Last summer I spent a week visiting my sister in Connecticut, in a part of the state that is pure New England. There were horses in the back pasture and chard growing in the garden. One evening while I was sitting in the living room, I smelled something that instantly brought me back to my childhood. The smell was pleasant, piney, and evoked all kinds of memories of being in the woods of New Hampshire and Maine.
I have a good sense of smell and traced the scent to a small pillow sitting on an end table. After burying my face in it, I realized that the pillow was full of balsam needles. It smelled like the pine woods, and reminded me of balsam incense, maple sugar candy, very sharp Cheddar cheese, and country stores.
The power of smell is an incredible thing, and like any other sense, it connects directly with your brain, and evokes all kinds of sensations and memories. It also seems that some smells, especially those found in nature, may be really good for your health.
Researchers in Japan have found that spending time in the woods is a good thing for your health, and your sense of smell may have something to do with that effect. They have been studying the impact of walking in the woods, and have documented that time spent in natural settings can yield all kinds of health benefits. They have coined the term “forest bathing”, and it seems that hanging out in the forest can lower your blood pressure, decrease stress, ward off depression, and increase your immunity. (Check out this article from Outside Magazine.)
From the perspective of Chinese medicine, this finding isn’t surprising. The natural world around us is one of the foundations on which this medicine is built. A basic concept is that we are all miniature models of the earth and the universe, and as such exhibit some of the same characteristics as the natural world. In fact, much of the language of Chinese medicine parallels the weather, seasons, and other natural phenomena. As a result, much of what is understood about the body is described in metaphor from nature.
We also know from Chinese medicine that your environment plays a pivotal role in your health. Paying attention to seasonal changes and where you live is considered to be health promoting. For example, eating seasonally, regulating your activities according to the season, and compensating for a less-than-ideal environment (damp, humid, etc.) can be healthful.
One of the theories as to why walking in the woods has health benefits is because there are subtle scents given off in nature, most notably from evergreens, but from other trees and plants as well. I’m a person who used to laugh at the thought of aromatherapy having any effect at all on your health. However, over the years I have come to see the value of using certain scented essential oils as an additional healing tool in my practice. Clearly, the scent of balsam needles is a healing tonic for me.
Finally, why wouldn’t walking in the woods be good for you? It’s beautiful, quiet, and…uh, natural. It puts you closer to your elemental self and the divine–however you describe it for yourself. So, if you want to do something healthy right now, go take a stroll in the nearest park or woods; you’ll feel better for having done so.