The practice of forest bathing or ‘shinrin-yoku’ has the power to reconnect us with nature, relieve stress and improve our health. Read our experts’ guide to find out how to get involved.
Words by Carol Donaldson
Have you ever ended a stressful day with a walk in the woods? As you follow a path through the trees, maybe a blackbird is calling away the day and evening sunlight is dappling the floor with light, and there’s a pleasant scent of moss and earth. You breathe out, your pace slows, the frantic rush in your head subsides a little, and whatever was bothering you just a few moments ago, seems a little less important.
If this sounds familiar, then you have experienced some of the benefits of forest bathing. Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, has been prescribed by Japanese doctors since the 1980s, but is based on something ancient and ingrained in us all – a love of nature. A need for the natural world that is written deep inside us and, without which, our physical and mental health begins to fray at the edges.
For 99% of human history, we have lived in and around woodlands. Our survival is dependent on an intimate knowledge of nature. Even when we became farmers, 11,000 years ago, we were still governed by the seasons and the forests were part of our everyday lives. We built our homes from wood, it was the fuel that baked our bread and a source of important medicines – it was the material that literally surrounded us from cradle to grave.
But, in recent human history, we abandoned this connection and forced ourselves to largely adapt to a noisy, fast-paced, yet largely sedentary, urbanised lifestyle. By 2050, it is projected that almost 70% of the world’s population will inhabit towns and cities.
According to Professor Eleonora Gullone in her paper The Biophilia Hypothesis and Life in the 21st Century: ‘We go on the assumption that the human species has an unlimited capacity to adapt to the environment, no matter how far removed it is from that in which we evolved.’
But evidence is mounting that we are not adapting well. Urban living causes our sympathetic nervous system, which controls the well-known ‘fight or flight’ response, to be on constant high alert. This stress leads to physical problems such as high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as anxiety and depression.
The good news is that our nervous systems can be calmed by reconnecting with nature, and the positive effects are felt most strongly by taking a walk in the woods. And while there are hundreds of courses and trips on offer these days, it is easy to go out and do it on your own, for free, at a time and place of your choosing.
Japan is one of the most densely populated and technologically advanced countries in the world, but it also has a deep-rooted cultural connection with nature. Devotees of the Shinto religion believe that spirits reside in trees and all life is sacred.
It was in Japan that researchers began a series of experiments to measure the link between forest bathing and human health. They discovered that after only 30 minutes a day of walking around and looking at woodlands, participants experienced lower pulse rates, blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
There are numerous reasons why walking beneath trees is good for us. Trees release oxygen, and breathing deeply beneath the canopy oxygenates our lungs. They also emit chemicals known as phytoncides, aromatic oils which drift down from the canopy and increase human NK (natural killer) cells, which help fight off infection and tumours.
But how does forest bathing differ from a simple walk in the woods? According to Phil Richards, who runs shinrin-yoku sessions around Ebbw Valley, near the Brecon Beacons: ‘The biggest difference between going for a walk in a forest and forest bathing is intention. Usually, we are walking to get to a certain point or for exercise.
But with forest bathing, our intention is to allow experience and connection to unfold with awareness.’
Living in the moment
I decide it’s time to try it for myself and head with my friend Karen to our local woodland.
‘Ancient woodlands are best,’ says Phil, but any connection with the natural world has benefits. Researchers have found prefrontal brain activity was calmed just by looking at house plants or handling natural wood.
We spot the first signs of spring as we enter the woods. Hazel catkins dust us with pollen and a herd of deer scatters, bob- tailing in alarm through the trees. Phil suggested that we begin with a short meditation. Many forest bathing courses recommend leaving technology behind, so you can fully concentrate on the experience, but I’ve opted to use a guided audio meditation created by mindfulness teacher, Cesare Saguato.
As I try to relax, I realise that my breathing is shallow and that the muscles in my neck are tight – signs of stress I wasn’t aware of until that moment. Then I notice the noise of a tiny stream and a wren singing brightly in the undergrowth. My breathing calms.
Ten minutes later, I am already feeling better as we set off on a silent walk through the woodlands, trying to tread lightly between the trees. Slow walking is part of many forest bathing experiences, but for those who like to move at speed through the landscape, it is still possible to be mindful. Cesare Saguato, co-created RUN:ZEN, which offers courses on mindful running. ‘You can move fast and still pay attention to the sensations of contact with each footfall,’ he says. ‘Each time your mind wanders, bring it back gently to the sensations on the soles of your feet.
And there’s no right or wrong way to do it. Each experience is deeply personal. There is no pass or fail.’
Paying attention is a key part of any forest bathing session, but so often we move through a landscape caught up in conversation or our own thoughts and don’t notice what’s around us at all. Our next exercise is all about focusing on the detail.
With my eyes closed, Karen leads me towards different things that have caught her attention. At each scene, she taps me on the shoulder and I ‘click’ my eyes open, like a human camera. The first is a tiny white mushroom clinging to a birch twig, bathed in afternoon sunlight. It is a revelation, a work of art that I would have missed – suddenly patterns and colours leap out at me. It’s almost as if I’m seeing the woods for the first time or in high definition.
Our last task is to place picnic blankets beneath the trees, lie back and look up at the canopy. The branches crosshatch the sky, seven gulls drift by and the deer edge closer. All around, I can almost hear a million roots absorbing water beneath the forest floor. Dog walkers appear but, strangely, I don’t feel embarrassed.
When we first entered the woods, I didn’t feel comfortable – I felt like a stranger, as if I were intruding. But now I feel much more at home. It’s as if, by paying attention to the trees, I’ve earned the right to be here.
This encapsulates what forest bathing is all about, says Phil. ‘The reason I feel inspired to be a part of it is to get back this connection with nature for people. One of the biggest issues we face today is a lack of connection, which manifests as a lack of respect for the environment. Once we take time to really look, we can see wonder and miracle all around us, even in a simple leaf that buds in the spring.’
Guided forest bathing
Shinrin Yoku Wales
Day courses with experienced forest therapy practitioner, Phil Richards, at Ebbw Vale.
They offer three-hour forest bathing sessions with experienced rangers in the Forest Of Dean, Gloucestershire and Blackwood Forest, Hampshire.
Forest Therapy Scotland
Caitlin Keddie, Scotland’s first certified guide, offers day courses across the Central Belt.
Five ways to reconnect with nature
Forest bathing is about paying attention and experiencing the woodlands with all five senses. A forest bathing session could include the following elements:
A short meditation calms the mind and helps you to be in the present moment. There are plenty of smartphone apps and websites that can help.
2. Slow walking
Pay attention to each footstep, the temperature of the air and the way your body moves. Take your shoes off and walk barefoot.
3. Canopy viewing
Sling a hammock between the trees, lie on a blanket or embrace the forest floor by covering yourself in leaf litter.
4. Play games
Using all your senses, be a human camera, try blindfolded tree hugging, create cocktails of woodland fragrances. Games don’t have to be just for kids.
5. Eat the view
Take a woodland-inspired picnic beneath the canopy – salads with hazelnuts or chestnut soup. You can even try brewing your own pine needle tea – most pine varieties
can be used, but exercise caution if you’re unsure.
WIN! Book giveaway
Forest Bathing: All You Need to Know in One Concise Manual
By Sarah Devos and Katriina Kilpi (£12,99, Haynes Publishing)
At times of stress, getting out into the natural environment can work wonders. In this new book, the co-authors explain what forest bathing involves, providing advice on where and when to go, what to expect, plus easily achieved hands-on assignments. There is even space to note observations, and tips to integrate the forest even more deeply into your everyday life. We have five copies to give away.
Visit our competitions page and enter by 20 May 2021