The Joy Of Forest Bathing
As I stood motionless on the forest path, hand on tree, nature began to reveal herself in layers. First, I heard the leaves in the breeze then, birdsong. Next, the babbling of a brook in the distance and finally the rustling of creatures in the underbrush. The noise rose to an almost thunderous crescendo as I breathed in – all my senses engaged – while feeling the tree’s energy vibrating from its roots beneath my feet, through my body. Just then, two wee chipmunks (I live in Canada) in chase emerged, lightening speed, in front of me. The first instantly disappeared back into the forest, but the second frozen on the spot, locked eyes with me for a split second, before it retreated as speedily as it came – leaving me with the greatest joy I had felt all year. I was so moved, that I burst into tears, instantly feeling silly at having such an overwhelming emotional response – this what not what I had expected from my first attempt at ‘forest bathing’.
I became interested in forest bathing a few years ago when a series of documentaries appeared, including Dame Judi Dench’s My Passion for Trees (BBC1) and Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees. Like humans, trees form families and communities, talking to each other through their root systems. And they, literally, exude health benefits to any humans amongst them. Trees emit phytoncides – airborne aromatic oleo-chemicals – that are meant to ward off damaging insects and bacteria but when inhaled by humans, they improve our immunity and resistance to bacteria and viruses plus boost our natural tumour-killing cells.
The Japanese have known the joy of immersing yourself in the forest for years, firstly, thanks to their culturally ingrained Shinto reverence for the natural world. But, in 1982, Japanese scientists discovered that being amongst the trees, leaning against their trunks, and yes, hugging them – measurably reduced stress and lowered blood pressure in as little as three minutes of exposure. This led the Forest Agency of Japan to launch a nation-wide preventative health programme of ’shinrin-yoku’ (taking in the forest atmosphere).
Many of you who have been taking regular walks in green spaces during the pandemic lockdown, have no doubt, already experienced the physical and mental health benefits to a spot of forest bathing. Dr Aisha Ahmad, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, has seen the mental health benefits first-hand while working in the heart of conflict-zones such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan. ‘Wherever there is disaster, you will experience prolonged periods of confinement. The green space is a magical remedy to the internal distress of being confined,’ she says, ‘It is one of the most effective mental health tools that I know of.’
As the pandemic restrictions are easing, and the weather is more inviting, Ahmad says, ‘Our societal contract with our green spaces has changed. [We should see them] not as unlimited leisure spaces but rather as essential and rationed mental health spaces that we all need in a very different way. When you see that this walk, this park that used to be just sort of pretty and pleasant, is now keeping you alive and well on the inside – it is a transformative experience.’
There are also physiological mental benefits to forest bathing. Part of our brain, the hippocampus, is very active in forming auto-biographical memory and memories of events and the best way to maintain or strengthen this faculty is also the main rule in forest-bathing: immersing in and exploring your natural surroundings, the way we used to do as children.
‘Children are unblemished explorers,‘ says Michael Bond, a science journalist and author of From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing our Way. ‘If you watch a child in their environment, they move in a very different way to adults. If you ask an adult to go from A to B, they tend to go there in the most direct or quickest way. But a child won’t do that, they will start off and get distracted by things they find along the route and the destination.’ This is how you should approach a session of forest-bathing. But avoid using your phone to navigate because, Bond explains, this negates the memory-building benefits of exploration.
If you want to venture off the beaten path but want to avoid getting truly lost, most forest agencies in Europe and North America, as well as the UK’s National Trust, offer beginner advice for trails. For guided tours and other forest-bathing experiences, such as tea ceremonies visit the Association of Forest and Nature Therapy or Forest Bathing International. Forestry England has information on How to Start Forest Bathing and Feel Fantastic and Forest Bathing at Home.
Here are my top tips to make the most of your forest bathing experience:
Pick a time of the day when the trail it is less likely to be busy – passers-by harsh your buzz.
What one considers a slow pace in day-to-day life, becomes even slower when forest bathing. Leave yourself plenty of time, so as not to feel rushed.
Plan your route, then silence all technology or leave it at home (except for maybe a camera), so you can spontaneously go off the beaten track, lie down in the grass, hug a tree or whatever whim overtakes you, without disruption.
Wear comfortable clothes and shoes; take sunscreen and a hat and have some insect repelling body lotion.
… and above all, enjoy.
Alexia Economou is a design and culture journalist, and regular TNMA contributor @thedesignfeedTW