Shinrin-Yoku and The Forest-Spirit Way
A Reflection on Forest Medicine, Wayfaring, and Beyond
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term first coined in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama, the then Director General of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. The Japanese characters, or kanji, that form the word shinrin-yoku literally mean “forest bath”. The term does not mean to take a literal bath in a forest. Instead, shinrin-yoku is a modern, poetic way of referring to a practice developed in contemporary times of immersing oneself, fully, in the atmosphere of the forest for purposes of mental and physical well-being. This sense of “bathing in the forest atmosphere” is a signature phrase of the shinrin-yoku and forest medicine movement. With a few notable exceptions,“forest bathing” (as a contemporary evolution) involves a brief experience in the forest, with an emphasis on the five senses and the various health benefits to the participant (e.g. stress-reduction).
In this essay, I want to briefly discuss shinrin-yoku and some of the scientific findings of forest medicine research. Then, I want to pivot to another consideration, namely, approaching the forest through an even wider aperture than the physical dimension alone.
Spending extended time in forests and mountains was a facet of my own studies and experiences with my late teacher, Darion Kuma Gracen (1949-2007), a wilderness guide, counselor-mentor, educator, amateur naturalist, and a Wayfarer of a unique, syncretic spiritual path. Her path wove together meditation practices from the Far East, methods of “dreaming-while-awake”, a psychodynamic understanding of the soul (influenced by Jungian thought and Dreambody work developed by Arnold Mindell), and an animistic, experiential approach to Nature-connection (resonant with aspects of Japanese Shinto spirituality) that fosters a sense of the numinous (derived from the Latin: numen, arousing spiritual or religious emotion; mysterious or awe-inspiring stirrings; classically speaking, numen: spirit presiding over a thing or space, i.e. that which is perceived and experienced through means beyond the five senses). By including this numinous dimension to the experience of “immersing oneself, fully, in the atmosphere of the forest”, we step into what Kuma-sensei called The Forest-Spirit Way. In the second part of this essay, I would like to explore some of these aspects.
“FOREST BATHING” AND FOREST MEDICINE: THE SCIENCE
Though the concept “forest bathing” may brush across the ear of some as merely a quaint notion, or may even strike some techno-addicted, Nature-avoidant city-dwellers as a downright odd-sounding pastime, the contemporary creation of shinrin-yoku – and the establishment of forest medicine research in general – initially arose as a direct response to two points of concern that Akiyama perceived as being dynamically interrelated; namely, a need to protect Japan’s declining forests, and a way to address the increasing negative health effects he observed in urban Japanese people resulting from both work-stress and an obvious chronic disconnection from natural settings.
Though it will probably sound quite commonsensical to most readers of Wayfarer Magazine in the year 2023, back in the early 80s Akiyama’s logic was visionary and culturally transformative:
If people can experience the health benefits of the forest they are much more likely to protect the forest.
This led to a robust campaign, with full backing of the Japanese government, funding a number of medical studies into the mental and physical health benefits of “taking in the forest atmosphere”. Two of the primary individuals of note in the “shinrin-yoku lineage”, who have been deeply involved in heading up this body of medical and psychological research, are Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing: The Japanese Art and Science of Shinrin-Yoku (subtitle: “How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness”) and Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, author of Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing.
