practice of yoga are often obscured by a popular culture of wellness and commodification; it would be unfortunate if therapeutic exposure to nature were to develop in this way.

There may, however, be one unexpected way in which yoga and forest bathing have a similar orientation. Patanjali’s yoga sutras tell us that "when the fluctuations of consciousness cease we have the experience of our true nature." The sutras refer to the drastuh, or ‘witness consciousness,’ as achieved through release of attachment to our minds, bodies and emotions, allowing us to embody our true nature and prepare for death.

Put another way, the Dalai Lama is quoted as having said "awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are useless." This type of introspection is also very well facilitated by the ageless and expansive qualities of time in nature. 

At this moment in history, any terrain that you have had the gift of knowing becomes your Walden Pond, and you may be aware of your capacity to witness ecological changes great and small, including extinction, like Thoreau. To paraphrase Baba Dioum’s famous quote, "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand." And to understand something, we must strive to release ourselves and know it on its own terms. We must fend off the reduction of mindfulness practices to just another expression of personal fitness, because the world badly needs both witnesses as well as champions.

Likewise, insofar as biophilic design is ambient in a culture of wellness linked with privilege, the practice must not relinquish its power to create true change in human experience. The practice must accommodate individuals and communities of all socio-economic backgrounds, dispositions and abilities. In addition to more traditional health services, the availability of safe, accessible and well-maintained nearby nature is a critical component of environmental and social health, one that should by right be available to every resident.

Building resilience through access to nature

Cultivating resilience is a key buzzword in all professions that are alert to the looming specter of climate change, particularly at the intersection of forestry science and public health. From the international community, we can observe the integration of forests into perceptions and practices related to health; our own national experience is still evolving.

Biophilic design differs from but corresponds to the same impulses that spur interest in forest bathing: a concern for personal and communal wellness, ecology and resilience in the face of climate change. Climate change-related disruptions in plant metabolism and behavior will shake our foundational reliance on ecosystem services and therapeutic nature. At the level of the truly tiny — epigenetic expression of DNA, microbiome characteristics — nature and natural design cues play an important role.

The promise of biophilic design is a livable future, one that acknowledges our need for refuge while at the same time honoring the ways in which the human habitats we create must exist in dynamic and respectful exchange with their surroundings. People who are aware on a daily basis of how nature supports their wellbeing are more likely to respond to changes in environmental quality and health. Biophilic design improves resilience to climate change-related health threats and provides a platform for regenerative built environments. Whether in places found or made, the thing I would hope for is this: the empowerment of witnesses and champions, one project at a time.

This story first appeared on: