The Art of Forest Bathing

In this post, Lucy takes a closer look at the Japanese art of Shinrin-Yoku, or ‘forest bathing.’

I’ve always been an outdoorsy kind of girl but these last few months have stressed to me just how much I value the little things in life, like the simplicity of going for a walk.  At the height of lockdown when we were limited to leave our house for exercise only (or a precious trip to the supermarket) I have found myself appreciating nature in a newfound way.  In the beginning my daily walks extended no further than our local park, but as time went on I found myself venturing a little further afield.  Little did I realise that the Cheshire countryside was merely a half hour stroll from my front door.  Walking just a few minutes more brought me to an area known as Carrington Moss and I’m suddenly greeted by a glorious array of flora and fauna.

Golden fields of wheat, blackberry adorned hedgerow lanes, ferns and foxgloves as far as the eye can see and an abundance of birds and butterflies.  The landscape soon becomes wilder still as it shifts into woodland and the subdued sound of my footsteps is replaced with the snapping of breaking twigs beneath my feet. 

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The crunching sound as I imprint on the forest floor is somewhat satisfying and just as I’m focusing on that, I find I can hear the piercing call of a bird of prey.  It continued long enough for me to pinpoint its location – seeing it soaring high above the trees with its impressive wingspan was the lift I needed.  I watched for a while with baited breath, trying to anticipate its next dive for prey.  Carrington Moss is home to a whole host of wildlife including the Kestrel, Sparrowhawk, Foxes, Stoats, Weasels and Badgers.  Cheshire Wildlife Trust manages much of the land as well as a small nature reserve strangely located within Manchester United’s training ground, neither of which I was even aware were there.  This secluded habitat provides a home for several species including the Red Admiral butterfly, Eurasian Bullfinch and the Grey Partridge.

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My first walk to Carrington really recharged my mind.  There’s something about being immersed in nature that soothes the soul and I craved more of what Mother Nature had to offer.  With this year being a challenging time for everyone, it is easy to see why so many have turned to nature for comfort and calm.   My husband and I have taken many walks this summer, sometimes alone but often together.  We wouldn’t talk all that much – soaking up our surroundings seemed like the natural thing to do.  Each time we went we would discover something new – an alternate route, an unfamiliar sound or a different view.  We’re both forest fanatics, so once lockdown allowed for it we took a trip to Delamere, Cheshire.  After spending 40 minutes on a busy, stuffy train we couldn’t wait to whip off our masks and breathe in some fresh forest air.  This yearning for peace amongst trees has in fact got a name – a practice known by the Japanese as Shinrin-Yoku, translated into English as ‘forest bathing.’  Shinrin meaning ‘forest’ and yoku meaning ‘bath.’ 

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Developed in Japan during the 1980s, this idea of bathing in a forest atmosphere as a form of therapy was fundamental to preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.  I suppose you could also look at it as a meditation method.  However you choose to see it the positive effects of forest bathing have been well documented by researchers, principally in Japan and South Korea.  Studies have shown that immersing yourself amongst trees has a whole host of health benefits, which can restore our mood, re-energize and rejuvenate.  Specifically, these studies have noted reductions in levels of stress, anger, anxiety, depression and even sleeplessness.  Improving concentration, lowering blood pressure and boosting the immune system are other known advantages. 

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Currently there are 44 accredited Shinrin-Yoku forests in Japan.  The practice is still relatively unknown here in the UK but it is gradually gaining popularity, and research is helping to establish forest bathing as a worldwide therapy.  Of course going for woodland walks is nothing new – people have been doing this for centuries, but forest bathing is so much more than this.  Gary Evans who set up the Forest Bathing Institute in the UK in 2018 said “People think they’ve been doing this all their lives: going for a walk in the woods.  But it might be a brisk walk, or you might be worrying about where the dog has got to.  A better way to frame forest bathing is mindful time spent under the canopy of trees for health and wellbeing purposes.”

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If you find yourself a little skeptical about Shinrin-Yoku I encourage you to give it a try.  I promise you don’t have to go hug a tree (but if you want to then great)!

The key to this process is having no distractions and in this extremely techy world we live in that is perhaps easier said than done.  If you haven’t a forest nearby fear not – a local leafy park will work just as well. 

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I have compiled 6 simple steps to help you unlock the healing power of Shinrin-Yoku…

  1. Leave behind any distractions such as your phone, camera etc so you can be fully present in the experience. Or if you can’t manage that make sure they’re all switched off.  If you go with family or friends make an agreement to resist talking until you’ve all finished forest bathing
  1. Slow your walking pace right down and without goals or expectations wander aimlessly – let your body be your guide
  1. Find a spot to be still – stand, sit or even lie down, whichever you find most comfortable
  1. Take long deep breaths in from your nose and out through your mouth. Your air exhalation time should be roughly double the duration of your inhalation.  Your body will take this as a sign that it can relax
  1. Use all of your senses to tune into your surroundings. You might want to close your eyes, which is fine, although interestingly studies have shown that people relax best when observing nature’s soothing green tones. Listen to the sounds around you. What can you smell? How does the forest make you feel? Touch the trees, observe the patterns, feel the textures.
  1. Try to avoid thinking of work or worries, just focus on your breathing and mindful observation. As long as you’re comfortable and relaxed continue with this as long as you feel able.  Beginners might want to start with short periods but try to build up to an hour or two for a complete Shinrin-Yoku experience.

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Okay, I admit we broke the first step on occasion by taking the odd photo but with such wonderful woodland scenery it was difficult not to.  Apart from succumbing to the temptation of our camera, we got on pretty well and found the process extremely rewarding – and relaxing.  I hope you do too!

Further Resources:

https://www.growwilduk.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrington_Moss

https://www.forestryengland.uk/blog/forest-bathing

https://time.com/5259602/japanese-forest-bathing/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/08/forest-bathing-japanese-practice-in-west-wellbeing

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