The famous Scottish writer Robert Lewis Stevenson wrote that the forest “captivates people’s hearts not so much with its beauty as with beautiful air, the emanation of old trees, something elusive that changes and restores a tired spirit so wonderful.”
The forest has long been considered a great place to put thoughts in order.
But the simple walks through the woods that Stevenson so often made have become rare today.
However, if the former wilderness guide Amos Clifford, who established the Natural and Forest Therapy Association in 2012, succeeds in realizing his idea, the situation could change.
Forest baths closer to contemplative practices
He created his group of forest therapy for one purpose – to preach a new method of disease prevention, known as “forest baths”.
This poetic term refers to the perception of the atmosphere of the forest by all five senses.
“The difference between this method and other forms of familiarization with nature – for example, from hiking – is that the forest baths are closer to contemplative practices,” Clifford explains.
For one such walk through the woods in Sonoma County, near the US city of San Francisco in California, a group of 6-15 participants can walk for three hours less than a kilometer.
This is due to the fact that the goal of forest baths is to slow down the flow of thoughts and processes in the body and forget about the electronics around us.
According to a recent study by the American venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins, the average American spends 9.9 hours daily staring at a TV, tablet, smartphone or computer.
In China, the Philippines and Indonesia, even more alarming indicators are recorded.
Some are already starting to worry that we are becoming slaves to technology – instead of being their masters.
A walk in the park helps reduce blood flow to the area of the brain responsible for generating heavy thoughts.
During a regular therapeutic walk in the woods, where the use of technology is completely discouraged (but not prohibited), Clifford asks the participants a series of questions that help them switch.
What smells of raw land? What is tree bark to the touch? Do you hear the noise of the wind in the treetops?
“We have developed a kind of disease of the time: we seek to increase the effectiveness of every moment,” Clifford argues.
Having plunged into the atmosphere of the forest, you can reboot your nervous system, turning your body into a healing mechanism.
This may seem like a pseudoscience invented by lovers of tree hugging, but now there is growing evidence that staying in a forest belt does have a noticeable effect on the human body, starting with lowering blood pressure and ending with energy surges and effective help in combating depression.
A study conducted in 2015, researchers of the Stanford University (USA), shows that a walk in the park helps to reduce blood flow to areas of the brain responsible for generating the heavy doom (scholars argue that this state of mind is much more common in the urban population).
Similar studies show that adults who regularly walk among greenery have a higher level of concentration and are much less prone to depression.
The late chief executive of American technology corporation Apple Steve Jobs was known for having meetings while walking.
Recently, more and more senior employees from Silicon Valley firms and other large companies have turned to forest baths not only as a way to relieve stress, but also as a tool for doing business.
How did we get to the point that someone dubbed a walk in the woods a “bathtub” and sold it to us as a means to improve well-being?
The answer to this question is partly in changing the demographic situation on the planet.
According to the United Nations Population Division, urban population worldwide has grown from some 746 million in 1950 to as much as 3.9 billion in 2014.
Lee found that prolonged stays in the forest reduce stress hormone cortisol.
Thus, now more than half of the world’s population lives in urban conditions, far from nature, and once a habitual walk in the fresh air today is not so simple to organize.
Japan is most familiar with this problem on its own experience, where 93% of the population is concentrated in cities.
Incidentally, the term “forest baths”, or “sinrin-yoku”, was proposed in 1982 by the Japan Forestry Administration.
This technique is rooted in ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices and is one of the main areas of disease prevention in a country whose government has invested more than $ 10 million (650 million rubles) in research in this area over the past decade, says Qing Li, a teacher at the Japanese School of Medicine in Tokyo and chairman of the Japan Forest Medicine Society.
“The effect is about the same as that of natural aromatherapy,” he explains.
Trees and other plants exude biologically active aromatic substances known as volatile, which, according to Lee, strengthen our so-called natural killer cells, which are necessary to protect against diseases.
In addition, Li found that a prolonged stay in the forest helps to reduce the level of stress hormone – cortisol, while increasing the vitality and mental energy of a person.
Meet me in the woods
Japan is not the only country sharing the idea that the forest can be a good helper in disease prevention.
The Korean Forest Service plans to equip 34 public healing forests and open two forest treatment centers by 2017, and in the Scandinavian forest-rich Scandinavia, the Finnish government is sponsoring a special working group to study the role of forests in medicine.
This Finnish group was established in 2007 and is called upon, among other things, to increase the number of trees near schools and offices.
Many companies conclude agreements with the nearest forest therapy facilities for meetings, introductory briefings for new employees or stress management events.
But still, most of the specific data on the benefits of forest baths still comes from Japan, where visitors to forests often fill out questionnaires or agree to an analysis of biometric indicators.
Those places where a positive effect on the level of stress was recorded are called here the bases of forest therapy.
At the moment, there are 62 of them in the country, and many are located near large cities, contain a staff of instructors and maintain contacts with medical institutions.
According to Lee, these bases have become especially popular in Japanese business circles.
“Many companies conclude agreements with the nearest forest therapy facilities for meetings, introductory briefings for new employees or stress management activities,” says the scientist.
Hiroshi Mikitami, head of the large electronic company Rakuten in Tokyo, does not use any of the bases on an ongoing basis, but is known for taking walks in the countryside with the top management of the company.
This trend is also gaining popularity on the other side of the Pacific Ocean – in the US state of California.
Clifford says that he has licensed several organizational development consultants, who now work with the most prominent high-tech companies in the United States, including Google and Facebook, as part of the Instructor Training Program of the Association of Natural and Forest Therapies keeping legalities in consideration.
He also has a contract with a network of Santa Rosa schools in California that are planning a pilot project for stress teachers and with the Kaiser Permanente hospital that wants to arrange outings for their doctors.
Recipe for a walk in the park
Learning about the results of research, more and more medical workers recommend outdoor trips to their patients as a means of combating digital addiction and treating depression.
We are in a hurry to prescribe medication or refer the patient to a specialist, but in fact, the cause of the problem is largely in the lifestyle
So, in the USA, the national Park Rx project was organized, where the population can improve their health by reuniting with nature – as part of the project, residents are prescribed recipes for visiting public parks.
Park Rx Program Consultant Robert Zarr considers parks an underutilized resource that doctors undeservedly neglect.
Often, “we are in a hurry to prescribe medication or refer the patient to a specialist, but in fact the cause of the problem is largely in the lifestyle,” he explains.
Similar systems of “green recipes” also exist in Australia and New Zealand, and in the south-west of England, in the areas of Dartmoor and Exmoor in the county of Devon, a beta test of their own program for three years has recently begun.
Zarr believes that the seed has fallen on good soil, and the movement for reunion with nature is finally beginning to take root.