Words by Lydia Paleschi
Entering a forest and retreating into its leafy arms is like closing a door on the clamour of the outside world. The realm of distraction and responsibility fades into the background, replaced instead with the welcoming scent of vegetation and earth. Moss covered trees are there to greet you like old friends, their branches open-armed and their trunks rising reliably from the ground.
As you peer upwards towards the sky, dappled light filters through the canopies. The sun’s rays illuminate the leaves in a spectrum of greens, yellows and reds depending on the species and the time of year. On breezier days, you hear the leaves gently whisper to one another as they’re kissed by the wind. Some are bidding the others farewell, before drifting towards the ground to greet the unfurling ferns and fungi.
There’s something intrinsically nurturing about being in the presence of trees: they embody the maternal aspects of Mother Nature, generously giving up their roots, leaves, branches and bark to provide both refuge and sustenance to birds, insects and other woodland creatures. They filter the air for us to breathe, and are known to provide nourishment to younger trees and saplings via complex root systems, before they decay and descend towards the earthy undergrowth as they near the end of their lives.
What is forest bathing?
Forest bathing, originally a concept known as ‘shinrin-yoku’ was first developed in Japan in the 1980s. It is based upon the idea of slowing down and being quiet amongst the trees. By focusing on breathing deeply and observing nature, studies show that two hours of forest bathing can lead to reduced blood pressure, lower cortisol (stress hormones), and improved concentration and memory. However, the positive effects can be felt from as little as fifteen minutes. Research has also demonstrated a reduction in stress, depression, anger, anxiety and sleeplessness amongst participants of any age.
Today, there are over 44 accredited shinrin-yoku forests in Japan, with forest bathing becoming a cornerstone of preventative healthcare. In the UK, it has increased in popularity in recent years, at a time where research shows that connecting to nature – and particularly to blue and green spaces – has a positive effect on human health.
How to forest bathe
If you’ve never been forest bathing before, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Turn your phone onto aeroplane mode, or leave it at home
Spending time in nature allows us to wind down and leave behind the urgency of day to day tasks which often occupy large areas of our headspace. Forest bathing is a great way to take a break from technology, to allow our minds to clear and to feel more in tune with our true selves. You’d be surprised how much easier it is to make life defining decisions and to check in with your state of wellbeing whilst having some time disconnected from the chaos of your normal schedule.
- Go alone
Whilst sharing experiences with others can often make them more enjoyable, you’re more likely to reap the full benefits of forest bathing whilst alone. It allows you to fully detach from normality and for the forest environment to filter into your senses without distraction. If you do opt to go with others, make an agreement to resist talking until the end of the walk.
- Seek out a large area away from roads and other modern sounds
To obtain the true feeling of escapism intrinsic to forest bathing, it’s best to leave behind the noise of modern life and replace it with the sounds of the forest. Even if you’re not particularly far away from civilisation, it will make you feel like you’re off the beaten track so that you can relax and discover greater mental clarity.
- Move slowly
Wandering slowly through the trees can be an almost meditative experience. Placing one foot in front of another without any determined destination allows your body to take it where it wants. Pausing from time to time, or sitting down somewhere to observe things more closely will also give you a greater opportunity to observe your surroundings. By pausing for a while, you’re also more like to see birds, animals and other wildlife as they become accustomed to your presence.
- Activate your senses
For the best chances of achieving relaxation, forest bathing should be a full sensory forest-based experience. It may take a while to notice them, but there are many sounds in the forest. Try listening out for birdsong chorusing from the canopies, or perhaps a water source burbling nearby. If not, you’ll still be able to hear the sound of your footsteps on the ground as branches and leaves crackle and pop beneath your feet. Touching the plants and trees will also contribute to a greater sense of immersion, as will pausing to take a closer look at individual things you come across. For example, the delicate structure of veins upon a plant leaf or the different species of moss and lichen that can be found upon the bark.
- Pay attention to your breathing
Achieving a connection between body and mind is greatly aided through long breaths deep into the abdomen. Breathing in for 7 seconds, then breathing out for 11 also encourages relaxation.