In 1982, the Japanese Forest Agency began promoting ‘forest therapy’ as a form of preventative medicine. Shinrin Yoko as the practice came to be known means Forest Bathing and the idea is that spending unstructured, unhurried time in forest, temple and park spaces could contribute to positive health outcomes.
In the 1990s, peer reviewed studies seemed to corroborate these findings. Walking in forests increases immune system function, lowers blood pressure and lowers stress hormones. There is a positive impact on symptoms of PTSD, stress, focus and general wellbeing.[i]
These findings are well documented and while they are not necessarily conclusively causative, they are absolutely resonant with increasing our health through lifestyle choices and time away from screens. However, some spokespeople for forests and forest bathing such as Diana Beresford Kroeger, an Irish-Canadian who has a bold vision of reforestation, can speak of the benefits hyperbolically. For example, during an interview on the Wisconsin Public Radio program To the Best of our Knowledge, Diana claimed that just touching certain leaves or plants could prevent leukemia or certain types of cancers.[ii] For example, she claims that by simply touching the green fruits of Black Walnut trees the ellagic acid absorbed through the sweat glands will protect children from leukemia. I couldn’t find anything close to proof of this, so it seems dubious.
In North American, a growing number of organizations are offering trainings to become “certified” Forest Therapy Guides. These trainings typically cost anywhere from $3000-$4000 for a six month program that often includes an in person immersion. When I learned about this practice, I was very interested. But the more I thought about it the more concerned I became. Despite a danger of over-exaggerating the benefits of walking in the woods, what worries me about the increasingly popular phenomenon of Forest Bathing in North America is its flagrant exoticism and the monetization of certification programs.
The first point. It seems that whenever eco-spiritual seeker types get ahold of a concept from “The East”, we immediately read into it a sort of ancient, ecological wisdom. Japan does indeed have a strong sense of identity connected to trees and forests. They have one of the highest rates of forest cover of any nation. Shinto shrines are often located among sacred groves, some of which can be quite ancient. However, Shinrin Yoku as a concept only started in the 1980s. Why is it that despite a massive cannon of poets, naturalists and forest walkers in the Western European and Transcendentalist tradition, many of my fellow Westerners of European descent feel the need to appropriate a modern Japanese practice in order to lend legitimacy to a practice they are eager to monetize?
This brings me to my second question. Why do we need Forest Therapy Guides? Why not just offer a one hour training in Forest Bathing and invite people to do it in small groups that are self-facilitated? Why turn an open source skill into a product? Why charge money to become a certified mediator of the forest space? This seems like it crosses a line.
In an official video linked through the Forest Therapy Guide Association website, the speaker states that guides are needed to slow us down and engage us in “sensory activities that will be unlike anything you have ever experienced before.”[iii] Really? Sure its great advice to put my phone away, to forget about a destination, to open my senses to the forest around me, to slow down and wander; but unlike anything? That sounds like snake oil to me. It sounds like the Transcendental MeditationTM folks who sell Sanskrit Mantras© with the promise of a transformed work-life balance.
So maybe folks who are invested in this movement could share their experience. I know plenty of wonderful folks who are Guides, so this critique is not a personal attack. It’s a serious concern and a question that has been building in me for a while. Let me know what you think.
Post Script: While it seems that Japan does have specific trainings for Forest Therapy programs, I am doubtful that these are standalone programs apart from other essential healthcare services. I would be happy to speak with someone who knows more about the movement in Japan. Are Forest Therapy programs in Japan similar to the ones in North America? I know that there are certification schemes for forests and walking trails in Japan, but I am not sure what the training system looks like for anyone who would be the equivalent to a “Guide” in North America.
[i] Li, Qing. “Effect of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on human health: A review of the literature”, Santé Publique, vol. no. HS1, 2019, pp. 135-143.