Why mindful forest bathing can make us feel less stressed
Whatever the season, going for a walk in the forest is always a feast for the senses. But there could be more to it than that – forest bathing practitioner Faith Douglas explains how time spent among the trees can have benefits for both mind and body
You may have already heard of the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, otherwise known as forest bathing. If not, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that you need to pack your swimwear and a towel to take part. In fact, you don’t even need to know how to swim to enjoy this wonderfully therapeutic activity.
Forest bathing is an ancient technique practiced by cultures all over the world, recently growing in popularity across the UK and the US (there’s evidence that our ancestors were also practitioners). Combining mindful breathing with the presence of trees to make a connection to nature, some countries even have designated woodlands and forests that are purely to be used for this purpose.
Aside from the obvious positive effects that being in a beautiful woodland can have on our wellbeing, time spent forest bathing has been shown to lower the heart rate and blood pressure, reduce production of the stress hormone cortisol and boost the immune system. Trees naturally give off something called ‘phytoncides’, or wood essential oils, to protect themselves from germs and insects. When inhaled, these oils have a beneficial impact on our nervous systems. This means that simply by being within a wooded area we can help to reduce stress levels, balance our moods and improve our overall quality of life. “Our forest environments can be viewed as therapeutic landscapes. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better – inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function,” concluded a study of forest bathing by researchers from Japan’s Chiba University.
Lindsay from Masham, England, practices forest bathing along the banks of her local river. “The river bank is lined with trees. Most days, whatever the weather, I take a walk down there. I love trees and I often find myself sitting underneath them, just simply watching the water. When the weather is good I like to paddle, too. I love the feeling, the sense of freedom – it’s a great way of releasing stress and worries for me.”
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Forest bathing is firmly embedded in Japanese culture, with some Japanese companies actually insisting that their employees make regular visits to shinrin-yoku forests, recognising the positive effects that being outdoors in nature has on the workplace as staff return to work more focused, more productive and all-round happier people.
So what exactly should we do when we visit our nearest woodland? The key to forest bathing is to slow down – leave your mountain bike and orienteering maps at home. Forest bathing is all about being mindful, taking time to inhale deeply, to relax fully and to absorb the sublime, natural environment around you.
Kelly from Huddersfield, England, likes to use a technique called ‘earthing’ during her forest bathing sessions. “Taking my shoes and socks off really helps to ground me and makes me aware of where I am and what I am doing,” explains Kelly. “It’s very easy for my mind to wander to events in the day or work. I feel the most amazing energetic boost afterwards and my feet feel just like I have had a reflexology session!”
Forest bathing can soothe our minds and bodies at any time of the year, but as we move through the autumn season, we get to enjoy the added benefits of its rich colours, crisp fresh air and swirls of fallen leaves. Whether you choose to take your boots off, or keep your toes cosy, now really is the perfect time to wrap up in your favourite scarf and head for the healing trees.
How to forest bathe
Shake it off
Set the scene and create intention by shaking off your ‘stuff’. When animals that have been held in captivity are released back into the wild you will often see them ‘shaking off’, as though they are shaking off the modern world. We can do this too – actively shake your arms, legs and body and set the intention of leaving your inner chatter behind, before you head on in to bathe.
Try listening to the sounds of nature with your hands cupped behind your ears, or closing your eyes and listening. Observe the sound of your feet crunching through the autumn leaves, or the cracking of twigs underfoot. The more you listen, the more you’ll find you hear!
Pick a tree and take time to really examine it and get to know it. Sit under it, touch its bark, feel its leaves and notice its scent. If you like, you could create artistic patterns using the natural materials around you.
Tune into the weather
Use each kind of weather to connect with the environment around you. Ground yourself in the present moment by listening to the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, feeling the rain against your skin or watching how the sunlight plays through leaves and branches.
Read on to learn more about forest bathing!
Explore nature like never before by opening your senses to the healing powers of forest bathing.
Many of us have experienced the calming effects of being in nature. Not only does it enable us to relax, but it also helps us to have a deeper connection with ourselves and the world around us. The Japanse practice of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, aims to encourage just that.
What is forest bathing?
Shinrin-yoku is the process of taking in the forest through our senses. Developed in Japan during the 1980s, it is now increasingly practiced across the world.
The ancient technique combines walking slowly in a forest with mindful breathing and opening your senses to your surroundings. The practice has been proven to provide a positive impact for both body and mind. It connects us with the healing power of nature by providing calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits.
What are the health benefits of forest bathing?
Often referred to as the medicine of the natural forest, scientific studies demonstrate the healing properties of being in the natural environment.
Forest bathing practitioners say the benefits of forest bathing are reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, boosted functioning of the immune system, improved mood and sleep, increased energy and ability to focus as well as quicker recovery from surgery or illness.
Forest bathing research suggests that people who spend time in nature "report being more energetic, in good overall health, and have more of a sense of meaningful purpose in life".
But why is forest bathing so good for us? A 2019 study found that spending just 2 hours in nature every week can help you to feel healthy and more satisfied with your lifestyle. You don't need to be doing anything – just spending time surrounded by nature is enough. Green space has a powerful effect on our stress levels too – even looking at pictures of trees can help us to feel calmer.
The benefits of nature therapy have long been recognised. Cyrus the Great in ancient Persia planted lush green gardens in the heart of his capital to promote calm – and this was over 2,000 years ago.
A regular practice can lead to clearer intuition, increased energy and life force, a deeper connection with others and the world around us as well as an overall increase in the feeling of happiness.
How to practise forest bathing
If you don't want to join a class or a club, it's perfectly possible to enjoy forest bathing alone. You can bring friends with you for a walk or go by yourself if you know the area well.
Set off on a relaxed stroll and don't worry too much about the route, just follow the path before you. Pause now and then to examine a leaf, or a cluster of mushrooms. Study the patterns in tree bark and trace the lines with your fingertips. If you're taking friends with you, try not to talk until you've reached then end of the walk so that you can fully enjoy the experience.
Settle down and listen to the sounds of the forest. What animals can you see or hear? Do they draw closer to you when you sit in silence? Take a moment to meditate quietly and recharge your batteries.
Another mindful way to enjoy your time in the forest is to focus on the trees and spend some time identifying them. Check out this great guide from BBC Countryfile on how to identify British trees.
Where to go forest bathing
Some countries have designated woodlands for forest bathing so there's no excuse not to do it.
- Explore the forest like never before with one of Shinrin-Yoku's upcoming Guided Forest Therapy walks in North San Francisco Bay.
- You don't need to travel halfway around the world to reap the benefits - use their WorldWide Forest Therapy Guide Locator to find a certified guide in your area.
- For UK readers, visit the Forestry Commission to find woodland in your local area.
- In the UK, visiting an arboretum can be a good way to spend more time in nature. Learn how to find solace in nature at an arboretum.
Looking for more ways to practice nature therapy? Look up to the heavens and appreciate the constellations with our mindful stargazing guide, learn how to be a mindful bird watcher, enjoy cloud watching the mindful way, or discover why spending time by the sea is good for our physical and mental health.
About In The Moment Magazine
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 5. Additional words by Gemma Harris. Unfortunately In The Moment Magazine is no longer available in print, but In The Moment Magazine back issues are available on Readly.