Forest-Bathing / Tree-Hugging:
Getting Healthy the Natural Way
The Japanese have a word for a health-inducing practice little known in the West: Shinrin-yoku. A rough translation is: Forest-Bathing.
I first started thinking about the healing power of trees when my neighbor in Puerto Rico (she lives next door to La Casa Spa and Wellness, Puerto Rico) told me an amazing story. She had been diagnosed with a serious illness that had rendered her unable to walk. She was carried outside every day, onto the patio, by her devoted husband, and began to absorb the intense and wonderful energy of tropical sunlight.
The experience of being outside in nature was soothing to her soul. Then something remarkable happened. As she lay on her lounge chair, she felt a specific tree, not far from where she was, call out to her. She wasn’t even sure what that meant. But she had an irresistible urge to be next to that one tree. She asked her husband to plant her (metaphor intended) under that tree. She immediately felt better, and asked her husband to bring her back to that tree every day.
Gradually, after a few months of “communing” with “her” tree—touching its bark, looking up at its high branches, sitting on its broad roots—her strength returned. When I saw her last, she was walking again, with the help of a cane—but definitely walking. She had made no other changes in her health regimen, and was convinced the tree’s energy had healed her, and reversed her disease.
After hearing my neighbor’s story, I decided to find a tree that I would call my own. I selected a lovely large tree with overhanging branches in the forest behind my house. I have made a practice of going out every morning, no matter the weather, and hugging “my” tree. I have found that a very deep sense of happiness descends upon me as I stand there with my arms around the tree. The tree has come to feel like a friend to me. And I hope that the tree, similarly, experiences me as a friend to it.
I also practiced tree-hugging during my recent stay at Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida. There were so many trees, it was hard to choose which tree to be my “tree-friend” for the two weeks I was there. I loved being there. I loved the raw food, the Dead Sea baths and the cold plunge. And I loved the trees. The whole campus had wonderful, old trees. It is always possible to find trees to befriend, even briefly, during vacations. Trees are, thankfully, everywhere.
The Power of Trees
Both history, as well as modern science, tells us that trees have powerful effects on us. Historically, we have evidence that trees can help us think better: Plato and Aristotle did their best thinking in the olive groves around Athens; Buddha found enlightenment beneath a Bodhi tree; Isaac Newton discovered the theory of gravity sitting under an apple tree.
Today, we scientifically understand that all trees (as well as plants) have the ability to absorb the sun’s light frequencies and transform them into food for themselves. They then give energy back to us in the form of breathable oxygen.
Trees also give us food and medicines: Baby oak leaves are edible, and make great contributions to a salad or soup. The biggest additional benefit the majestic oak gives us is its acorns. They are high in protein and fat, both of which are important in cold weather.
Trees also loan us many of their elements, with which we make modern medicines. Compounds for more than half of the most commonly prescribed drugs come from trees. The Ginko is the oldest deciduous tree on Earth. They were thought to be extinct until a botanist happened to spy one growing in a garden in China. Benefits range from blood thinning to better memory, to boosting both the immune and neurological systems.
Cherry juice from cherry trees has been shown to be a powerful treatment for arthritic conditions, including gout. The wood from its branches can be used to flavor smoked foods. The white willow tree has a chemical substance called salicin in its inner bark. This substance has been infused in tea for centuries by the Chinese as well as Native Americans as both a pain reliever and fever reducer. A German chemist in the 1800s isolated this compound, and made a commercial pain reliever. His last name was “Bayer,” and the rest is over-the-counter history.
Apple trees, as well as proving gravity, offer the ability to make apple cider, and more significantly, apple cider vinegar. Vinegar is a natural antiseptic and has historically been an excellent resource for canning and food preservation. Yews are the source of Taxol, used in the treatment of some cancers. Tea tree oil is beneficial for skin infections. Cinchona tree bark contains quinine, the basis of many anti-malarial drugs. And Pycnogenol, which protects against deep vein thrombosis, is made from pine tree bark.
As with all living things, trees have energy frequencies. Because trees stand very still, the specific vibrations of trees are slow and steady. Their roots dig deep into the earth, and their branches reach skyward, and thus, they absorb the energies of the earth as well as the universal forces of the atmosphere and sky. When our own energy connects with trees, we respond with mind, body and spirit.
Therapist Karin Marcus uses trees as healings in her practice, and explains: “I use trees as a metaphor for self-examination by acknowledging our roots, finding our heartwood, and focusing on how we can branch out to provide shade and fruits for others.” Annie Day, also a therapist, similarly practices tree spirit healing. She places tree “witnesses”—leaves, twigs, bark and cones—on or near the body. Tree essence drops are placed under the tongue, under the nose to be inhaled, or specifically placed on chakra points around an injury.
