In Japan, a forest-therapy base must meet certain criteria to be recognized by the government, including a scientific evaluation of its healing ability. In America, however, there are no set guidelines for what constitutes a forest bathing environment. Which raises the question: Is a forest essential to forest bathing? Could one forest bathe in the desert? Or in a park in the middle of a city?
I brought up these questions with my instructor after our walk. He believed anyone anywhere could forest bathe, that the term was never intended to limit what kind of nature individuals expose themselves to. According to him, if people are going outside and centering themselves in nature, they’re forest bathing, even if they’re at the beach. He stressed that the most important thing was getting people to associate being in nature with feeling good. According to the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, forest bathing “is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments.” That last “and” is important; the forest itself might not be necessary.
Certain research indicates that perhaps you can get some benefits even without the actual outdoors, although such extrapolation is bound to be contentious. Studies conducted by Roger Ulrich at Texas A&M concluded that “environments with nature-related imagery, such as photographs and paintings on the wall, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and reduce pain.” Just looking at an image of nature could be healing.
Virtual environmental therapy may offer a middle ground for those unable to enjoy the outdoors for one reason or another, whether due to physical or environmental limitations. “A real-life experiment is under way at the Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon,” writes Florence Williams in National Geographic. “Officers there report calmer behavior in solitary confinement prisoners who exercise for 40 minutes several days a week in a ‘blue room’ where nature videos are playing, compared with those who exercise in a gym without videos.”
Likewise, video game consoles are nature-themed, living-room holodecks waiting to happen. Games like Firewatch, a walking simulator set in Shoshone National Forest, offer a free-roam mode, where one can wander hiking trails aimlessly to their heart’s content. In Flower, one plays as a petal that endlessly floats on a breeze. Walden, A Game is an adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s life among nature. Such gaming experiences fill a niche that appears poised to grow substantially. If individuals recovering from surgery with a view of a garden can heal faster than those with a view of a brick wall, can non-immersive exposure to nature benefit people in other ways.
Admittedly, nothing can take the place of actually going outside and feeling the sun and wind against one’s skin. However, one of the biggest hurdles to getting people the health benefits of the outdoors is helping individuals, especially those from marginalized groups, to feel more comfortable in natural settings. I came to nature through water. A love of beaches and rivers primed me to love other outdoor environments. Everything has to start somewhere. Video games might lead to forest bathing, and forest bathing might lead to hiking (or swimming, or outdoor yoga); all of these are a means to an end, and that end is better health.