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Last Updated on 20/03/2021
In the primaeval forest of Puketi on New Zealand’s North Island, some 2,000-year-old Kauri trees tower over the muddy walkway. I stare up at the mighty trees in awe and breathe in deeply. The fragrant earthy scent greets my nose and I sense a stillness in the air. I feel calm and at peace.
No, this isn’t the opening to a meditation session – although it’s not far off. I’m practising the Japanese art of ‘shinrin-yoku’, otherwise known as forest bathing therapy, nature therapy or simply forest bathing.
The term refers to a particular state of being when you connect with nature. The goal is to submerge yourself in the atmosphere of the forest and if done correctly, it boosts your mood and reduces anxiety.
After feeling the power of forest bathing among New Zealand’s enormous kauri trees, I adopted the practice into many of my walks in nature. It became something I would later rely on heavily during the coronavirus pandemic when nature was – and still is – a lifeline for my mental wellbeing.
So, what exactly is forest bathing therapy?
Although it sounds like an ancient Japanese tradition, forest bathing as a specific term is actually relatively new. It was first coined in 1982 by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries who set up dedicated nature reserves for forest bathing programs.
Shinrin-yoku provided a space for people to relax in and unwind. It was an antidote to Japan’s increasing urbanisation and culture of overwork which was affecting people’s mental health, leading to what became known as ‘karoshi’ – death by overwork.
‘Shinrin,’ meaning forest and ‘yoku,’ meaning bath sounds like the practice involves sitting in a tub surrounded by a canopy of trees. Not bad, right? Except there’s actually no water involved. It’s more of a sensory bath. What you soak up is the forest’s atmosphere.
Today, this nature therapy is an activity which is enjoyed by people all over the world as a way to unplug, decompress and reconnect with the natural environment. It can be practised anywhere. All you need are a few trees and to know how to do it.
The benefits of forest bathing
Humans have become increasingly divorced from the natural world over the years. On a global scale, more of us live in urban areas than rural. By 2050, it’s predicted that 66% of the world’s population will live in urban areas!
On top of that, a study found that the average British person spends 22 hours indoors which comes to about 90% of their day. Americans spend slightly more time indoors at 93%. Of course, a recent global pandemic forcing most of us to stay at home certainly hasn’t helped matters.
It’s easy to forget that we humans belong in the natural world. It’s as simple as that. Studies have proven that nature helps us relax and elevates our mood and wellbeing. I’m sure we can all remember a time when we’ve felt refreshed and rejuvenated after spending time outdoors.
In a little more detail, forest bathing therapy has been known to:
- Reduce stress
- Encourage feelings of ‘rest and recover’ instead of ‘fight or flight’
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve sleep
- Improve mental health
- Clear your mind and help you think more clearly
- Increase feelings of awe which leads to a deeper respect for the natural world
But it even goes deeper than that. Research has found that spending time under a canopy of trees and breathing in phytoncides (wood oils) has a profoundly positive impact on the immune system. You can read more about that study here if you’re interested.
Put simply, trees can make us healthy. What’s more, the benefits can last for up to a month.
Your forest therapy guide – how to do it
The practice is perfectly possible on your own. In fact, you might prefer to be to get the full benefits. You can also enlist the help of a trained guide if you want to study it further or you’re not too comfortable being outdoors by yourself.
The minimum amount of time for an optimum forest bathing session is about two hours. This time in nature is not about exercise but a chance to absorb yourself in your surroundings. Don’t feel pressured to go on a full-on hike. Walking about 1.5 miles is more than enough.
The first step is to find a spot in nature that makes you feel calm and happy and has plenty of trees. Turn off all electronics or keep them out of reach so you don’t get distracted.
The last thing you want is to succumb to ‘technostress’, a condition we’ve probably all experienced which is brought about by information overload and continuous contact with our electronic devices. It’s the exact opposite of forest bathing.
