Whenever we visit my husband’s family in England I really look forward to walking in the nature reserve near their home.
Formerly a farm, the nature reserve is now 33 hectares of wildflower meadows, woodland, ancient hedgerows and ponds. While we are visiting I walk there most days. I refer to it as my “happy place”.
During our stay this summer I was reflecting on why I enjoy being there so much. At about the same time there was an article on the ABC about shinrin-yoku, the Japanese tradition of forest bathing. Shinrin in Japanese means forest and yoku means bath. So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere. It is simply being in nature and connecting with it using all of our senses. (And, no you don’t have to get naked for it.)
Intrigued by this, I thought I would explore the concept more by reading Forest Bathing by Dr Qing Li. Dr Li is one of the world’s leading experts on forest bathing. He has been investigating the science behind why forests and nature make us happier and healthier.
Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which walking in the forest can improve our well-being.
In Forest Bathing, Dr Li shares some of his research, as well as others, into the health benefits of shinrin-yoku. He also outlines how to practice 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.
Last week I went forest bathing at a park near my home. I listened to the sounds around me. I stopped to smell the trees, the flowers, the air. I felt the bark on the trees, the wind blowing in my hair, the feeling of the thick grass under my feet. I looked closely at the leaves, the flowers, the sky. The only sense I didn’t use was taste (for obvious reasons).
Cities are full of excitement, innovation and energy. But living in a city is stressful. And the more we live in them, the more stress we have. The more stress we have, the sicker we get. We have more heart attacks, strokes and cancer. And we have more mental illness, more addictions, loneliness, depression and panic attacks. And, of course, the more expensive our healthcare becomes.
Anxiety and depression cost the EU about 170 billion euros a year. They cost America about 210 billion dollars.
Forest bathing will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you.
(Yes, I brought a device, but only for the purpose of sharing my experience with you, dear reader.)
Afterwards I definitely felt more relaxed, peaceful even. I think I slept better too. Overall it was a really calming experience.
So, am I convinced? Yes. And no.
After all, it seems obvious to me that taking a few hours out of your day to relax will make you feel better. And walking in nature is definitely better than watching TV or scrolling through social media. I guess this is where the science comes into it. Dr Li talks about how his research, and that of others, can prove that forest bathing boosts the immune system, decreases anxiety, depression and anger and reduces stress.
Over the past few years I have been focusing on exercise, meditation and mindfulness to help improve my health and well-being. Forest bathing is definitely a lot easier to practice than the others. Maybe it is finding a balance between all of these.
And if shinrin-yoku is so good for us, it just strengthens the argument to protect the environment. Perhaps if a few more people went forest bathing we would have a calmer world…
My final summation? Give it a go, it can’t hurt.
Forests are an amazing resource. They give us everything we rely on in order to exist. They produce oxygen, cleanse the air we breathe and purify our water. They stop flooding rivers and streams and the erosion of mountains and hills. They provide us with food, clothing and shelter and with the materials we need for furniture and tools. In addition to this, forests have always helped us to heal our wounds and to cure our diseases. And, from time immemorial, they have relived us of our worries, eased our troubled minds, restored and refreshed us.
Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, Dr Qing Li, Penguin Books, 2019, ISBN: 978-0-241-37760-4