In North Gyeongsang in the Baekdudaegan Mountain range, you can find the National Center for Forest Therapy. There are 50 kilometers of forest trails that connect to Sobaeksan National Park, Myeojeokbang peak, and Cheonbusan. There you can find the seven “healing trails” that a person can choose to experience Forest Bathing.
Forest Bathing, as a practice for health. As far as I can tell, it comes from Japan in the 1980’s. It is rooted in the concept of mindfulness which is thousands of years old, but the term “Forest Bathing” in Japanese is Shinrin-yoku. Shinrin, meaning forest, and yoku means bathing (from Healing Forest). However, the idea of forest bathing is much more than going for a walk in the woods. If you want to experience forest bathing, which has become very popular in Korea, you have to immerse yourself in the woods and into nature.
But, why would one need to immerse oneself into the woods when a simple walk should suffice? The belief is that Forest Bathing offers an enormous amount of health benefits.
- Depression (mild depression), decreases stress, increases positive emotions
- Good for healthy aging, boosts immunity, improves lifestyle
- Helps with recovery, rehabilitation, lessens sick days
- Helps with low self-esteem, loneliness, feel less sad
- Decreases work stress, burnout, feel less angry, decreases anxiety
- Helps with Digital addiction, and academic pressures, relaxes the brain
- Improve heart, lungs, increases memory function
- Increase focus, concentration, greater attention and awareness
Is Forest Bathing Real or is it Baloney?
The science is new. However, the National Library of Medicine and National Center for Biotechnology Information conducted an Evidence-Based Status of Forest Healing Program in South Korea. They studied 75 forest healing programs in South Korea. Additionally, programs are government-run facilities, and focus on therapeutic forest trails that have been designed to “enhance healing, wellness, health, and happiness”. The studies are still ongoing. However, they note that “these therapeutic forests are not about treating a disease, but about engaging in a healing activity that helps to maintain health and increase immunity.” What they did find is that people who visited a therapeutic forest have shown a reduction in overall stress, reduced feelings of depression, and heightened cognitive functions.
The study didn’t “prove” that forest bathing could bring about all these benefits. But, one conclusion they did make was that the Korean public has an increased and growing interest in these programs.
The first therapeutic forest opened in 2009, and by 2020 there were 32 therapeutic forests. Also, they found that not only did the number of centers, and therapeutic forest trails increase, but so did the number of visitors. In 2009, 1067 people visited the therapeutic forests, and by 2015, 1.7 million people visited. In 2018, it was 1.8 million but decreased to 1.5 million in 2020. It is very likely that this reduction had to do with covid and covid restrictions.
Why Do Koreans Love Forest Bathing?
I am not making a scientific or fact-based presumption, but I assume that it has to do with the fact that 85% of people living in Korea live in urban areas, and urban areas can be stressful.
Koreans work long hours, they study hard, and the culture is fast-paced and very competitive. Koreans are very educated but are looking at a lagging economy, and the housing market is through the roof. There is pressure to succeed, pressure to look beautiful, and a problem with digital addiction. Life is stressful. Life is hard. And suicide, sadly, is prevalent.
The need for release from the stress of daily life is critical. Fortunately, South Korea is a mountainous peninsula with 22 national parks. Nature and the mountains are a huge part of Korea’s history and folklore, and this connects to rural life, to their food, and to the culture itself.
The Baekdudaegan Mountain Range is considered the backbone, or the spine of Korea. The healing mountains are the gift given to Koreans. The government has invested in creating a national forest plan to create a “green welfare state” for the nation’s well-being, and Chungbuk University offers a “forest healing” degree program.
The Seven Stages of Life & Forest Bathing
Many of the forest healing centers design their healing trails following the 7 stages of the human life cycle: birth, childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, midlife, seniors, and death.
There are prenatal classes and meditations in the forest to help relieve anxiety and fears surrounding childbirth and motherhood. Forest kindergartens teach children the art of learning with nature. Some Forest Healing Centers had an experiment called the “happy train” where they take troubled youth and bullies to the national forest for 10 days to learn about humility and respect, and how to be a nicer person.
A program called the “Green Gym” was created by Dr. William Bird and the conservative volunteers (TCV) to help people get in touch with nature, and be active, all while working to improve the forests, and to be a part of a community. They have activities such as tree planting, vine removal ( which I have done before and it is hard work), and pruning. Many recreational forests and healing centers all over South Korea offer meditation classes and other activities like wood crafting, art, or healing ceremonies that people can participate in over the weekends.
Some trails in the healing forests have wooden walking paths that are accessible to those who may need assistance walking or need wheelchair access. There are even select National Forests that offer “tree burials” in which you can bury the cremated bones of a loved one around the root of a chosen plant. The seventh stage of life.
National Center for Forest Therapy
The National Center for Forest Therapy offers many forest healing programs that are beyond forest bathing. For example, they offer hydrotherapy, a healing garden, and a barefoot garden. They even have a forest healing festival.
Additionally, they have individual programs and group programs for you to choose from. They also offer housing. Guests can stay overnight at Yeongju Juchi Village or Yechon Munpil Village, both located in the National Center for Forest Therapy.
But, you don’t need to sign up for a program to experience forest bathing. Take a short trip into the mountains, guaranteed there is a trail toward a mountain near you. Now, turn off your phone, open your senses and walk. I recommend making your way to Namsan park in Seoul. The park is beautiful and you can easily step from the paved sidewalk into the woods to bathe.
Sources and Further Information:
Korean Forest Service- Tree Burial
Healing Forests-Forest Bathing Secrets
Studies on health benefits:
National Library of Medicine; National Center for Biotechnology Information
National Center for Forest Therapy
209, Therapy-ro, Bonghyeon-myeon, Yeongju-si, Gyeongsangbuk-do, TEL : +82-54-639-3400 FAX : +82-54-639-3680 Email : email@example.com