Forest Bathing – Shinrin-Yoku: Teaching about Stress Resilience & Immunity during COVID-19

Forest Bathing - Shinrin-Yoku: Teaching about Stress Resilience & Immunity during COVID-19

By: Maggie Reagh

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"I was surprised to learn that Shinrin-Yoku originated from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture in the 1980s…"
Maggie Reagh
TT Author

I first learnt about Forest Bathing a year ago, just before visiting Japan as a faculty exchange for Capilano University in North Vancouver, Canada. I was surprised to learn that Shinrin-Yoku originated from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture in the 1980s (Longhurst & Takemasa, 2018), not from a country like Canada known for its lush forests, vast oceans, and majestic mountains. But after I learnt more about their hectic lifestyle, it made perfect sense that the Japanese people needed to learn the art of relaxation through visiting forests far away from the stresses of a typical urban life.

Forest Bathing on trails near Capilano University, North Vancouver, Canada with visiting Japanese students, March 12, 2020

After completing my faculty exchange research project at Aichi Gakuen, Utsunomiya, and Aoyama Gakuin Universities, where I explored how to create an experiential EAP program for Japanese students visiting Canada, we ran a pilot program for the first time this March at our North Vancouver campus. Every afternoon, we gave our visiting Japanese students a different embodied experience of Vancouver’s culture and communities. We spent our mornings building the language and academic skills needed to maximize each afternoon experience.

When picking the themes for each of the twelve days of classes, one of them had to be Shinrin-Yoku or Forest Bathing. What better place to experience Forest Bathing than on the trails around our North Vancouver Campus at Capilano University?

My theme for the day was Experiencing your Natural Environment: Forest Bathing – Shinrin-Yoku & other Mindfulness Practices for Stress Resilience. That morning I introduced them to the topic through a slide show that included this video on Forest Bathing as well as teaching them some simple mindfulness and yoga practices for developing more stress resilience in everyday life.

One of the important lessons learnt was that by inhaling phytoncides (wood essential oils) from trees, our white blood cell activity increases, leading to greater immunity and reduced levels of cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure (Longhurst & Takemasa, 2018).

We also explored the six steps of Forest Bathing (Longhurst & Takemasa, 2018) before heading out to the forests around our campus to experience it directly:

    1. Leave your devices at home.
    2. Don’t follow a set path.
    3. Engage with the landscape: Identify plants & animals.
    4. Walk in silence: Listen; don’t speak.
    5. Practice Mindfulness: Walking Meditation.
    6. Take regular breaks: Let go of time.

Little did we know that within days, our university would be moving to remote learning and sending these students back to Japan for quarantining, where lessons learnt about stress resilience and improved immunity would become of the utmost importance for protecting their health and wellness in the months to come.

According to Dr. Roger Seheult, M.D., Forest Bathing might be a great way for us to build immunity and decrease stress levels during COVID-19. In a joint study between Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and Stanford University School of Medicine in California (Li et al., 2007), it was demonstrated that by spending only a couple days in a forest we are able to experience increased immunity (about a 50% increase) and decreased stress levels. By taking three two-hour walks of only 2.5 kms each over two days, the blood of subjects during three different studies showed increased immunity factors including increased natural killer cell (NK) activity.

The researchers also found that, after just two days of being away from Tokyo and doing forest bathing, adrenalin levels also decreased significantly from the baseline measures. Since we know that adrenalin, a stress hormone, decreases natural killer cells, stress resilience turns out to be an important factor for protecting immunity as well.

Furthermore, in a follow-up study, Li et al. (2008) also measured how the aromatic compounds called phytoncides released by trees increase immunity and decrease stress hormones for those walking in a forest, compared to those walking in a small city, like Nagoya, without a forest. It seems that the natural aroma therapy provided by the trees’ phytoncides is a contributing factor in the effectiveness of forest bathing walks versus “city tourist visits.” “Forest bathing may contribute to decreased stress and improved immunity, and phytoncides from trees may partially contribute to this effect” (Li et al., 2008, p. 125).

The good news is that it seems from the same follow-up study (Li et al., 2008) that you only need to visit a forest once every seven days (or less) to have some lasting benefit of forest bathing walks to your immune system and stress levels. During recent quarantining, those living in smaller towns seem to be less affected by COVID-19. Dr. Seheult wonders whether this might be related to living closer to nature, where forest bathing might even be a daily experience as it is for most of us in North Vancouver, Canada. Research on forest bathing seems to support this hypothesis at least for those who still get to walk in forests at least once a week.

Our Shinrin-Yoku or Forest Bathing experience at Capilano University turned out to be our last day together before our Japanese students flew back home for quarantining and continued learning online at a safe distance. Despite this unfortunate turn of events, our Japanese students got a taste of a different way of life during their time with us in North Vancouver, Canada. It included cultivating resilience to stress and improving immunity through Forest Bathing, something needed more than ever these days to promote health and wellness.

EXTRA

Harumi Kimura, one of our main contributors, read Maggie’s article before publication and sent us this message:

I am interested in Forest Bathing and found Maggie’s article refreshing.  I think I am experiencing something like that myself.

Under the current COVID-19 crisis, I stay home, but I also walk about 10,000 steps each day. My school, Miyagi Gakuin, has a footpath, or a walkway. I walk to school (20 minutes), enjoy walking along the walkway (40 minutes) taking pictures of small plants, listening to birds singing, and feeling a gentle breeze. After that, I walk back home (20 minutes). For me, it’s like a walking meditation. Walking helps me stay sane in this unusual situation. Also, this has nothing to do with forest bathing, but I felt very stressed last month, wondering why our government wouldn’t start lockdown or whatever measures they should take to prevent the spread of infection. I was mad, upset, and very nervous. I was trembling. My mind was trembling. Then, I started to make hand-made masks for myself, my family, and friends (I made some for our contributor, Marc Helgesen, as well). Somehow, I got back to my usual self and I’m okay now.  Although we are still in the middle of the crisis, I think I’ve calmed down. I’ve got my inner power back.

So, I wonder if there is anything in common between walking in the forest and sewing. I don’t know, but both help me leave anything worrisome behind and enjoy what I have at the moment. For walking, I enjoy the surrounding nature. For sewing, I enjoy creating something for a good purpose. I cannot think of anything else, but the joy, only the joy of being.

References

  • Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Nakadai, A., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Shimizu, T., … & Kagawa, T. (2007). Forest bathing enhances human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology, 20(2_suppl), 3-8.
  • Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Kobayashi, M., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., … & Kawada, T. (2008). Visiting a forest, but not a city, increases human natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology21(1), 117-127.

  • Longhurst, E. N., & Takemasa, R. (2018). A little book of Japanese contentments: Ikigai, Forest Bathing, Wabi-Sabi, and more. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books LLC.

Maggie Reagh, M.A. (TESOL), E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, has been teaching and coordinating EAP programs at Capilano University in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada for almost 25 years, as well as running her own yoga therapist training program for yoga teachers from around the globe for the past 10 years. Her life-long passion has been how to make learning more embodied through experiential and body-based approaches as well as how to integrate lessons learnt from the cognitive sciences into her teaching.

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