School is back. At my house, that means every morning plays out like the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Confusion and panic reign. Everyone’s in a hurry, or ought to be. There’s a lot to do and there are a lot of places to be. This goes on all week, every week, for months. It’s enough to drive just about anyone crazy.
What’s a parent to do?
Much has been said or written on the subject of mindfulness. Last year, Harvard Business Review highlighted research on mindfulness and encouraged it among readers as a means to improve rational thought when stressed and manage emotions. New York Times offers an impressive survey of the benefits of mindfulness, specifically geared toward parents. But, there’s an approach that may amplify the benefits of more traditional mindfulness practices.
Shinrin-yoku, sometimes translated as “forest bathing” or “forest therapy” is the practice of taking a leisurely walk in the woods. It’s different from hiking, in that it’s typically at a slower pace, and the goal isn’t to complete a trail or reach a landmark. The point is to spend a little time experiencing nature, likely stopping here and there as you go. The practice emerged in Japan in the early 1980s. However, in essence, it simply gives a name to the common-sense conclusion that spending some quiet time in nature is good for a person’s state of mind. People have been getting outdoors to de-stress as long as we’ve been cooped up indoors with each other.
As is often the case, putting a name on it made shinrin-yoku a topic of discussion, and ultimately an area of research. While I tend to approach anything branded with the “wellness” moniker with a healthy dose of skepticism, the research surrounding shinrin-yoku suggests genuine benefits not only to mental health, but also to physical health.
Research has suggested that spending time in the woods reduces blood pressure and stress hormones. Other studies have demonstrated that the practice improves immune function, and that this particular effect may be the result of the biochemistry of forests, rather than an outcome of spending time relaxing.
Japan, where the formal practice originated, maintains fairly high standards for what areas can be designated as shinrin-yoku sites. In other parts of the world, location standards have not yet emerged.
However, the Association for Nature and Forest Therapy promotes the practice and trains and certifies guides who lead forest bathing programs in several countries. A number of books have recently been published on the subject, including Amos Clifford’s Your Guide to Forest Bathing and Yoshifumi Miyazaki’s Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing.
For overscheduled parents with overscheduled kids, the best approach may be to start by looking at your local or state parks department website, finding a bigger park, and taking the kids for an hour or so. You can probably do all of the planning and preparing you need to in about ten minutes, and you can figure out how to enjoy nature when you get there.
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