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10 min read Science & Wellbeing Health

Forest bathing helps us survive city life

Words by Sophie Wright

Photos by Brandon Tauszik

It’s no news that ditching your screen and taking a walk in a leafy forest is good for you – but you might be surprised at just how much it can really do. Founder of the Forest Bathing Club of San Francisco Julia Plevin talks to us about why we need it now more than ever.

The soothing effect of experiencing a forest environment as opposed to an urban one is scientifically proven to reduce stress levels and boost our immune systems. Since 2004, the Japanese government has invested approximately $4 million on research into the physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku – roughly translated as ‘forest bathing’ or ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’. Inspired by Buddhist and Shinto practices, Shinrin-yoku intends to restore the innate bond between humans and nature that has been weakened by the rise of urban life and its artificial structures. The results of these various studies showed that participants experienced a drop in blood pressure, an increase in human natural killer (NK) cell activity – disease-battling cells that play a large role in cancer prevention – as well as significantly reduced levels of stress hormone cortisol post-forest visit. This is down to breathing in forest air which contains phytoncide: a chemical emitted by plants and trees to protect themselves from germs and insects. Following the well-funded research, the practice of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku, became part of a national health programme and is recognised as an important preventive form of healthcare with 48 official Forest Therapy trails.

The bottom line is that forest bathing restores us to our factory settings, bringing our bodies back to where – in evolutionary terms – they used to be. It was this curative element that first attracted nature-loving writer and designer Julia Plevin. Plevin came across forest bathing while studying in New York. Led by her own city-driven anxiety and stress, she was inspired by the possibility of bridging the gap between the city lifestyle and our natural habitat. “I discovered that there was a whole set of nature related mental health disorders and that the cure for them was reconnecting to nature,” she says. “So many of the ailments in society today are due to a severed connection with nature. I believe that as we begin to heal this, we will benefit on personal, community and environmental levels.”

When she moved back to San Francisco in 2015, Plevin founded the Forest Bathing Club, which now has over 500 members. “What strikes me most is that ‘forest bathing’ is something that people want, even if they’re not sure what it means,” she explains. Plevin stresses the accessibility of her events which merge mindfulness with light physical activity in a concoction she calls “a yoga class meets a hike”. “You definitely don’t need to be sporty to forest bathe!” she says. “It’s a practice of slowing down. When people who are really athletic come on a forest bath, it’s almost harder for them to slow down.” From athletes learning to relax to office workers who haven’t been exercising and people with injuries, the club’s participants are diverse. Each session comprises different details, taking time in silence, activating the senses with herbal extracts, oils, teas and  natural snacks, and often closing off with a ceremony.

On a local scale, the Forest Bathing Club takes advantage of its breathtaking Californian surroundings, reminding people to explore their surroundings and realise that nature needn’t be an exotic, faraway place. Building traction for the wider forest bathing movement is an important part of Plevin’s approach. She plans to offer training and kits so that people can start their own branches of the club. For her, it represents a simple, enduring choice to relearn how to exist in nature. “Forest bathing is a movement in the direction that we as society need to go,” she explains. “The other direction of getting more stressed, sick, anxious, and disconnected from nature will literally lead to our downfall. So this is the way out!”

Photos by Brandon Tauzsik