With everyone spending more and more time in the online world, our need to escape and to find ‘calm’ is greater than ever. One of the newest ways to restore mind, body, and spirit is forest bathing. Forest bathing is a Japanese practice that simply involves being mindful around trees and spending time absorbed in nature.
The idea behind the technique is that by observing nature and concentrating fully on the colours, sounds, and sensations of the forest (or the local park or woods) you become more aware of the present moment. This, say forest bathing enthusiasts, enables you to leave all your stress and worries behind.
To find out more, I asked forest bather, James Black from Wilderness Redefined for the lowdown on everything you need to know about forest bathing!
What is forest bathing?
“Forest bathing originates in Japan where it is called “shinrin yoku”. It was promoted by the Japanese government in the 1980s to encourage the rapidly urbanising population to take advantage of the countries’ 3,000 miles of woodland. Everyone will have their own unique reasons for forest bathing, but broadly speaking, the practice aims to help us de-stress while engaging in some light physical activity.
Lockdown was my main motivation for exploring the benefits of forest bathing. Like most of the population, I was literally spending all day sitting at my computer working and all evening in front of the TV. Pretty quickly, I started to notice that my mental health was starting to dip. I felt tired and really isolated.”
Why spend time forest bathing?
“After I started forest bathing in the parks near my flat, I felt reinvigorated. I started going out for a walk on my lunch break most days. I would put my phone on silent and leave it in my bag as I walked around the wooded area of the park without any planned route. It was different to going for a run – which I’d also tried – because that still felt like a task. Running felt like I was meant to be ‘doing’ something like I was meant to push myself.
Forest bathing, on the other hand, feels like a break. It feels like an opportunity to ‘switch off’ from the pressures of my day and to take in some nature.”
Where should we go to forest bath?
“In my opinion, anywhere that has trees and plant life is perfect. The park where I walk during my lunch break is actually about five minutes from a motorway – and outside the park, cars are constantly passing by. Although it’s not the ideal place to go forest bathing because I never quite feel like I’m away from the city, for the most part, it works for me! I’d love to head out to a remote forest and hike through it every lunchtime – but I can’t – so I make the most of what’s on my doorstep.
Other cities that I have visited like Helsinki have some wonderful municipal forests. With lots of trail options and tree coverage to hide you from the sights and sounds of the city, these are the sort of woodlands that make forest bathing really enjoyable. Ideally, you want somewhere that will be large enough for you to be relatively undisturbed by other people.”
What are the benefits?
“There’s plenty of research on the subject that provides some pretty clear-cut evidence that forest bathing has benefits for both our physical and mental health. Forest bathing involved going for walks and getting some physical exercise which brings some of the more obvious health benefits like improved cardiovascular strength.
But it is also associated with lower self-reported levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and anger in participants. Reduced cortisol levels (a hormone that regulates our stress levels) and lower blood pressure were also found in forest bathers. These results were from participants who simply spent time sitting in a forest, rather than actually walking around. This proves that there’s more to forest bathing than just taking exercise in a pleasant space. Just being in a natural tree-filled setting is enough to impact on our emotional and physiological wellbeing.”
Who is forest bathing suitable for?
“As long as you feel comfortable walking in uneven terrain, anyone can do it! There are also plenty of people who advocate taking children forest bathing to teach them mindfulness, but it’s not something I have any experience of myself. But I’m sure most of us would enjoy the benefits I’ve listed. So why not try it? Some people might be stricter about the mindfulness aspect of the practice, but I’m less interested in any kind of outdoor snobbery about what constitutes forest bathing.
If you go out and like walking and taking some time away from your desk to unwind, but also like to listen to a podcast or music as you walk, does that mean you aren’t doing forest bathing the right way? Do you need to engage constantly with every aspect to do it properly? Who cares!
If you head out into a green environment, get some light exercise and enjoy yourself, that’s what really matters to me. So, minor rant aside, forest bathing, whether it takes the purist form of total sensory immersion and mindfulness or it’s a daily opportunity to reconnect with nature, can be for everyone!”
How often do we need to forest bathe before we feel the benefits?
“I know it’s not the ideal answer, and I hate it when other people say this, but it’s really up to you how often you walk and for how long. As I say, I do it (nearly) every day for between 15 to 45 minutes on average. It works for me because I do it every day. During the walk from my front door to the park entrance, I leave behind everything else that’s going on in my day. I let go of stresses about work or money or anything else that might be bothering me, so that as I walk around, I let myself be present among the trees. But that took time.
The first time I went out, I spent a lot longer – probably around two hours – which was about the maximum amount of time I could spend walking through all the wooded trails in the park. Currently, if I have a stressful week, I’ll try to take some time out at the weekend to head out to discover a new park or forest. I turn off my phone and spend hours wandering beneath the canopy. I like to think of my daily walks as miniescapes from urban life and my ‘big’ walks as the real resets that help me put things back into perspective again. What’s more important? I couldn’t tell you! You need to find out for yourself. So again, it really is up to you
Any tips on how to get started?
“I found that by starting out with longer walks at the weekend, and then introducing shorter, more frequent walks during the week, I was able to enjoy daily mini-escapes from an urban environment whilst also giving my brain a real opportunity to reset. I wouldn’t recommend people get started with small, everyday walks as it can be hard to go through the mental task of relaxing on shorter walks, and you just end up going for walks without enjoying the full benefits of forest bathing. As I say, each person is different so try and work around your own schedule. For your first trip, I’d recommend heading out alone to somewhere new with a relatively steady terrain.
You don’t need to fight your way through the undergrowth and creeping roots to go forest bathing. Walking on a path is fine. Turn off your phone (or put it on silent) and start walking. To make the most of your forest bathing experience, take our Ten Essentials with you. It’s a handy guide that we’ve created and is available to download from our website: The Ten Essentials for Outdoor Travel.
|Natalie Shirlaw is passionate about healthy living and writes posts about wellbeing. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to pin it or share it!|