Shinrin Yoku: Immersion in "the realm of the divine"

- through Sophie Solere

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Walking in the forest, mindfully and awakening your five senses: this is the principle of “Forest Bathing”, literally translated from the Japanese “Shinrin Yoku”. This contemplative practice has multiple benefits for human health.

“According to the two official religions of Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism, the forest is the realm of the divine,” writes Doctor Qing Li in Shinrin Yoku. The Art and Science of Forest Bathing (1). This associate professor in the Department of Hygiene and Public Health at the University of Medicine of Tokyo and president of the association of sylvotherapy in Japan specifies: “For Zen Buddhists, the sacred texts are written in the landscape. The natural world is God's book. The fact of having remained seated in front of my desk reading these inspiring sentences makes me want to stretch my legs: impossible to resist the call of the forest !

This is how I find myself adjusting my steps to those of Jean-Marie Defossez, deep in the forest of Fontainebleau, and to myself. Time for a Shinrin Yoku course, to which several participants signed up on a sunny autumn day. “Going into the forest is easy,” explains this sylvotherapy trainer. What I would like, during these two hours, is for you to let the trees come inside you. My breathing gives rhythm to my walk, like the trees: “These are real invitations to inhale and exhale. These fiery-hearted beings absorb carbon dioxide and breathe with their pores and stomata, in a state of perpetual openness", enthuses the author of Sylvotherapy. The beneficial power of trees (2). Before adding: “The longer our breathing lengthens, the more intense our sensations will be. »

After about thirty minutes, our guide invites us to stop for an hour. Time to choose a tree and get to know it. My gaze is caught by a frail Scots pine, whose top stretches high towards the sky in search of light. Guided by the voice of Jean-Marie Defossez, I close my eyelids and rest my hands on the trunk of the tree to continue connecting to it by touch, until I embrace it. Then, my hearing is awakened: I listen to the sound of the wind in its foliage and the song of the birds resting on its branches. Finally, I smell the fragrances emanating from it and taste a small piece of its bark. We then share, in turn, our feelings with the sylvotherapist who offers us to “tuning with the tree, that is to say, to put ourselves at the same frequency as it. I close my eyes again, focusing on "this different being." Then unseals them, to take another look: that of the acceptance of the tree as an individual in its own right. "It's about freeing our intuition to be more permeable to the benevolence and empathy that the tree transmits to you, advises Jean-Marie Defossez. As if you were going to pick a kilo of peace in the forest to bring it home! Try not to involve the mind, on the contrary, awaken to the invisible. »

“Is it any wonder that Buddha experienced enlightenment sitting under a tree? »  

His words echo the sentences of Doctor Qing Li. In his work, he writes as follows: “In Shintoism, the spirits are not separate from nature, but are totally part of it. They are in the trees, the rocks, the breeze, the streams, the waterfalls. These spirits are kami. There are millions of kami. They can be everywhere in nature. And the places where the gods live can become places of worship. In Japan, it is not uncommon to find people praying in the forest. Dr. Qing Li also notes that, “In Japanese culture, nature is not separate from humanity. She is part of it (…) “Shizen”, which translates to “nature”, or “natural”, refers to the idea that we are all connected to nature emotionally, spiritually and physically and that the more a thing is closer to nature, the more pleasant it is. And to ask this question: "Is it so surprising that Buddha experienced enlightenment sitting under a tree?" »

In the 80s, faced with the high rate of Japanese suicides, the government launched a public health campaign inviting them to take sunbaths, sea baths and also forest baths.

Walking in the forest to tap into the energy of the trees is an ancestral practice. As Jean-Marie Defossez points out, “since the dawn of time and in all civilizations, the tree has occupied a special place. Look, for example, at the tree of knowledge in the Bible up to Survivor Tree attacks of September 11, passing by the oaks of the forest of Brocéliande venerated at the time of the Druids. » Shinrin Yoku, as it was codified in the Land of the Rising Sun – going to the forest to experience a sensory immersion, walking mindfully and hugging a tree to calm down and recharge your batteries – dates back to the 1980s. Faced with the high rate of Japanese suicides, the government had indeed launched a public health campaign inviting them to take baths in the sun, sea and also in the forest. Areas dedicated to this contemplative practice have even been specifically set up in the country. And scientists have been interested in the benefits of trees on the human brain, like Yoshifumi Miyazaki, researcher and deputy director of the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at the University of Chiba.

The author of Shinrin Yoku. Forest bathing, the Japanese natural health secret (3) does not hesitate to mention “the healing power of trees. " How ? Thanks to the essential oils that emanate from them and that the human body gradually absorbs. One of the studies he conducted with colleagues, involving more than 500 participants in 28 forests across Japan, showed a 12,7% decrease in cortisol levels, which is none other than the hormone stress. And the list is long of the other virtues of swimming in the forest. Yoshifumi Miyazaki was thus able to observe a better performance of the immune system and an increase in the number of natural killer cells (NK lymphocytes); a decrease in blood pressure; improved mood and also concentration, even in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); faster recovery after surgery or illness; energy gain; an improved quality of sleep and an increased feeling of happiness. So what are you waiting for to dive into the big Bath… in the Forest?

A Forest Bath to reconnect with nature and its nature

Good news ! The forest extends over more than a quarter of the surface of metropolitan France. According to the National Forestry Office (ONF) nearly 75% of French people live less than thirty minutes from a forest. The ideal is to practice Shinrin Yoku in a wooded area where the human footprint is the lowest and the biodiversity the densest. Provided you have a good pair of walking shoes, the Forest Bath is accessible to everyone. And this, throughout the year: in spring when the sap awakens, in the luxuriance of summer, in autumn to admire the flamboyant colors of the trees, and even, if the temperatures are mild, in winter.

To explore the forest and its inner forest, start by freeing yourself from your phone (by putting it in airplane mode, for example) and any electronic device (camera, GPS, etc.). Walk, silently, slowly, aimlessly. Let yourself be guided by your body, your intuition, without a goal. But in full awareness. It doesn't matter if you're not going anywhere. Take your time. Hear the twigs crunch under your feet, watch the sunbeam splitting the canopy, smell the earthy smell of humus, taste a freshly picked blackberry and touch the moss covering the roots of a tree. According to Doctor Qing Li, “your five senses are the key to perceiving the power of the forest. »

Since the success of the book The secret life of trees (4), signed by German forest engineer and writer Peter Wohlleben, more and more guides are offering Shinrin Yoku sessions in France. Jean-Marie Defossez, who founded theÉcole buissonnière de sylvothérapie, has put online, on its website created in 2012, a directory of the guides it has trained throughout France. To meet the trees, these “exceptional beings. »

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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