Scattered sunlight filters through the trees, twinkling like playful sprites between swaying leaves too many shades of green to count. In response to a distant twitter of birds, I breathe in deeply and swear I can taste the forest on my tongue
From my rock perch I further immerse myself into the forest atmosphere, consciously breathing it in. And that’s when the magic really happens. The claustrophobic mental fog that has become my default state during lockdown is replaced with a sense of immense serenity and spaciousness. As someone who finds it almost impossible to still my brain, the effect is even more profound. I feel restored.
It’s hardly news that surrounding oneself with nature can make us feel great, but forest bathing is so much more than a bush walk. It is a meditation. A mindful exercise of simply being and connecting with the natural world using every one of the senses.
Made in Japan
Inspired by the Shinto reverence for nature, Shinrin-yoku originated in Japan during the tech boom of the early 1980s. The phrase, meaning “taking in the forest atmosphere”, was coined by Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to encourage its citizens to spend time in nature as an antidote to the serious health issues triggered by the stress of overwork.
An evidence-based, cost-effective and natural treatment, the practise offers similar benefits to Zen meditation, it’s just way more accessible because it requires little effort as meditation and mindfulness are a by-product of being in nature.
Over the ensuing decades, researchers in Japan and South Korea continued their studies and found that just 15 minutes of forest bathing lowered cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure and boosted the immune system, offering healthcare professionals a simple and accessible interventional alternative for their patients. The result is more than 60 accredited Shinrin-Yoku forests across Japan alone.
While forest bathing has since evolved into a cornerstone of preventive health care in Japan, the philosophy has gained popularity as a “green prescription,” the tendrils of its healing trees and vines growing and spreading across the globe like benevolent triffids.
A number of international scientific studies have demonstrated the unambiguous physical, social and mental health benefits of having contact with nature. Repeated research has demonstrated that being in nature produces calming neuro-psychological effects that can result in a reduction of stress, aggression, anxiety, depression and insomnia and an increase in feelings of happiness.
A brief forest interlude can also assist in the management of physiological health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, muscle tension and poor immune responses. One study by researchers in Boston even found that women living in, or close to, green areas lived longer. The research demonstrated a 13% lower death rate for cancer for those living in green areas and a significant reduction in mental health issues when compared with women in urban settings.
But it is in the Scottish town of Shetland, some 8,738 kilometres from downtown Tokyo, where science has most heartily embraced the philosophy. Authorised by the National Health Service (NHS) in Shetland, doctors have been prescribing nature to their patients since 2019. Indeed, patients struggling with everything from diabetes and heart conditions to mental health issues are being told to get outside, under doctor’s orders. There’s even an official nature prescription leaflet, written with signature Scottish wit, encouraging people to interact with nature with pages of suggestions from looking at lichen to appreciating a cloud.
Six simple steps
A stunningly simple idea, forest bathing doesn’t even require physical exercise, just slow and relaxed walking, or even sitting, in nature, and a mindful focus on its sights, smells, sounds and tastes. In fact, you don’t even need a forest. A park, beach or garden can make a perfectly adequate substitute.
Tips for forest bathing bliss
To maximise the meditative benefits of forest bathing, there are six simple steps I find help.
1. Leave your phone behind – Or switched off if you are afraid of getting lost in the bush, so you remain fully present.
2. Be quiet – If you have company, resist conversation. This experience should be between you and nature.
3. Slow down – Wave away all expectation. This is the time to switch off your mental to-do lists and allow your body to do the thinking for you as you wander without aim or the pressure of a final goal.
4. Pause – Make the occasional brief stop to soak up all the tiny details. Appreciate the wonders of a single leaf, a petal, a branch, or a rock; it is a simple act that toddlers do instinctively that seems to get forgotten as we get older.
5. Take a seat. Find a spot that you can sit comfortably and be still. Listen carefully to the sounds around you, leaves rustling, birds twittering, a distant stream flowing.
6. Breathe – Close your eyes and shift your awareness to your breath. Take long breaths deep into your belly. As you breathe in, try to identify the source of your breath – for some people this will be the expansion of the chest or stomach, for others it will start at the nostrils. Inhaling your breath through the nose not only allows you to enjoy the musty fragrance of the forest, but it can help to calm your nervous system. Try to feel the texture of the air as you inhale and think about how it feels as it enters your body. Pause with lungs full for a silent count of three, then exhale, slowly. Just remember that mindful breathing is not about control, just observation.
7. Take your time – Stay as long as you’re comfortable and remember that even 15 minutes of forest bathing can offer a big boost to your health.