1   +   4   =  

If the holidays have got you stressed out, one way to unwind might be to head into the forest.

Moshe Sherman is a medical QiGong therapist who uses breathing and movement to facilitate healing. And on certain Saturdays, he leads community classes for the business that he runs with his wife, Kate, called Cloud Gate PittsburghParticipants meet Sherman in area parks to practice a tradition from Asia known as forest bathing.

“Forest bathing started in Japan in the 1980s as a form of preventative health care,” Sherman says. “And the idea is that in order to balance the stress of urban life, we need to expose ourselves to nature.”

He says it’s very simple, actually. You just get yourself into nature, and be present.

Listen: Turning to Forests for Better Health

On a chilly morning in late fall, as the sky is spitting snowflakes and a few drops of rain, he shows me how to do forest bathing in Pittsburgh’s Frick Park.

We walk along a trail where a few other people are walking their dogs or running. We can hear a busy highway in the distance. I ask how this is different from simply taking a walk.

“Well, we don’t have a destination in mind, and we don’t rush,” Sherman says. “Just like when we take a bath in hot water, we settle in and relax.”

Sherman says he often guides participants with QiGong exercises to help them become more receptive to the natural world around them. As he looks up towards the sky, Sherman says that in Japan, the term for forest bathing is shinrin-yoku, which means to bring in the forest.

“So we breathe in the healing energy,” Sherman says. “We also bring it in through our eyes. We bring it in through our ears, we bring it in through feeling, whether it’s feeling the weather or touching a leaf.”

Sherman says he loves living in a city, but sometimes that can mean putting up a protective shield against noise, traffic and others stressors. He says forest bathing gives the body a break, and allows the shield to come down.

“Find a tree, and sit next to it. Sit with it. Even one tree will be providing a healing relationship.”

There’s evidence that forest bathing provides measurable health benefits, too. Research shows that there is a relationship between spending time in green space and a lower risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. 

The Healthy Benefits of Neighborhood Greenspace

Sherman says he’s most excited about how forest bathing could impact the immune system.

“If you do one session of forest bathing for even 20 minutes, we see an increase in what’s called the NKcells, or the natural killer cells,” Sherman says. “And these are the cells that protect us from viruses, and even from tumor formations.”

Organic compounds released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, might be a clue for how spending time in nature benefits human health. The chemicals protect plants from insects and disease, and breathing them in might be just as good for people. 

As we walk, Sherman and I notice the sound of the mud under our boots, and stop to look at a nearby stream, where cold water is swiftly moving over rocks.

Sherman says everyone’s experience is different, but often people report feeling more relaxed after a forest bathing session. He says participants are often chatty, which to him is a good sign. It means they’re feeling uplifted, and that their energy is flowing.

Sherman challenges me to notice how long the benefits last from our time in the park. He says when he starts to feel the effects wearing off, he knows it’s time to head back to the nearest green space.

But Sherman has this advice if you’re in a pinch.

“Find a tree, and sit next to it. Sit with it. Even one tree will be providing a healing relationship.”

###

In a Noisy World, Our Brains Still Need the Sounds of Nature