Forest Bathing: How spending time in nature can improve your leadership and life
“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
– John Muir, Our National Parks
Kate Ebner wrote recently about The Nebo Company’s July retreat at Lake Nebo. She noted that organizations – including ours – can have a proper retreat but then there is a snowball effect when someone just “wants to check one little email.” Before you know it, everyone’s checking, and the group is missing the opportunity to bond, relax and renew. Most importantly, they’re missing out on the rare gift of unplugging and providing the brain, the seat of our emotions and memories, a much-needed break. I noticed this in myself as I slipped into checking that one last email, right before I prepared to lead our team on a 1.5-mile walk for a session of the Japanese therapeutic practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” Forest bathing is a term invented by a Japanese agriculture official in 1982 to describe the practice of spending time with trees to gain from their many health benefits. Since its introduction, forest bathing has become a valuable tool for disconnecting and recharging.
During shinrin yoku the five senses are being “bathed” in the atmosphere of the forest, giving the human brain and nervous system a rest. No electronics, no chatter and no agenda. Just people breathing in the fresh air, listening to the rustle of leaves, touching ancient trees and noticing the various colors and patterns they might have otherwise passed by.
On our trip into the forest, as we settled in and quieted down, my colleagues began to notice tiny frogs, deer, the movement of water and wind, and subtle changes in the air as the scenery changed from dense forest to vast openings where we could look up and take in the height and beauty of the Adirondack mountains.
Periodically during our walk, I invited our team to share what they were noticing outside, as well as what they noticed within themselves. We observed a quieting within, a decreased rumination and a sense of awe and comfort from being immersed in nature that preceded us and will exist longer after we are gone.
The world is too much with us…
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours…
– William Wordsworth
The word “technostress” was introduced in 1997 in the book Technostress: Coping with Technology by Michelle M. Weil and Larry D. Rosen. Technostress refers to stress humans are experiencing from our increased use of technology. Additionally, excessive technology use is linked to not just an overall increase in stress levels, but it is also linked to sleeping disorders and depressive thinking.
And, year after year, we are spending even more time on our devices. A study by two University of Virginia professors found that leaders were spending as much as 95% of their time emailing, utilizing technology during in-person and virtual meetings, and talking on the phone.
So, when almost all of our time is being devoted to technology, it is becoming increasingly more essential to find the time to unplug.
Health Benefits of Forest Bathing
In all things nature, there is something of the marvelous.
The benefits of forest bathing have been well-documented. Since 2004, studies by the Forest Therapy Study Group, an organization of Japanese government agencies and academic institutions, found the following benefits associated with just two hours of forest bathing:
- Increased and better-quality sleep
- Less anxiety and better moods
- Decreased anger
- Boosted immune system and improved heart health
- Improved concentration and memory
Cognitive Benefits of Forest Bathing
Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Researchers studying the health impacts of all types of nature have also identified a number of benefits to the human brain, including:
- Improvements in executive functioning skills such as paying attention, completing tasks, planning and prioritizing and managing emotions.
- Improvements in physiology (lower cortisol levels, lower pulse rates, lower blood pressure) and increased activity in the parasympathetic nerve activity, which is also known as the “rest and digest” system, after just 15 minutes of walking in nature.
- Marked decreased in both rumination (overthinking and stewing on negative thoughts) and lowered activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that tends to be active during sadness and depression, after 90 minutes in nature.
- Improvements in short-term memory and mood after 50 minutes in nature.
How can you enjoy the benefits of forest bathing if it’s your first time?
- Identify a forested area and plan to give yourself at least two hours there.
- Contrary to what the name suggests, forest bathing is done with clothing on! Do wear hiking or walking shoes, a cap or hat to protect you from weather or bugs, bug spray and outdoor wear that is loose-fitting and comfortable.
- Leave your electronics, e.g., cell phone, and camera at home or in the car.
- Experience your surroundings at a leisurely place, taking in the forest through your five senses by tasting, touching, smelling, listening and observing. Notice the different colors and shades of leaves that you encounter. Take some slow deep breaths to center yourself as you begin. Touch a tree or a stone, and notice the different textures. Listen for different types of sounds, such as birdsong or the wind in the treetops. Imagine that you can taste the air. Feel its qualities on your skin.
- Find a spot to sit for a few minutes, perhaps on a tree stump or a rock or soft meadow, to take in some deep breaths or meditate.
What if you don’t have two hours to spend in the forest?
Here are some ways you can still reap the benefits of nature if you have less time or don’t have access to forests:
- Sit in a nearby park and watch the nature around you, tuning into the life that surrounds you, such as birds flying by or trees rustling in the breeze.
- Bring plants and flowers in to your environment and literally smell the roses.
- Go for a walk at a nearby arboretum or find gardens where you can go for a leisurely stroll.
- Record the sounds of nature, e.g., rain, leaves rustling or bird calls, and listen for a few minutes.
Forests have been around for about 380 million years. If we open our senses to them, they have much to offer and teach us about resilience, longevity and connection with ourselves and the world around us.
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