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GUEST COLUMNIST: Greening Your Health: The Benefits of Forest Bathing

The San Diego Botanic Garden's Bamboo Garden is a good choice for forest bathing.

By Rhana Kozak.

In 2015, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs began its work in the United States. That spring, I attended their guide training presented by the association's co-founder, Amos Clifford, at the renowned Morton Arboretum near Chicago.

We reviewed and analyzed research papers on shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, being conducted in Japan’s hinoki cypress forests. We also enjoyed daily ‘forest baths’ among 100-year-old elms, maples and oaks. Each activity was presented as an invitation to engage in a state of open rediscovery of nature’s luminance, colors, shapes, textures, scents temperature, sounds, interconnections, and air movement. Wisely, we were cautioned about poison ivy and asked to be considerate of this living environment. To our amazement, we all experienced the natural world in dimensions that began dissolving the imaginary gap between the forest and us. There’s just one caveat—the mosquitoes were plentiful and their presence was not conducive to relaxation! That dimension sent me running to the sporting goods store for a full body net!

In Japan, nearly eighty forests are certified for forest bathing, or forest medicine, as it is now known. Beginning in the early 2000s, Dr. Qing Li, of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, led research studies on the positive physiological changes that result from forest bathing. The data shows that forest medicine can help address many modern lifestyle health issues, including high blood pressure, stress, cardiovascular health, elevated blood sugar, depression, excess weight, and immune system imbalances.

It's no surprise that shinrin-yoku is emerging worldwide as a ray of sunshine for the overworked, chronically-stressed, and digitally-driven people who are indoors 98% of the time! (Most Americans spend less than five hours outside every week.) Bathing or relaxing in a natural atmosphere for as little as fifty minutes activates the parasympathetic nervous system (tend and mend) and calms the sympathetic nervous system (flight and fight). The ‘side effects’ of this practice include increased cognition, creativity, and productivity! In Japan, shinrin-yoku is prescribed by physicians and included in corporate health plans.

Fortunately, these positive effects are not limited to the hinoki cypress ecosystem found in Japan. Gardens, parks, and natural areas worldwide potentially provide a sensory entourage of ‘medicinal’ influences. Site certification is based on air temperature, humidity, luminosity, air current, sounds, presence of phytoncides (aromatic volatile substances produced by plants and linked to improved immune system function), sense of safety, ease of access, and aesthetics.

If you'd like to enjoy the benefits of shinrin-yoku, you can attend a monthly guided forest/nature bathing experience at the San Diego Botanic Garden.

Rhana Kozak is an entrepreneur in partnership with Nature. She began with her own floral boutique in La Jolla, followed by co-founding and operating her award-winning health spa, GAIA. Serving as a board member of the Green Spa Network, Rhana provided national leadership in the “greening” of the hospitality industry. Today, she is the founder of Nature Reconnection, which provides personal and corporate programs.

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