Nature, Science


Most of us feel better when surrounded by nature even if it’s just strolling in the garden around our house. Green spaces filled with grass, trees and vegetation have always attracted the attention of human beings across race, culture and nationality. Nature with its color, perfume and beauty enchants the mind, giving a feeling of freedom. “Kaviguru” Rabindra Nath Tagore has rightly said-

And Joy is everywhere; it is in the earth’s green covering of grass: in the blue serenity of the sky: in the reckless exuberance of spring: in the severe abstinence of grey winter … “

 These days excess carbon dioxide is building up in the earth’s atmosphere due to burning of fossil fuels and rampant industialization, which in turn is contributing to climate change. Trees are known to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, storing the carbon and releasing the oxygen back into the air. Trees provide shade and cool the air around them thereby reducing the ambient temperature. Trees also increase atmospheric moisture by the process of transpiration. Time spent with trees and nature reduces mental fatigue by letting our minds calm down.

In the twenty first century we are surrounded with more technology than human beings have ever been before. Too much of technology has left its effect on our wellbeing by creating anxiety, stress and other adverse health conditions. The question is how can we find a balance and do we have a way out?

 The Japanese are known to spend deliberate time amongst nature (forests) practicing what is called “forest bathing”. The Japanese term for this activity is “Shinrin-Yoku” – “shinrin” meaning forest and “yoku” meaning bath. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries of the  Japan government coined the term “Shinrin-Yoku” in the 1980s . This has nothing to do with bathing in a forest. It refers to spending time in a forest to improve one’s health and wellbeing. The appreciation of nature has been a strong cultural tradition of the Japanese people. Shintoism- the traditional religion of Japan is known as a nature religion. The people of Japan have long understood intuitively that the woods do us good, while distance from nature promotes sickness.

Shinrin-Yoku is not exercise or hiking or jogging. In its purest form it actually involves doing nothing but being in nature, connecting with it through sense of sight, hearing, smell and touch. It may involve choosing a tree one feels drawn to and spending time connecting with it. One may embrace the tree of their choice or connect with it in any other way they feel is best, focusing on opening the senses to note what they see, smell, hear and feel. It is about building a connection with nature by simply taking in the sounds of the forest, its scent, the fresh and clean air playing through the leaves to ease stress and worry, to relax and think more clearly. It is more like an exercise in mindfulness.

Several scientific studies have been carried out to verify the health benefits of the practice of forest bathing. Experiments conducted in forests across Japan have shown that forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol. For the uninitiated, cortisol is the human body’s main stress hormone. Reduction of prefrontal cerebral activity, lower blood pressure and heart rate, stabilizing of autonomous nervous activity, improvement of sleep and cognitive functioning, reduction of ADHD symptoms in children, increased human natural killer activity (activity of immune cells that eliminate virus infected cells and cancer cells) and higher levels of intracellular anti-cancer proteins are the other scientifically verified therapeutic effects of forest bathing trips on humans. Shinrin-Yoku demonstrates significantly positive psychological effects on the human mind suggesting forest environments may have preventive effects on lifestyle related diseases that city environments promote.

To investigate the healing powers of trees and human health benefits associated with spending time with nature, a new branch of medical science called “forest medicine” has been established. An internet search reveals this as an interdisciplinary science belonging to the categories of environmental and preventive medicine. The Japanese society of forest medicine has been operational since March, 2007. The society is actively involved in promoting research on forest medicine and educational training on the practice of forest bathing trips. Their untiring efforts have provided a platform for enterprises, universities and local governments for effectively using forest resources for stress management and promotion of good health conditions.  A visit to the website of International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine (INFOM) reveals that the Japanese government has spent millions funding research and promotion of Shinrin-Yoku. Many Hollywood celebrities and wellness gurus who have adopted the practice in their lives are spreading the word about forest bathing and its benefits.

Most of the current world population is attracted to the city life thereby spending lesser and lesser time with the natural world. But even a few hours of taking in the forest through one’s senses can have real health benefits. For readers who are wondering where to find a forest nearby, the good news is one can forest bathe anywhere – by taking a walk through a park or the garden around the house. A location which is easily accessible with minimum human built structures is suitable.  But, remember to leave your devices (mobile phones, camera) behind.

Set aside few hours from your daily routine and allow nature and greenery to just capture you. Work with the forest as a partner. Breathe in the air slowly to notice its smell. Move slowly keeping in tune with the natural rhythm of the forest. To keep track of your stress levels and other important health parameters you may visit your physician to chart your progress.

So, let’s chalk up a plan to include greenery in our lives to be better prepared physically in fighting contagions and see the benefits getting reflected in our medical bills. HAPPY “FOREST BATHING”. 

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