The medical and psychological studies that have been done on the various features of shinrin-yoku, naturally, are expressed in the parlance of science. Here are but a few examples from the dozens of studies that have been completed in the arena of forest medicine research:
“Physiological Benefits of Viewing Nature: A Systematic Review of Indoor Experiments”, H Jo, C Song, Y Miyazaki, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2019
“Physiological and Psychological Effects of Forest and Urban Sounds Using High-Resolution Sound Sources”, H Jo, C Song, H Ikei, S Enomoto, H Kobayashi, Y Miyazaki
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2019
“Sustained Effects of a Forest Therapy Program on the Blood Pressure of Office Workers”,
C Song, H Ikei, Y Miyazaki, Journal of Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 2017
“Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan”, C Song, H Ikei, Y Miyazaki, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2016
“Effect of Forest Walking on Autonomic Nervous System Activity in Middle-Aged Hypertensive Individuals: A Pilot Study”, C Song, H Ikei, M Kobayashi, T Miura, M Taue, T Kagawa, Q Li,
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2015
“Physiological Effect of Olfactory Stimulation by Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) Leaf Oil”, H Ikei, C Song, Y Miyazaki, Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 2015
“The Physiological Effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): Evidence From Field Experiments in 24 Forests Across Japan”, BJ Park, Y Tsunetsugu, T Kasetani, T Kagawa, Y Miyazaki, Journal of Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, 2010
“An Experimental Study on Physiological and Psychological Effects of Pine Scent”, HJ Jo, E Fujii, TD Cho, Journal of the Korean Institute of Landscape Architecture, 2010
“Phytoncides (wood essential oils) Induce Human Natural Killer Cell Activity”, Q Li, A Nakadai, H Matsushima, Y Miyazaki, AM Krensky, T Kawada, Journal of Immunopharmacology and Immunotoxicology, 2006
Suddenly I am hearing my father’s voice say: “Break it down for me, son. What did they find?”
The forest is vital to human emotional/mental health and physical health. The forest is, in fact, a source of preventative medicine, holistically.
Drs. Li, Miyazaki, Ikei, Jo, and others on their teams, have validated, resoundingly, what many of us already know intuitively:
Taking into account the primary foci of their research (including the multi-leveled effect of Nature imagery and Nature sounds on stress regulation — even when indoors, and the effect of what are called “terpenes” in the form of phytoncides, or essential oils of cedar, hinoki cypress, and pine) a few of the highlights from their collective findings is that a two-hour session of forest bathing once-per-month:
significantly boosts the immune system (including cancer-fighting NK cells)
improves concentration and memory (including with dementia)
lowers cortisol (the stress hormone that leads to weight gain and heart disease)
boosts serotonin and decreases both anxiety and depression
reduces blood pressure
drastically improves sleep
lowers inflammation (resulting from breathing in terpenes and negative ions)
The strong evidence of the mental and physical health benefits of shinrin-yoku ultimately led the Japanese government to designate natural areas (and whole forests) for the purpose of the study and practice of forest medicine. As of the writing of this article, there are over 10 dedicated “certified forest medicine bases” or “forest therapy centers” throughout Japan; and, the wide variance of forest bathing research being conducted isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. So, the modern shinrin-yoku movement is alive, well, and spreading (like the roots of its original inspiration) to parts of Canada, Chile, Europe, Finland, and the U.S., where one major urban hospital in Atlanta launched a pilot program in forest bathing for cancer patients in collaboration with a local nature center.
Forest medicine has also influenced South Korea and Sweden (where forest bathing is called samlim-yog and skogsbad, respectively) to prioritize similar standards in research and investments in their citizenry and local ecology as has been done in Japan. According to Dr. Qing Li, Chairman of the Japanese Society for Forest Medicine, and Secretary-General of the International Society for Nature and Forest Medicine: “The South Korean government has spent more than $14 million on a National Forest Therapy Centre, has developed thirty-seven state-run recreational forests, and is training five hundred forest-healing instructors.”
From influencing university studies, and how some psychotherapists work, to the creation of a whole new category of eco-tourism (where a guided forest bathing session can be booked from the comfort of your hotel room or bungalow), the shinrin-yoku movement has branched outward from its initial seed-concept in Japan into a diversity of applications, approaches, books, international training programs, and applied forms of what is now called “forest therapy”. (see Resources below)
Certainly, I am a celebrant of most of this. I’ve personally benefited from the forest medicine research that has taken place and support the research that continues. I am thoroughly convinced that—in the years to come – medical science (through the efforts of forest medicine research) will so clearly prove and convey the vital necessity for humans to be consciously bonded to healthy, thriving landscapes that it will have even deeper impacts, globally, on government priorities, including boosting the discipline of Nature-centric city planning.
