As the work of humans becomes increasingly urban-bound and technology-driven, so is our need to reconnect with nature. It’s no wonder that the increasingly popular therapy of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” was developed by the forestry service of Japan, a country where nearly 91% of the population is concentrated in urban areas, yet also contains some of the world’s most beautiful, lush forests.
Developed in the 1980s, shinrin-yoku, a multi-sensory therapeutic practice where an individual takes in the sights, sounds, smells and even textures, while mindfully walking in a forest, has become a cornerstone of preventive health care in Japanese medicine. It’s now practiced all over the world. The key to forest bathing isn’t to cover a lot of miles, but to slowly walk with intention through the green space and take it all in. While intuitively we recognize that we just feel better after taking a walk in a tree-rich setting, mounting research shows evidence of health benefits, including reduced blood pressure, cortisol, anger and depression, as well as enhanced energy, mood and immunity.
Yet for most of us, earning our paychecks requires that we sit indoors, often plugged into a computer, with nary a green plant in sight. Thankfully, though, there are ways to experience the gift of the forest even at work. While the benefits of spending time in an actual forest, say on weekends (if that’s at all possible for you), shouldn’t be understated, these three practices can help during the week:
Imagine the Forest and Breathe It In
One of the most compelling stories to illustrate the power of shinrin-yoku describes an experience that never happened in a forest at all, but in an office. As Gary Groesbeck, BCIAC, a psychologist and Integral Awakened Mind practitioner based in Sonora, California, recounts it, he was guiding a young client through meditations and measuring her brain-wave activity on a neuromonitoring-type machine known as the Mind Mirror.
Interestingly, it was when Groesbeck suggested that the woman imagine herself walking through a forest, with all of the vivid imagery that this place evokes, that he noticed something startling on his Mind Mirror: The woman’s brain waves began to take on the shape of a perfect circle, indicating she had spontaneously achieved a heightened state of consciousness that’s more often associated with yogis and people who have practiced meditation for years. Called the “evolved mind,” this state is typified by feelings of intense love, bliss and acceptance.
“What many people may not realize is that they can reconnect to this feeling of oneness with nature any time they want,” says Groesbeck. “Because what we’re connecting with in the forest also resides within us.”
Desk-side Practice #1:
Take a five-minute breathing break when you need it. Do slow, even breaths, five seconds in and five seconds out, in more of a sipping breath, rather than a deep yogic breath, advises Groesbeck. Focus on a green space out a window, a potted plant on your desk, or even simply imagine a forest to enhance the bliss.
Work in a Space that Mirrors Nature
“It’s not surprising that being in nature cultivates inner peace,” says Carolyn DiCarlo, a New York City–based architect, whose design philosophy is inspired by yoga and meditation. She explains that humans are composed of many of the same elements—carbon, oxygen and hydrogen—as plants. “That subtle resonance with nature cues us into a harmonic symbiosis, which we see as beauty and feel as harmony and completeness.” When we work in spaces that mirror nature, we simply feel calmer, more inspired and more productive overall.
Desk-side Practice #2:
One of the easiest ways to tune into nature’s perfection is through lighting. Try to choose a workspace that has abundant natural light, but also provides options, advises DiCarlo. If you work at home, and at later hours, light your space in layers by using a variety of task lamps, which mirror the way light moves and is diffused naturally, such as by moonlight or through a forest canopy. And above all, see how you feel in your space, she says. Trust the subtleties of your feelings. Ultimately, you should feel renewed, not drained at your desk.
Create a Sensory Experience with Nature Rituals
The beauty of forest bathing is the rich, multisensory experience, says Amos Clifford, MA, a founder of Shinrin-Yoku.org and Sky Creek Dharma Center in Chico, California. “Our forest guides are trained in 14 senses—not just five—that are readily available while on the path,” he says. Those additional senses include: proprioceptive (felt body sense); interoceptive (awareness of body needs); mirror; intuition and body radar; feeling (heart sense and a felt sense of presence); subtle energy; imaginal; balance; and direction. Clifford tells Bodhi Tree, “there are actually many more, but we have found that these are the most accessible for use in forest therapy.” The good news is we can connect with many of these senses even at work through the use of nature rituals.
Desk-side Practice #3:
One of Clifford’s favorite ways to forest bathe at work is by enacting an herbal tea ceremony, which is also how he ends every forest-bathing guided trail experience he leads. “Brew herbs from your own garden to connect to a sense of place, and just take a moment in gratitude,” he says.
For tech-weary urbanites, our nature deficits can be profound. But practicing the art of shinrin-yoku—anytime, anywhere—can lift our spirits when we need it most. “The more we live in this technologically connected society, the more disconnected we are from each other and ourselves,” says Clifford. “And if we’ve ever needed to re-establish our relationship with the forest, it’s now.” By opening to the present moment through the doorway of our senses, we will find the forest does its work in us—even when we’re at work.