By Keith Badger
The term Shinrin-yoko, which translates in English as Forest Bathing, was coined in 1982 by the Japanese government in part as a corrective therapeutic action to a then recognized public health crisis. Based upon ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices that resonate with many contemporary Eco-therapies, the main gist of it appears to involve taking into our body while walking the "forest's atmosphere" via our 5 outward senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting). As documented health and relaxation benefits have become so numerous, today's practice of forest bathing has become a mainstream phenomenon and socially prescribed therapy worldwide.
The practice is pretty simple, yet the key to the physiological benefits rests on consciously taking in the natural environment. That means we have to be more mindful of where we are than we usually are in our daily breathless and stressed-out, hectic day! During these days of human social distancing and stay at home quarantining, it may just become the activity of choice for all who are looking to clear their heads of the worry & stress-induced from our own current worldwide health crisis. The current slow it down, pedestrian mode of imposed movement has appeared to work quick wonders with clearing our most congested urban areas polluted atmospheres, why would it not work clearing our own?
New scientific understanding of forest dynamics points to an 'intelligence' within the natural order that dictates a dynamic of interactive relationships moving toward equilibrium and wholeness. The proverbial wisdom of nature! Just as impressive, yet much more alarming is that scientific research likewise notes a lack, and diminishment, of any such intelligence within humans. The human/nature disconnect. Nature-Deficit Disorder (NDD), a term introduced in 2005 by Richard Louv, although not recognized as a medical condition, is being backed up by research such as that being pioneered by the University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan with their Attention Restoration Theory. The long and short of their argument is that time spent in nature does have a direct effect on human attention, intelligence, and overall health. Again, a real key here is the development of human 'attention' toward understanding our need for reconnecting to the world of nature.
It really isn't such a radical or newfangled foreign idea; we have long been privy to this wisdom of the wilds since the human came down from the trees long ago! The bipedal gait freed our thinking, and possible consciousness, from many mundane survival needs, and many great thinkers have espoused the wonders of taking a walk. From the Peripatetic School of ancient Greece to every walker coming off the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trail, the joys of walking--for pleasure, for health, and for serenity--is experienced ingrained into one's understanding. The world at 3 miles per hour is good medicine!
John Muir knew it, as did Henry David Thoreau. The latter, in his classic essay Walking emphasizes the status of being a right walker--a "saunterer"--as coming as “a direct dispensation from heaven"--or a real gift from nature. He likewise states that "no wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence that are the capital in this profession." One must be "born" into “the family of Walkers," or in other words, we must re-create ourselves! Thoreau says he usually goes to the woods and fields in his walks, as there is a subtle magnetism within nature that will "guide" him, and us, right. Nature is not indifferent to the way we walk through, as there is a "right way," and "we are very liable for heedlessness and stupidity to take the wrong one. Thoreau was anxious to "improve the nick of time," and "to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment. I believe that it is in being in the present moment, in becoming reconnected to the healing elements within nature, we likewise heal ourselves. When walking in this mindful fashion--taking in the forest atmosphere via my 5 outer senses--I come to the inner "sense of balance" where my "sense of self" is bathed in the leisure, freedom, and the resulting independence that Thoreau so eloquently speaks to. A place where balance and health become restored.
Forest bathing, or taking in the "forest's atmosphere," is a timely common-sense practice that would do us a world of wonder in these pandemic stricken days. There have been many "silver linings" discovered during these past months, and the key to holding onto the wisdom gained through our difficult passage is to remember and be mindful of the lesson learned. Nature Rx for nature-deficit may be the latest wisdom coming to us from science as well as the most active socially prescribed therapy coming to us from a growing number of physicians. Still, we become part and parcel of the cure. We too must remember, as well as hold the wish contained within these words:
“The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains – mountain dwellers who have grown strong there with the forest trees in Nature’s workshops.”
Keith Badger, the father of Urban Moonshine Herbalist, Aisling Badger, is a naturalist, outdoor educator, mountain man, and gardening enthusiast living in the woods of New Hampshire. Early involvement in the Scouting movement and the discovery of the works of Henry David Thoreau sealed his fate forever. Upon his graduation from High School, he did a quick year and a half of college before transferring into what he would always term FFU or Far Flung University. The next eight years found Keith living out of a backpack and tramping the globe. Six of those years were spent roaming deep into the wilderness strongholds of North America, walking the Appalachian Trail, and discovering the backcountry of our country’s National Parks and National Forests. Two years were spent long walking through Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. He re-enrolled into the more sedentary and conventional pursuits of academia, receiving his BS in Environmental Biology and MST in Environmental Studies before discovering his passion for teaching what John Muir would call “The Gospel of Nature.”
With over 35 years of teaching experience at the university and high school levels, Keith continues to create and implement experiences that get youth connected to the natural world and to forge a living relationship that will serve them in their journey of becoming a full human being.