That said, as I reflect on my own experiences of connecting deeply with forests, I have to acknowledge that something equally vital is being left out in the overtly scientific approach; something equally as important, equally as present as the invisible forest phytoncides that are of such benefit to our immune systems. I would like to attempt to talk about these features by returning to the signature phrase of the forest medicine movement itself: immersing oneself, fully, in the atmosphere of the forest.
DREAMING WITH THE FOREST: THE FOREST-SPIRIT WAY
“The Universe is our greatest teacher, our greatest friend. It is always teaching us the Art of Peace. Study how the water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Everything—mountains, rivers, plants, and trees – should be your teacher.”
– O Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), Founder of Aikidō
When I think of my own relationship to forests, it often presents itself in the form of memories—memories stored in cells. Memories connected to bare footfalls through sandy creek beds and boot-laced feet moving over rocks and through underbrush. Memories of trails and switchbacks. Memories of bucks stomping ground, coyotes howling, hawks and crows calling from above. Memories of napping in hollows filled with such a cushion of pine needles,…to this day I have yet to sleep as deeply (or been able to find a mattress that approaches the same level of comfort). The earliest memories involve childhood. Time for a poem.
“Little Cowboy, Stumbling”
jumping into mounds of leaves
napping like a deer in pine hollows
breathing deep of the incense
of butterscotch pines
discovering abandoned shells
of cicadas left clinging to a Loblolly
hours observing tadpoles in a woodland pool
sheer delight from “forest-stumbling” —
stumbling upon a hawk feather
stumbling upon a deer skull
stumbling upon a coiled kingsnake
how could I have known, back then,
that this would become my religion?
Later on in time, I would encounter one of the deep teachers of my path: Kuma-sensei (to me), “doña Río” (to some) — a rascally ol’ “tumbleweed” with ancestors like mine – back to Scandinavia, rural England, and Scotland. When I think of her now, a strange, dreamy, archetypal image arises in my awareness: a cross between a cloaked völva (Norse wisewoman), or perhaps a Druid priestess, and a female yamabushi (Japanese mountain-priest ascetic). With a penchant for laughter, word-play, tawny port wine, and New Mexican green chiles, my predominant memory of her is of long stretches of piñon-wind zazen (meditation) under the moon.
Though I spent many an hour wandering through forests as a young man (even skipping high school graduation to consciously mark that “rite of passage” by sitting on “my rock” deep in a North Carolina wood), it wasn’t until I crossed paths with Kuma-sensei that I realized much more fully that Nature is my religion.
“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”
— Frank Lloyd Wright, Nature-inspired architect
This declaration isn’t an overlay, an add-on, or something lifted from some other place. It’s home-grown, cultivated from the heart-mind and soul, but it is cross-cultural. If we go back far enough in any of our ancestral lines, it is universal: Nature-as-sacred presence. All of us hail from people who originally experienced Nature as a numinous reality. Wayfarers in every culture have spoken of mountains as teachers, the forest as a healer. Nature was the original spirituality. Yet, this quality of consciousness and reverence isn’t a level of perception, engagement, or experience that is usually passed on consciously from generation to generation in our modern context. It is an attribute that must be cultivated from within and it is an attribute greatly needed in the here and now.
In the words of Motohisa Yamakage, a 79th generation Shinto priest, author of The Essence of Shinto: “Shinto teaches to revere Great Nature. Nature is the transformation and creation of Kami, therefore the sacredness of Kami dwells within it…The Japanese people have loved and revered Nature as a gift from Kami since ancient times. We have felt that plants and animals, as well as mountains and rivers, have lived with us and have been deeply connected to us. This love and reverence toward Nature is a quality that should be reinstalled in our hearts, if we want humankind and earth to survive the ecological crisis that has resulted from excessive materialism.”
