I can’t find words for the feeling that engulfed me on the rim of the Grand Canyon, nor can I describe the feeling I experienced the first time my oar blades sliced green glass on the ungovernable river that carved this deep chasm. I can’t find words that accurately describe the feeling of my unfurrowing brow and decelerating heart rate stemmed from sun on my face coupled with nowhere to be but downstream at some indeterminate time.
Maybe I can’t find an encompassing word because English doesn’t have one. Japanese does, though. So does German. And Norwegian.
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that directly translates to “forest bathing.” More holistically, the concept is practiced through intentionally experiencing nature with all five senses. Researchers have been studying the therapeutic benefits of taking nature baths, which include decreased stress and blood pressure, as well as stronger immune systems.
Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon Medical School, found just smelling a tree, no matter the environment one is in, can produce a drop in blood pressure. Time in nature also increases the production of the natural killer immune cells that target sick or damaged cells in our bodies and help to keep us strong and healthy.
Shinrin-yoku extends beyond compelling science; it’s a way of being in the world. A main tenet of forest bathing is imagining one is seeing the world for the very first time. Forest bathing is more than just a stress reduction technique: it’s magic. It’s a sense of wonder; it’s a reconnection with oneself. It’s universal, too.
Like shinrin-yoku, for the past 150 years, Norwegians have practiced a similar concept. What they call friluftsliv, or literally “open air life,” has a meaning more complex than the original translation might suggest. Friluftsliv is the belief that spending time in nature is coming home. The cultural connotation promotes a direct relationship with nature, so much so that friluftsliv classes are taught in Norwegian schools.
German also has an analogous word: naturgefühl. It’s the feeling of connectedness with nature. Some German parks even have sinnensitze, chairs designed to make the sitter present and cognizant of the environment around them.
There’s a reason these cultures have words that describe the complex yet giving relationship humans hold with nature. English lacking such a word illustrates the cultural importance (or lack of) placed on experiencing nature.
Just because English doesn’t have a word that perfectly distills the complexity of what nature gifts to humans doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be practiced. Whether we bathe in the forest or embark on a search for open air, the benefits are clear. The perfect sinnensitze could be a stack of yellow paco pads on the bow of an 18-foot raft, or a riverside boulder, or the back patio or a park bench. Either way, I hope you experience the indescribable.