Forest bathing is not what it sounds like, assuming you think it sounds like taking a bath in the forest. The first thing to know: You’re fully clothed, and unless it rains, there’s no water involved.
Instead, forest bathing (or “shinrin-yoku”) is the practice of spending time in nature for the purpose of benefiting your physical and mental well-being. The concept was first popularised in Japan in the 1980s, when stressed-out workers were encouraged to reconnect with nature as a way to de-stress.
Interestingly as a side note, sleep research shows that Japan have some of the worse statistics in terms of sleep duration. They struggle with the work life balance and don’t get much over 5 hours a night on average as a nation!
Subsequent research studies showed its effectiveness at improving immune function and mood while reducing blood pressure. So, there are many reasons to head for your nearest forest.
Now, if you really want to test the stress-reducing value of forest bathing, do what I did: Have a logistics mix up, turn up late. That’ll give you plenty to work through once you begin.
That includes acknowledging the forest as more than just scenery — after all, the forest is alive, and you’re entering its domain. So the walk began with a simple hello. In this case, by our speaking the words, “Hello, forest” to the trees in front of us. Greeting covered, we moved on.
The primary tenets of forest bathing as connecting with nature through physical presence and also through mindfulness. Because it’s difficult to enjoy the full stress-reducing effects of your environment if you’re on your phone or otherwise distracted. That’s why it’s suggested practicing awareness to really engage with your surroundings. Fortunately, there are plenty of pro tips for turning the esoteric into the practical.
First up: Use your senses
To channel that mindfulness into something tangible, perform a few exercises during our walk. Not, like, lunges or something, but exercises meant to bring greater awareness to each of the five senses.
In a forest, there’s no shortage of things to look at. But you don’t want to miss the trees for the forest, so to speak. So rather than walking down the path, peripherally scanning all the greenery around you, stop to really look at it. Notice individual trees and the shape of their canopies. Notice their visible roots and the nearby plants. Spot some birds or berries or other walkers. Really recognise what’s around you, and you might start to feel some harmony with your surroundings.
Look into the forest. See it and let it see you. Try to acknowledge that connection.
Forests make noise. The wind rustling through the trees, birds chirping and branches crunching underfoot all contribute to the atmosphere like a verdant orchestra. Listen to it all together, and then try listening to solitary pieces of the melody. Be mindful of what you’re hearing, and you can better appreciate it.
The forest is full of textures, from rough trunks to smooth leaves. But one of the best ways to truly touch the forest is to simply stand on it. Often called grounding, this practice involves standing barefoot, sitting or lying on a natural surface like grass or soil. Studies show direct contact with electrons on the surface of the earth can reduce pain and inflammation and promote better sleep. If you’re forest bathing, take off your shoes for part of the walk. Otherwise, just try walking barefoot through a park on occasion and really feel the earth beneath you.
If you’re with a knowledgeable guide, and they say it’s OK to eat a berry, then go ahead and eat that berry. Chomp on a leaf. Chew on a pine needle. It might not taste like your typical dinner salad, but it’s another way to experience the living forest.
Breathe it in. Hopefully you’re inhaling a fresh, pleasant smell. Take note of what’s in the air — the trees, the flowers and everything else that makes up the forest’s bouquet. Notice it all together, then try to parse out different scents, always being mindful of what you’re experiencing.
Now, you don’t have to do any of the above to partake in forest bathing. You could simply sit on a park bench and absorb nature through osmosis. But considering many of us (myself very much included) find it difficult to turn off our overactive brains and really engage in the moment, these suggestions can be useful for making the most of your time in nature.
I did feel different than usual during and after that walk. The forest itself was peaceful, and the sensory exercises helped me slow down and appreciate my surroundings. It created a sensation similar to the tranquillity you’ll feel after a massage or a good yoga class. Perhaps most telling of all: Soon after it was over, I was looking up forest walks in my hometown, ready to get back out there to practice mindfulness and connect with nature.
You can (sort of) practice forest bathing anywhere. To get the full effects of forest bathing, including its boost to your immune system and mood, you’ll want to spend time in nature. If you opt for a guided experience, it helps to genuinely like your guide. But if your guide doesn’t contribute positively to your experience, then consider going guide-free the next time around. It doesn’t matter whether you walk through the forest solo or with a group. If you’re in nature and being mindful of your surroundings, then you’re doing it right. Another name for a forest or any outdoors location is the ‘green gym’. There is also the ‘blue gym’ – being in or around the ocean. There are many health benefits from the blue gym as there are the green gym. I recently spoke about both at a corporate presentation I was giving. Explaining just a few minutes outside during your day can help you manage stress levels for better health.
But you don’t need a forest or an ocean to practice many of forest bathing’s principles. Whether you’re outside in nature or inside living your daily life, you can still achieve peace and relaxation through simply being aware of your five senses.
Nature has a therapeutic effect because it tends to draw people into the present moment more than when they’re sitting in a room trying to meditate. But those takeaways about slowing down, enjoying a moment and being aware apply to other situations.
In the shower, feel the pressure and warmth of the water. That’s mindfulness!
For more info on the research into forest bathing click here: https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/29982151
Adapted from: myfitnesspal.com