A skeptic tries ‘forest bathing’

The Japanese wellness practice is said to generate a slew of health benefits. Does it work?

The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku is about soaking up nature with all your senses. Whereas hiking is usually about reaching a destination, and a nature walk would take an inquisitive look at plants and animals, forest therapy encourages participants to engage slowly and deliberately with nature. Guided forest-bathing sessions typically include deep breathing exercises, suggestions for aspects of nature to focus on, and invitations to share what you’ve noticed.

This mindful approach to nature has interesting health benefits. Research studies in Japan and Italy have shown forest bathing lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol. It increases sleep duration and boosts the number of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that fights infected or tumor cells. There are theories as to why it works, but science has yet to prove them.

In the meantime, the practice continues to spread. Introduced in Japan in the 1980s, it’s now a common custom there, with the government certifying more than 1,700 guides to date. In 2012 wilderness guide Amos Clifford founded the California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, which certifies programs and trains guides.

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