Published: Aster, a division of Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, 2018
Book review by Stefanie Rudolph
Lately, mention of “forest bathing” increasingly pops up in the media. As with so many health and wellbeing trends, it hails from Asia but unlike others the concept of Shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” is a fairly new one. In fact, the term was only coined in 1982 by the Director of the Japanese Forestry Agency and originally was more of a marketing exercise to entice the population into visiting the many beautiful forests of Japan. Since then, however, serious research has looked into the many benefits of being in nature which most people intuitively feel. Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki, author of the book reviewed here, was among the first of these scientists.
In “Shinrin-yoku. The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation” he explains the concept, its practice and the research behind what has become a wide-spread preventative medicine in Japan and South Korea already but is catching on in other parts of the world, too. Right at the start he explains that the term “forest bathing” is used “in a similar way to ‘sun bathing’ and ‘sea bathing’. You don’t literally take a bath, but you do bathe in the environment of the forest, using all your senses to experience nature up close.” In practice, this usually means walking without hurry or even just sitting in the woods. As becomes evident however, the concept he proposes in this book is not as limited as this may first sound but is closer to what we would consider to be nature therapy.
While the author starts with the benefits of the forest environment he soon ventures to other forms of contact with nature. Shinrin-yoku as practiced in Japan is revealed to include various other elements as well: from aroma workshops to horse riding and dog therapy, star gazing, Nordic Walking, hammock time, meditation and yoga, cherry blossom and autumn foliage viewings and even musical concerts in the woods – all meant to aid the aim of engaging as many senses as possible and being truly “present in the moment” during the sessions.
In fact, his research has extended as far as considering the effects of looking at a bouquet of cut flowers or a pot plant or smelling naturally dried wood (as opposed to treated wood). More specifically, he has examined their calming effects on the human body and mind which may or may not lead to physiological relaxation and immune function recovery. This, of course, in turn can help prevent illnesses and thus reduce the strain on a country’s health services.
The book is very beautiful to look at: there are somewhat dreamy photographs of forest situations or individual trees and details appear on the wide margin of almost every single page. In the UK, the publisher is Octopus Publishing Group-imprint Aster which specializes in wellbeing/ wellness titles. There are inspirational quotes and occasionally bullet points. The book appears to be geared towards the general public, much like a self-help title.
Somewhat odd, then, sits the last but one chapter in which five research experiments the author conceived and conducted (and which mainly establish the scientific credentials of forest therapy as a preventative medicine) are explained in much detail. There is emphasis on methodology and statistical results that are less likely to interest the wider public.
In the brief last chapter, “The Future of Forest Therapy Research”, Yoshifumi Miyazaki heaps high praise on Florence William’s book “The Nature Fix” which he calls “essential reading for anyone wishing to understand current global trends in forest therapy research” (and nature therapy in general, one may add).
His own book then, we may view as a good means to spread the message of nature therapy to a wider general public. I could imagine a practitioner recommending it to his or her patient so they will understand better what nature therapy is about and how they can carry the benefits into their everyday life. On account of the science included in the book it is likely to work especially well with people who are – like the author of this review – inclined to be sceptical about approaches that to them seem “esoteric”.
On a more general note: I slightly worry that forest bathing might be hijacked like so many other Eastern trends and philosophies – simplified, commodified, commercialized, the latest bandwagon to be jumped on – before it has time to establish itself as a serious, credible form of therapy in our Western culture and in the process possibly discrediting any form of nature therapy in the eyes of many as just another fad. But despite the perhaps “lightweight” outward appearance of this book that is hardly something Yoshifumi Miyazaki can be blamed for, indeed with his research he has done much to counter this accusation.
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