Until recently, I had no real idea of what Forest bathing was. I had heard of it in passing, and that was about it. I started thinking about it more when I was looking up at the underside of trees and thinking about how happy it made me. This led to wanting to find out more about Forest bathing, what it was and how I could do it!
The history of Forest bathing
Shinrin-yoku (森林浴), which literally translates to ‘forest bath’, is the original form of Forest bathing. It is an ecotherapy that was developed in Japan in the 1980s after the government conducted scientific studies on the benefits of spending time in Forests. Their studies showed that 2 hours of mindful forest exploration provided several physiological and psychological benefits, including lowering cortisol levels, reducing blood pressure and improving concentration and memory. Trees also release phytoncides which have a protective antimicrobial effect on humans; when people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies increase the production of white blood cells which boosts the immune system. Based on these findings, Shinrin-yoku was introduced as a national health programme in Japan.
More recently, Forest bathing has become popular worldwide for a number of reasons. People are spending more time indoors and are feeling burnt out and overstressed. Forest bathing is a way to connect to nature and increase general feelings of wellbeing.
How to practice Forest bathing
Dr Qing Li, author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing and President of the Society of Forest Medicine gives the following advice on Forest bathing: “Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”
Forest bathing is not just going for a walk in the woods – although that is great, too! – it is taking time and being mindful in nature, engaging all five senses and being present in the moment. It is noticing the colours and textures of everything around you, you could touch the bark of a tree or listen to the babbling of a stream. There are no strict rules, but being mindful and present are important.
If possible, it can help to go into the woods at a less busy time such as early in the morning or a bit later on in the evening. This reduces distractions and allows you to focus on your natural surroundings. Take as much time as you need to connect and unwind. You can find somewhere to sit and soak it all in, or you can slowly walk through the trees, noticing the different sounds, sights and smells as you go by. This comes down to what you are most comfortable with and find most relaxing. A lot of people recommend 2 to 3 hours of Forest bathing but the amount of time is really down to you and your preference. If you only have time for a 20-minute wander around the woods, that will still be beneficial to your wellbeing.
Another way to reduce distraction is to either leave your phone at home or turn it off/put it on silent. It may not be possible to do this for a variety of reasons but do try to use electronic devices as little as possible when Forest bathing so that you can immerse yourself in your surroundings.
Try to use all of your senses. Listen to the rustling of leaves in the wind and the birdsong around you. If you are near water, listen to the sounds it makes as it moves along. Look at the trees and plants around you and notice their patterns and textures. You may even spot some wildlife – anything from a beetle to deer – notice how it makes you feel being around different creatures. Notice the smells of the woods, the musty earth and decaying plants along with the fresh new growth and floral scents caught in the breeze. Touch the tree trunks and feel their bark, stroke some moss or dip your hand in a stream. Taste the crisp air – you may not want to taste much else, although you may enjoy a little snack of some nettle seeds or blackberries if you’re in the right place at the right time!
Make sure you pay close attention to your breathing. Take slow, deep breaths. Taking twice as long to exhale as you do to inhale sends a signal to your body and brain to relax. You could even try a breathing exercise such as box breathing or alternate nostril breathing.
The effects of Forest bathing
There are numerous reported psychological and physiological effects of Forest bathing. Although I have talked about going into the Forest or woods specifically, Dr Qing Li does note that you can achieve some effects by walking in parks. However, according to his studies, you would need to take a walk in an urban park every day to achieve what you could by visiting a Forest once a month. He suggests that the greater the concentration of trees and the larger the expanse, the greater the positive effects.
Effects of Forest bathing include, but are not limited to:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Improved energy levels
- Lower stress
- Boosted immune system
- Improved pain thresholds
- Improved cardiovascular and metabolic health
- Lifted depression
There is even a substance in soil called Mycobacterium vaccae that can make you feel happier. It can help you feel more positive, improve cognitive functioning and increase your energy levels.
Forest bathing is good for you both psychologically and physiologically in numerous ways.
My experience of Forest bathing
I went Forest bathing for an hour on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Leigh Woods. After reading so much about the effects that Forest bathing can have on wellbeing, I was more than ready to give it a go myself. Work had been busier and more stressful than usual and general life had been feeling difficult. I managed to go on one of the hottest days in September when the temperature was around 28 degrees Celsius and it was a relief to walk through the cool woods. According to Dr Qing Li, the concentration of phytoncides is at its highest at temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius so this was a great time to go!
I didn’t prepare much, I just made sure I had enough water and snacks with me and set off. I walked aimlessly through the woods and found spots that were quieter so I could just be. I watched squirrels play and listened to the birdsong. I felt the branches of trees gently stroking my skin as I walked through denser parts of the woods. I noticed the smell of the damp ground and fragrant trees. I also sat on a log and did box breathing for a little while.
I am already someone that appreciates nature and enjoys going on walks through the woods, however, the biggest difference was the mindfulness I practised whilst forest bathing. I walked more slowly and took time to notice my surroundings. I also didn’t put my headphones on as I normally would and placed importance on listening to the sounds of the woods. I have had severe anxiety for as long as I can remember, so although I did believe that Forest Bathing is good for you, I didn’t expect it to help me quite as much as it did. I even came across some types of mushrooms I hadn’t seen before!
Once I came to the end of the hour or so I looked at my phone to ascertain my surroundings and found it would take me about 2 hours to get home. I also noticed that my phone battery was low and since I have absolutely no sense of direction and Google Maps is my best friend, this would usually cause a small panic that I might not find my way home. I also then got lost in the woods for around another hour. However, I was so relaxed from my time forest bathing that I appreciated my extra time in the woods and trusted myself to get home. I was tired by the time I did get home but I wasn’t stressed; I felt calm and happy.
I found that even a few days later, I had a stronger sense of wellbeing and felt calmer. It is something I will definitely continue to practice and find time for as it was surprisingly effective at reducing my anxiety and boosting my happiness.
Would you try Forest bathing? How could you spend more time in nature?
Resources on Forest bathing
Practicing forest-bathing: fewer maladies, more well-being? – Kirsten Dirksen talks to Dr Qing Li about his research.
into the forest: How trees can help you find health and happiness – Book by Dr Qing Li. Also available on Audible.
Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature – Book by M. Amos Clifford
https://tfb.institute/scientific-research/ – The Forest Bathing Institute
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