Immunity boost? | Meditation in a forest setting may have health benefits
Carmon Frick indulges in forest bathing every day.
The practice is not quite as risqué as it sounds at first blush. It simply involves spending time among trees and “bathing” in the peace and tranquility that forests can provide.
Frick owns and operates Sprouts Greenhouse and Sprouts Yoga Loft near Winfield, Alta., which is located on 138 acres of rolling hills and trees.
She said her morning walk among those trees is an important part of her health.
“I like people to understand that trees and plants are a lot more beneficial than just the obvious things that we know about, that there’s a lot of subtleties that maybe benefit us, but we don’t realize where it’s coming from or why,” said Frick.
She decided to research the concept after reading a brief story about forest bathing in a yoga magazine and then posting her findings on a blog she writes for her dual businesses.
Known as shinrin-yoku in Japan, the practice is recognized as a method of stress and anxiety reduction.
Forest bathing has been studied by Dr. Qing Li of Tokyo, who has connected it with positive changes in mood and an increase in physical vigour.
Frick said she was intrigued with reports suggesting a link between walking among trees and an increase in human immune function.
“These studies also show a direct link in the increase of lymphocytes, natural killer cells and intracellular anti-cancer proteins in those who walked amongst the trees for just two to three days in a row as compared with levels before the walks,” Frick wrote in her blog.
In an interview, she said the information resonated because of a conversation she once had with research biologists who were studying tree response to invasions of mountain pine beetle.
“They found that the trees would communicate with one another and when one tree was under attack, trees nearby would start building up defences. They were somehow communicating.
“And I just found that a really intriguing thought.”
Frick speculates that humans might be influenced by this inter-tree communication through the air-borne organic compounds found in forests.
The idea of nature’s connection with human health also resonates with Velva Dawn Silver-Hughes of Longview, Alta., who operates an inner tranquility retreat centre at Chinook Ranch.
Her philosophy involves chakra and the belief that connections with Mother Earth, or the root chakra, can improve mental and physical health.
“If you’re not connected to the earth, you don’t spend enough time outside or outdoors, you have anxiety,” said Silver-Hughes.
She recently spent time with friends in a Hawaiian rainforest, perhaps the ultimate in forest bathing.
“We were all saying how peaceful and tranquil we all felt from being in that environment.”
Silver-Hughes also takes advantage of the forests on the ranch, which is tucked into the southern Alberta foothills.
“Many times I’ll go meditate,” she said. “There’s a really nice area right near the retreat centre where I’ll walk. There’s some trees there. I just sit there and look at the vista and ground my root chakra into the earth. It’s very tranquil, very peaceful.”
Heidi Eigel, a visitor services specialist for Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation, spends considerable time in forests and agrees there seem to be health benefits.
“As an Alberta parks educator, I do find that being out in the wilderness, in the natural landscape, it keeps me healthy and happy. There’s something about it,” she said.
Eigel is also a farmer and horse trainer, so connection with nature is essentially second nature in both her work and home life.
“We need nature. It’s in our genetic makeup,” said Eigel.
She points to the Alberta Tourism, Parks and Recreation website that states, in part, that “Alberta’s parks inspire people to discover, value, protect and enjoy the natural world and the benefits it provides for current and future generations.”
Camille Weleschuk, acting director of communications for the department, found Frick’s material on forest bathing interesting.
“Parks mean different things to different people,” said Weleschuk in an email.
“Some people visit parks for solitude and quiet reflection, and others head to parks to actively spend time with their family and go hiking, boating or swimming. People often tell us that spending time in nature is good for their soul, and we agree.”
Eigel said North American studies on the benefits of forest bathing or connection with nature tend to focus on biophilia, the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.
The biophilia hypothesis, developed by author Edward O. Wilson, suggests there is an instinctive bond between humans and other living systems.
Frick said she doesn’t know how many trees are required to obtain benefits from forest bathing, though it seems logical that older forests and larger numbers of trees could yield the most benefit.
Seasons might also play a role, although Frick practises forest bathing all year round.
“In winter time, because the sap is not flowing the way it does in warmer weather, I don’t think the benefit is as obvious as it is in the warmer weather when everything is flowing within the trees and all systems are go,” she said.
“But you still get the meditative and de-stressing aspects of it as well.”