The Science of Tree Healing
Science has validated that just looking at trees has beneficial health effects. Studies have shown that hospitalized patients recover more quickly with a ‘green view.’ Mount Sinai Hospital in New York redesigned its interior so that recovery rooms now have a view of Central Park. Research documents that just looking at a forest view (even on paper) for 20 minutes lowers the amount of the stress hormone cortisol by 13%.
Qing Li, from the Tokyo Medical School, tested blood and urine samples of people while they were Forest-Bathing. The results showed that the level of natural killer cells was significantly higher on the Forest-Bathing days. Natural killer cells release an anti-cancer protein that attacks tumors and cells infected by pathogens. The study showed that the levels stayed elevated for a full 30 days after. In addition, the levels of adrenaline in the urine were reduced.
The therapy of Forest-Bathing is now practiced in England as a treatment for anxiety, depression and stress. Physicians in Doncaster and Camden (North London) have been sending patients to “Green Gyms.”
In Blinded by Science, Matthew Silverstone gives evidence that trees improve many health issues that we have, including concentration levels, depression, reaction times, different forms of mental illness, and stress. Trees have been shown to have the ability to alleviate headaches in human beings. Silverstone also points to many studies that have documented that children show significant physiological, psychological and cognitive improvements when they interact with nature, trees and plants.
Researchers at the University of Illinois compared those who live in places surrounded by trees with those living in a treeless neighborhood. A large housing development comprising 28 tower blocks was studied, and it was found that residents who lived with trees nearby socialized with their neighbors more, felt safer and suffered 52 per cent fewer crimes. They felt emotionally and physically healthier than those in the ‘treeless’ blocks. Those living near trees showed:
- Increased Killer Cell Activity
- Reduced Stress and Anxiety
- Increased Happiness
- Improved Concentration (ADHD sufferers benefit hugely)
Cosmic Tree Healing Qigong
Beginning practitioners of Chinese internal organ massage (Chi Nei Tsang) are taught how to commune with trees. Taoist master Mantak Chia teaches his students to meditate with the trees of the earth as a way to release “negative energies.” Master Chia’s teachings, in his Cosmic Tree Healing Qigong method, show how to align one’s body with the living “aura” (or energetic field) of a tree. He also explains that trees provide a natural ground that can help you to transform your body’s sick or negative energy into positive and vital life force energy.
The Taoist tree meditation is to concentrate on seeing the trees in your mind’s eye, and focus on them. The Yin cycle is accessed by touching a tree with your palms and the inside of your arms. The Yang cycle is accessed by touching the tree with your fingertips and the outside of your arms.
According to Master Chia, trees are the most spiritually advanced plants on Earth. They are constantly in meditation, and subtle energy is their natural language. As your understanding of this language grows, you can begin to develop a relationship with them. They can help you to open your energy channels as well as cultivating calm and vitality. And the relationship is reciprocal. We can help trees with their own blockages and devitalized areas. It is a mutually beneficial relationship that needs cultivation.
Choose Your Tree
The best trees for healing are big trees, or trees that are near water. Pines are on the top of the list. They are called the “Immortal Tree,” and radiate Chi, nourish blood, strengthen nervous systems, and contribute to long lives. They are also said to nurture souls and spirits. Early Chinese poetry and paintings are full of admiration for pines.
Although pine trees are often the best choice, many other trees can be used.
- Cypress and cedar trees reduce heat and nourish Yin energy.
- Willow trees help to expel sick winds, rid the body of excess dampness, reduce high blood pressure, and strengthen the urinary tract and bladder.
- Elm trees calm the mind and strengthen the stomach.
- Maple trees chase sick winds and help reduce pain.
- Locust trees help clear internal heat and help balance the weather of the heart.
- Banyan trees clear the heart and help to rid the body of dampness.
- Cinnamon trees can clear coldness from the heart and abdomen.
- Fir trees help clear up bruises, reduce swelling, and heal broken bones faster.
- Hawthorn trees help aid digestion, strengthen the intestines, and lower blood pressure.
- Birch trees help clear heat and dampness from the body and help to detoxify it.
- Plum trees nourish the spleen, stomach and pancreas, and calm the mind.
- Fig trees clear excess heat from the body, increase saliva, nourish the spleen, and help stop diarrhea.
- Gingko trees help strengthen the bladder and alleviate urinary problems in women.
When you adopt a regular practice of hanging out with trees, you may notice that each tree, like each person, has a personality, and a different sense of the energy it holds. Trees differ widely in their taste for human contact. Some are generous, and want to share their energy. Others are weak or ill, and benefit from your own healing energy. While some are friendly and enjoy human company, others can remain quite indifferent to human interest.
Those of us who live in an urban environment need not worry about not being near a forest. Many city and suburban trees are used to having people around. They understand our human energy, and are often more accessible and friendlier than those in the wilderness.
Selecting one tree, as my neighbor and I have done, allows us to develop a deeper relationship with that tree over time. Those who embrace tree-hugging often say that the communion they feel with their tree resembles love between humans. A quality of tenderness, care and concern should be present.