Having said that, turning off electronic devices is easier said than done when you’re not used to spending time with only your thoughts. I know from experience how tempting it is to put on a podcast or listen to music.
I’ve found that the best way is to wean yourself off gradually rather than go cold turkey. If you plan to go outside for an hour, spend half of it listening to music and switch the device off for the other half. Just remember to go easy on yourself. Like anything, forest bathing is a skill you have to learn.
Next, allow yourself to wander. You don’t need to have a particular path in mind. Let your feet take you where they want to go. It’s not a race or a hike. You can wander around in a circle and go back on yourself or you can take a couple of paces and sit down. You’re not meant to be going anywhere so take your time, walk slowly and aimlessly and just be.
Some people find that sitting on a bench helps them connect with nature so you don’t necessarily have to walk. In fact, you can experience the benefits through meditation, yoga or doing crafts outside. As long as you’re relaxed and surrounded by plants and trees then you’re doing it right.
These stunning secluded getaways are perfect if you want to spend a night or two in nature.
Let your senses be your guide
The key to unlocking the power of nature is your five senses. Put all distractions aside and invite the natural world in through sight, smell, hearing, touch and even taste.
So many of us are glued to our screens that we fail to notice our surroundings. Now is your chance to really look around you. Watch the dappled sunlight through the trees. Notice the different colours of the leaves. Study the ground beneath your feet.
Listen to the tread of your footsteps and the birds singing in the branches. Breathe in the fresh forest air. Allow yourself to really gulp it down, smelling the natural woodland fragrances.
Dip your hands into a stream. Throw your arms around a tree (go on, be a tree-hugger – it’s good for you!). Lie down on the ground, close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the trees. Feel yourself relaxing deep into happiness.
Where to go forest bathing
Luckily, you don’t need to journey to Japan or New Zealand and walk among ancient trees to experience the effects of forest bathing. You don’t even need to go to a remote forest, a specific woodland or somewhere far away from your front door.
All you really need is a couple of trees in your sights. In fact, once you know how to do it you can go anywhere in nature that makes you feel comfortable, brings you joy and helps you relax. Forest bathing can easily be done near you. It could be your local woodland, countryside or park. Nothing fancy at all!
If you have no local access to greenspaces around you, garden therapy can work just as well – just on a smaller scale. You can also create a nature space in your own home with a few houseplants and forest sounds.
The important thing is to teach yourself to be mindful of your presence in nature. Whatever you have access to, immerse yourself in it. Think about how it makes you feel and pay attention to your senses. Let them guide you, not the other way around.
What to pack
Forest bathing is suitable for all fitness levels, but there are a few things you should consider to make the most of your time. The first being the weather. Truthfully, you can enjoy the benefits of nature in any climate in the world as long as it’s comfortable for you. Get too hot or too cold and it’ll increase your stress levels. You’ll also be thinking of little else.
To help you avoid thinking about your body temperature, pack for the weather you’ll be in. Wear comfortable and loose-fitting clothing that gives you the freedom to move about in. Make sure your shoes are sturdy and suit the terrain you’ll be walking in.
Bring plenty of water to keep yourself hydrated and perhaps a snack or two for a little energy boost now and again. Insect repellent and sunscreen are always a good idea when you’re outdoors.
If you can, leave those electronics at home or turn them off and stash them away in your bag. As tempting as it is to listen to music or check your phone, forest bathing therapy requires you to switch off and exist only in your surroundings.
Bear in mind, forest bathing isn’t hiking – although you can certainly feel the benefits on a long walk. You don’t need all the fancy hiking equipment and a route to plan. You just need to be comfortable and your mind to be open.
So that’s forest bathing therapy!
Forest bathing is a balm for uncertain times. In an increasingly urbanised and digitised age, the simple act of immersing yourself nature can make you feel human again.
No matter how far we go, the natural world will always be a part of us. So, if you can go to a wooded area, take a deep breath and know that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be.
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