What is Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku)?
We sat down with Lisa, qualified Forest Bathing Guide and self-confessed nature lover, to learn about the practice of Shinrin-yoku. So, what is Forest Bathing (and do you need a swimsuit?) Can you join in without a forest on your doorstep? And what benefits might you experience from this Japanese practice?
So Lisa, how did you first find out about Forest Bathing?
I’ve always loved nature, ever since I was a kid. I was always growing things outdoors and digging about in the earth! But Forest Bathing isn’t the literal act of bathing – it means being immersed in the forest. About a year ago, I read about Forest Bathing in a magazine. Soon after, I saw a book for sale on Shinrin-yoku (the Japanese term), and I was hooked from there.
Nature can help your mental health, and interestingly, your physical health too. I loved it so much, I wondered ‘can I get a qualification in this?’… I did some research, and there was a course about to start – it was like the universe aligned. I passed the course, and read so many books. I just became completely fascinated by the whole subject.
What does a Forest Bathing session entail?
You can go Forest Bathing in a group, or on your own. I usually spend a couple of hours in the forest when I lead a group. I love photographing nature, but for the best Forest Bathing experience, you’re not supposed to take a camera or phone. It’s really just a conscious slowing down, and focusing on all of your senses to see, hear, smell and touch the forest.
I have found so many different species and so many fascinating things out in the woods that you normally wouldn’t notice. Sometimes you’re too busy walking, chatting with your friend, or listening to music while you walk around the forest. You’re missing out on all those lovely, natural sounds.
It’s very little walking around – you might only travel one or two kilometers in the sessions. Because it’s so little walking, you only need to find a nearby green space with trees. Forest Bathing is about appreciating the small things mindfully, so it doesn’t have to be a great big space.
Which activities do you do?
There are lots of different activities to open up your senses. One of my favorite activities is lying on the forest floor and watching the light filter through the trees. The Japanese call it ‘Komorebi’. That works really well if it’s a sunny day, because you see all the shadows.
Another good one is conscious listening. You spend about 15 to 20 minutes just sitting quietly, closing your eyes, and listening. When you focus, you can hear layers of bird song – some that are close by, and some are far away. You get the jostling of leaves in the trees and the creaking of the branches. The droning of insects, the rustling of animals things in the undergrowth; it makes you realise how alive the world is!
To engage your vision, you can also sit and focus on one tiny area of the forest floor. Again, it’s alive – not just a patch of ground. You’ll see insects walking, the wind moving plants and petals. You’ll see patterns and shadows. You’ll start to notice small things: the way a leaf has been nibbled by a type of insect, or the different types of seeds that are on the trees. You could also go on a ‘texture hunt’ and look at mosses, ferns, the gills of fungi – the list goes on!
How does Forest Bathing help you relax?
When we’re at work, or doing a task like driving a car, or watching television, we’re using what’s called directed attention. It’s one part of our brain, focusing on one thing. After a while, our concentration starts to go, and you get mentally fatigued. When you go Forest Bathing, it rests the part of your brain used for directed attention – scientists call it ‘soft fascination’. It mentally refreshes you. For me, it generates a lot of creative thinking.
When’s the best time of year to go Forest Bathing?
In the words of Alfred Wainwright, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing’. You can go Forest Bathing at any time of the year, as long as you’re dressed appropriately. In the winter, I just wrap up warm and take something to sit on. It’s quite interesting if it’s raining too, as long as it’s not absolutely pouring it down! It’s relaxing to listen to the rainfall, and watch the droplets bead off the leaves.
Autumn is a beautiful time to go forest bathing. At that time, the forest is so colorful with all the leaves, different types of fungi, and vibrant green mosses. Each season is special for its own reasons.
How does Forest Bathing benefit people?
There are studies around how just even looking at nature can be good for your physical and mental health. One study was conducted in a hospital over about nine years. Half the patients were in a room that looked out onto trees, and the other half were in a room that looked out onto a brick wall. They’d all had the same surgery, but the ones that looked at the trees felt better quicker, and required less pain medication than the ones that looked at a brick wall. They’ve done studies in prisons too, and inmates that can see greenery are calmer, less prone to violence, and less prone to depression.
Another side of it is an appreciation for nature. This is essential for us as a species, because if we don’t love nature, we won’t protect it. Generations are growing up spending more time indoors than ever before. More time with computers, more time on devices, and less time in nature. Many children won’t be able to name a lot of plants, birds, insects and trees. So when they have children, they won’t be passing on that knowledge and appreciation. Forest Bathing is a great way to reconnect with the natural world and take some time for yourself.