What is forest bathing?

The Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ or ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ is the act of walking in a forest, absorbing the surroundings and letting the atmosphere wash over and consume you. In other words, it is the act of being and walking in nature, but mindfully.

The Japanese practice of ‘forest bathing’ or ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ is the act of walking in a forest, absorbing the surroundings and letting the atmosphere wash over and consume you. In other words, it is the act of being and walking in nature, but mindfully.

Forest bathing was actually developed as a form of therapy in the 1980s in Japan, and soon became part of a national public health program to promote a healthier lifestyle. Nature is highly regarded and appreciated in Japan, which means forest bathing became very popular very quickly.

The figures around this therapeutic activity are astonishing. The Japanese government has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2004 and developed particular trails as part of the research. There are approximately 48 of these official Shinrin-Yoku accredited trails through forests in Japan, with the Forestry Agency looking to increase this to 100 in the next 5 years. On average between 2.5 – 5 million people walk the trails every year, and it works. Studies have proved that forest bathing reduces the stress hormones in our bodies, boosts our immune systems and generally improves our feelings of wellbeing. It has even been suggested that children with attention deficit disorders can benefit greatly from these therapeutic landscapes.

But it just sounds like going for a walk, right? Everyone already knows that going for a stroll in the woods helps us relax.

Well, apparently I’ve been doing it wrong and you probably have too.

I usually take a camera, a phone and a friend, effectively distracting myself the whole way. The point of forest bathing is to do nothing and to simply be among nature. No phones, no Fitbit and no talking. Don’t set any goals either: don’t aim to reach your 10,000 steps or to have a certain problem figured out in your mind by the time you emerge. That way you can stop thinking about your personal achievements and really be present. A kind of walking meditation.

It’s also important to experience your surroundings with all the senses. Pause every now and then to listen, to pick up a leaf, to snap a twig and smell the inside. This is so we can soak up the essential oils – phytoncides – emitted by evergreens and many other trees. Our natural killer immune cells (NK cells) have been monitored in numerous tests before and after forest bathing and it has been proven that our NK cell count is increased after exposure. This affects our ability to fight infections, and since the mid-1990s researchers have been studying particular tree ‘scents’ as possible tumour suppressors in cancer patients.

Qing Li, an immunologist at Nippon Medial School in Tokyo, has carried out several tests on this subject. One experiment (2005-2006) involved a group of businessmen from Tokyo carrying out both a morning hike and an afternoon hike over three days. Blood tests showed their NK cell count had increased by 40%, and a month later the count was still 15% higher than their original levels. This means that you are still benefiting from a walk in the woods even a month later.

It really is incredible to think that not only do you feel the instant lifting of your mood after a walk in nature, but that your body is actually responding positively on a cellular level. With more and more people living in cities, working in office buildings, exercising in gyms, it's no wonder anxiety is on a steep rise. If we imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors for a second, they would have spent the majority of their time outdoors. They wouldn't always have been relaxing and consciously soaking it in, but they would have been benefiting from nature's healing properties for a much longer period of the day than we do. Their 'indoor' spaces would have been simply for shelter, not entire 20-storey sky scrapers to spend the majority of their time in.

So, what if you live in a 20-storey building and don't live near an ancient woodland? Well, any piece of nature counts. Your local dog park, the landscaped gardens at the bottom of your building, or even the plants on your window sill. You'll need to work a little harder than you would in a large, all-consuming forest, but the principle is the same. Tune out the noise, the traffic, the people, and focus on the nature surrounding you. Get up close to the trees, touch the bark, poke your finger in the soil in your pots. Study the detail of the plants that you do have around you and filter out any distracting thoughts and feelings.

This post was written during the government imposed lockdown due to the spread of Covid-19. The fantastic silver lining is that we are allowed out once a day for a walk or exercise. Use it! If we are only permitted one hour outdoors each day, make the most of this time and absorb everything that your local patch of nature has to offer. Help your mind and body recover from the anxiety of the daily news updates and the frustration of being cooped up away from loved ones. Take this time to breathe deeply and reset.

For those who truly aren't able to get outside, studies have been carried out with an indoor vapouriser using essential oils from Hinoki cypress trees. Over three days of indoor exposure, NK cell counts showed a 20% increase. While shop-bought aromatherapy oils don’t give quite the same effects as a full forest bathing experience, they are certainly an amazing alternative for city dwellers.

For those fortunate enough to be able to stay at home during this time, there has never been a better time to slow right down and assess what is important. This new pace of life has been unsettling so it's time to listen to your mind and body. Combining this with our outdoor exercise allowance, means we can make our own versions of forest bathing a daily ritual. Book it in every single day. Plan a route in advance if that helps. Or simply wander where you feel to at the time. Either way, take the time to breathe deep and soak in all the benefits that forest bathing has to offer.

This is a fantastic article about forest bathing. The doctor mentioned writes a prescription of "Take 2 hours of pine forest and call me in the morning", highlighting the benefits of forest bathing.

© 2020 a quieter space | hello@aquieterspace.com