My entry into "forest therapy" or shinrin-yoku began while I was in Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital and spiritual center with over 1,600 temples and shrines. But like most cities today, Kyoto is densely populated and permeated with power lines, electricity, wifi, and cell phones. As a “highly sensitive person” (HSP) this posed a health challenge for me. The day I arrived my body and mind went into a deeply unwell state and I was unable to get my bearings. Not to be overly dramatic, but my symptoms were intense and compounded by the day — high-pitched tinnitus, shallow breathing, accelerated heart rate, heart pains, brain fog, fatigue, poor sleep, feeling stressed, eating stressed, swollen face, and sporadically losing my sense of balance (without dizziness) from the tinnitus (swollen ear canals), which made walking impossible.
HSP is a trait that runs in an estimated 15-20% of the population in the west and is characterized by high levels of “sensory processing sensitivity,” which relates to the way our nervous systems send information to the brain. Overstimulation happens easily and goes both ways for me — the good is sublime and the bad a living nightmare.
My body has been sensitive to wifi since I started using it, but I had never experienced this degree of environmental sickness before.
Simultaneously and coincidentally, I learned about shinrin-yoku and the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy via their website shinrin-yoku.org. In Japanese shinrin-yoku means “forest bathing” or immersing oneself in the forest with one's senses fully engaged for a range of physical and mental health benefits, including lower heart rate. Japan and South Korea are at
the forefront of Forest Therapy research and have integrated it into their health care with designated Forest Therapy trails and parks. Millions of people visit these places annually for stress relief and preventative health care.
Our bodies are designed to heal themselves and can better do this when supported by nature. I was ripe for this discovery and imagine that many other people, especially HSPs, are suffering from environmental illness caused by our modern world and are unaware of this simple, highly effective antidote: Nature.
Discovering shinrin-yoku resonated so deeply with me that I applied for a guide training course with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and immediately started healing myself with Nature.
up at the gentle movements of the trees and the clouds in the sky, listened to the birds, marveled at the purple flowers in bloom everywhere, took deep breaths of cool cypress air, stretched in whatever ways my body wanted, and thoroughly enjoyed simply being there.
After an hour or so my nervous system was calmed, my mind felt clearer and refreshed, and I had enough energy to face the day. My sleep improved too. Nevertheless, I was still being “zapped” every day in the city and could not fully recover my health. I need better health care, which meant nature — Big Nature — and so I went to Yakushima.
A small island off southern Japan, Yakushima is home to some of the country's most rare and pristine forests. Over 90% of Yakushima is forest land in both subtropical and alpine zones, lending it a dramatic, lush, otherworldly feel. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme, Yakushima is home to over 1,900 species
and subspecies of flora, including rare varieties of moss and over 50 varieties of endemic flowers. The island is also home to one of the oldest trees in the world, Jomon Sugi, a type of Japanese cedar known as yakusugi, estimated to be between 2,600 to 7,200 years old. Yakushima's forests are jungles of yakusugi covered in moss, with many young trees growing on the stumps of fallen ones, and some trees have shapes resembling humans and animals. In the midsts of these forests one feels a sense of mystery and presence, perhaps the nature spirits or kami that live there. In popular culture, Yakushima is the inspiration for Princess Mononoke, Japan’s most famous anime film by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki that tells the tale of a gigantic forest spirit who saves the land from human greed and destruction. In all, Yakushima has nearly 19,000 acres of preserved forest, three huge waterfalls, ocean hot springs, coral reefs, preserved beaches for endangered turtles, indigenous monkeys and deer, nature parks, museums, and a handful of artsy guesthouses and cafes. Yakushima is well-known in Japan and about 300,000 people visit annually for camping, trekking, nature watching, and shinrin-yoku.
a walk in a laboratory. The participants in this study also felt invigorated and in a better mood after walking in nature.
Subsequent studies with larger groups have confirmed that spending time in nature lowers stress (cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure), boosts our immune systems (including our "natural killer" cells that fight cancer), and increases positive feelings, mental clarity and creativity. In other words, studies have proven that nature calms the nervous system and strengthens our bodies and minds.
The entire island of Yakushima was a shinrin-yoku experience for me. The air was like a fresh forest bath scented with tropical flowers, and I immediately felt calmer, lighter and refreshed. My hostel was in a forest area and had only one wifi connection, and the first night I slept better than I had since arriving in Japan. Five days in Yakushima restored my health and good spirits.
I was able to breathe long, deep breaths again, my nervous system stabilized, and my mental and physical energy returned. After returning to Kyoto I resumed daily shinrin-yoku and barefoot grounding in the forest, which saved my health and my trip from total disaster. For this I am deeply grateful to Dr. Miyazaki and his colleagues, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, and the many others around the world who are working to understand and promote nature therapy as a viable form of health care. This was my journey into shinrin-yoku — totally unexpected and wonderful — and today I am on the path to becoming a certified Forest Therapy Guide.
her forest therapy website, shinrin-yoku-walks.com, will launch in August 2016.
Princess Mononoke tells the tale of a gigantic forest spirit who saves the land from human greed and destruction. To watch the trailer of Japan’s most famous anime film inspired by the island of Yakushima click the image below.