Great Nature (”碃餅, Daishizen in Japanese) wasn’t initially a focus of the dialogue with my teacher. It was an ever-present backdrop, but it wasn’t something articulated until later. Over time, however, it became clear that everything I was studying with her — different forms of meditation, methods of dreaming-while-awake, sacred inquiry, contemplative poetics, time spent in forests (and even caves for brief “dark retreats”) — all existed to facilitate a dual process; a gradual purification, on the one hand, and greater alignment on the other. The purification was a purification of perception; from the inherited Western-enculturated, conditioned-masculine, and the burdened, encumbered “lower-self”. The alignment was one of coming into deeper and deeper levels of connection to Great Nature.
Kuma-sensei’s thoughts on Great Nature can best be summed up with a few key phrases:
Great Nature is a power we can never fully comprehend
We can live in or out of essential alignment with Great Nature; meditation, time in Nature, methods of dreaming or purification methods (like a sauna or misogi, a mental-physical-spiritual purification practice undertaken beneath an ice-cold waterfall) can restore our connection through the somatic doorway of the body
Great Nature is sentient, intelligent, and wise in terms of dynamic energy, sustaining power, and prevalent patterns (symbolized in the dynamic movement in both the ancient symbol known as the mitsudomoe used in Shinto and the Tai Ji /yin-yang in Taoism)
There is a numinous, spiritual dimension to Great Nature that can be transformative for humans
The numinous dimension of Great Nature is restorative to the soul (just as forest medicine can be healing to body and mind through phytoncides, Nature imagery, Nature sounds, and slower rhythms)
We can connect with this numinous dimension of Great Nature because we, too, are part of Great Nature (Shinto tradition says we are children of Kami, thus children of Great Nature; in the Nature writings of C.G. Jung, he speaks of our own psyche being comprised of the same numinous essence as Nature)
We can connect with Great Nature via the five senses but we can also commune, connect, and communicate with Great Nature in ways that are beyond the five senses (and the intellect) through experiences that involve different forms of attention, intuitive perception, and dreaming (an interesting side note: one word in Japanese for dream-visioning is musō (”萭), part of which is constructed of a kanji that combines the radicals for ‘heart-mind and spirit’ (裶), ‘eye’ (棎), and ‘tree’ (椋); it offers something of a practice-hint: to connect with the deeper dream (”), we can go into the trees (椋) to look(棎) with our heart-mind-spirit (裶)
Additional concepts from Shinto tradition can assist us in comprehending the Japanese understanding of a numinous approach to Nature. These concepts are tama ( “soul” or “spirit” 霊) and kokoro (裶). Tama isn’t just a word but is something that is experienced, viscerally and intuitively. Tama is felt, known, and perceived. It is an early Shinto term for spiritual power; a specific type of vital power that is awe-inspiring and leads to a profound sense of connectedness.
Running like an underground river beneath and through all of Japanese spirituality is kokoro (“heart-mind”; or, in the words of Thomas Kasulis, author of SHINTO: The Way Home, another teacher of mine in all things Shinto, kokoro means a “mindful-heart”). This term derives from the term makoto no kokoro – a pure heart of sincerity. Rather than heart-as-object or heart-as-noun (as in the physical heart beating in our chest), kokoro is heart-as-verb, heart-as-energy field that connects with the world in an engaged and responsive way.
Shinto spiritual praxis, in part, consists of connecting with Great Nature at sites known to be kami-filled and tama-charged. A person brings their kokoro (their mindful-heart) into alignment with the spirit of place and this produces a shift in consciousness. The Japanese landscape is filled with markers (such as torii gates, special walkways, and forest shrines) that remind people of the presence of kami and act as holographic entry points for people to experience a reconnection to the numinous. In the words of T.P. Kasulis, “Kokoro is cognition with affect, affect with cognition…To experience the extraordinary, one has to be open to being affectively touched by the phenomenon and its tama.”
Part and parcel of my experiences with Kuma was approaching the realm of Great Nature (usually forests and mountains but also, at times, deserts and arroyos) by employing such expanded senses, what Zurich-trained Jungian analyst Arnold Mindell calls “the dreambody”, and what I have grown to think of as the faculty of soft-attention (a loose, flowing, receptive quality of multi-sensory awareness rather than the hyper-focused concentration emphasized by modernity).
In Mindell’s own words:
“The dreambody is a
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