What is shinrin yoku?

The Japanese science of forest bathing is quintessentially Mendocino

shinrin yoku

 We’ve been hearing recently about the modern Japanese science of shinrin yoku – “forest bathing” – and it sounds like what we’ve been doing since forever up here in the midst of the majestic redwoods. What is forest bathing? It is, in essence, steeping oneself in the peaceful presence of nature for medicinal benefits – if that isn’t a modernized, scientific version of Mendocino’s “back to the land” mentality, then we don’t know what is.

 We in Mendocino have long been running away to the woods whenever we happen to feel stressed or overwhelmed with the busy-ness of our increasingly fast-paced world. After all, what else can melt away that anxious tension knotting up our shoulders like finding the perfect tuft of soft redwood leaves in the woods to sit down and contemplate the gentle green and brown of the trees? Now finally, Japanese scientists have clued into this age-old truth that nature is good for us, and for several years they’ve been pouring millions of dollars into researching the precise data that backs it up. They have been measuring blood pressure, the immune system, different brain functions, and a host of other physiological factors that seem directly affected by spending time with trees.

 Headed by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, the vice director of Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health, and Field Sciences, Japanese medical researchers are working to define just how beneficial forest bathing can be, as well as what all it should entail. According to them, truly medicinal shinrin yoku needs to incorporate all five senses – it has to be a whole body experience, pulling into play sight, sound, scent, touch, and even taste. And we have to say, we can understand why!

 We find great pleasure in going on a power hike through the many trails winding through Mendocino’s lovely redwood forests. Yet it’s not until we slow down and simply take in the tranquility of our surroundings that we really feel that beautiful calm of nature. It’s a calm that seems to seep up from the ground, through the soles of our feet, rising all the way until it spreads warm fingers of peace across our chest and shoulders. And here’s how it happens:

 We find a solitary place in the woods – a tuft of soft redwood leaves or the perfectly placed log. We stand quietly or ease ourselves down into a relaxed sit, and we just absorb. We watch the play of the sunlight coming through the forest canopy. We observe the way the plants and trees grow together in gentle chaos. We look for colors, shadows, dainty wildflowers, a squirrel scampering away up a trunk.

 We listen, taking in the whisper of the breeze as it ruffles the leaves above us. There is the murmur of the brook around the next corner, the raucous caw of the raven, the gentle twitter of a some small birdling hiding in the brush. Somedays, there is the plop and patter of rain, or the bark of a far away dog.

 We smell, inhaling deeply the scent of clean air, damp earth, broken twigs, green leaves, even the woodsmoke from a nearby campsite.

 We feel the texture of our surroundings, reaching out a hand to investigate the surface of the leaves around us – are they smooth? Bumpy? Supple? Spiked? We wiggle our backs into the craggy bark of the redwood we’re leaning against. We run our fingers through the loose leaves on the forest floor or the ice cold waters of a tumbling stream.

 And we taste. Black and huckleberries when in season. A thermos of steaming herbal tea or a bottle of mineral-rich water from our well.

 That’s it. That’s when we feel truly relaxed and renewed, bathed from head to toe, inside and out with forest. Such moments have long been a part of Mendocino, part of the attraction it holds for the visitors that come stay with us all the time from the big city. And now that the art of shinrin yoku is gaining strength in the world of science, it may perhaps be time to tell your doctor, “I think you need to start prescribing visits to Mendocino…

Written by Laura Hockett