I remember my first time. I was in Cologne Germany at a psychotherapy conference and there was a chance to experience alternative methods for ‘getting in touch with oneself’. Forest bathing was on offer that day and I took part in a 3-hour guided walk through the Konigforst. It was a powerful experience! I felt a both a connection to my deeper emotions as well as a sense of calm and energy in my body.
Fast forward five years, I had a longing to work with the healing properties of the forest as well as to help other to do so too. So, I began to train as a guide with The Forest Bathing Institute.
Forest bathing was first introduced as a preventative healthcare practice in 1982 in Japan, part of a national health programme. Shinrin-yoku means to bathe in the atmosphere of the forest. Global interest continues to grow, and research shows numerous benefits. In their first peer reviewed study, The Forest Bathing Institute (TFBI) recorded 12 areas of wellbeing improvement, including alleviating depression and tension.
Taking it slow
In essence, forest bathing is a slow, sensory woodland walk dedicated to enjoying the environment. We intentionally spend quality time under the canopy of trees, which feels different to a common walk in the woods. When we walk at our usual pace, talk to a friend, use our phone or have a destination in mind, nature becomes a backdrop. At a lecture at Kew Gardens, Peter Wohlleben, forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees, said: ‘We have forgotten how to be in nature.’ Forest bathing is a beautiful way to remember. It invites us to perceive our environment directly through our senses and experience it in new, meaningful ways.
We immerse ourselves and deepen our connection with nature. There are no fixed rules for forest bathing on your own. Turn your phone off and go to a place with trees you enjoy. It can be a garden, park or woodland where you feel comfortable and safe. Give yourself the gift of silence… Walk slowly, breathing in and out through your nose... Let nature lead. Allow her to entice your eyes, ears and nose... Pause and take your time to touch and observe what you feel drawn to. It might not always feel easy to open our senses. Our minds are prone to rumination. So, the gentle guidance of a forest bathing expert is often helpful – with a little patience we can usually reawaken dormant senses.
A therapeutic space
TFBI patron Dame Judi Dench says: ‘As humans, we have such a deep connection to trees and woodland and forest bathing allows you to focus on that connection, engaging all your senses.’
Our eyes thrive when allowed to roam far, wander wide and feast on fractal patterns like the branches of a tree. In nature, our overexerted eyes can recover from prolonged two-dimensional, close-range screen time. We can absorb the natural light our body needs to sleep, wake, digest and so much more.
Amid trees, we are surrounded by many therapeutic forces at once, such as aromatherapy, colour therapy and sound therapy. Japanese research found that chemicals called phytoncides in the forest air can strengthen our immune defence. Natural colours, shapes and sounds help us relax and access the self-healing wing of our autonomic nervous system – our parasympathetic nervous system. From there we can more easily tap into our higher brain function, intuition and heart intelligence. Participants often share that they gained new insights and feel more connected and creative after forest bathing.
Emotionally, a wooded area can be one of the fastest and most effective mood boosters. We may feel preoccupied until we stumble across the most stunning moss. Beauty can jolt us straight into elation and help transcend fear. A natural scent may instantly take us back to playing outdoors when we were younger. The sense of smell is part of the limbic system, the area of our brain responsible for emotions and memories. When was the last time you smelled the aromatic spice of an oak leaf or the rich fragrance layers in a handful of soil?
Mentally, a forest invites a relaxed fascination, which recovers our ability to focus. Witnessing nature’s diversity can also lead to more self-acceptance. Trees come in all shapes and sizes and don’t care how beautiful or smart we are.
Even though many people have profound experiences the first time they try forest bathing, those who go regularly may see true transformation. As our perception and awareness grows, we become kinder and stronger versions of ourselves. For a full heart and empty mind, the first step is to come and see, hear, smell, touch and experience forest bathing for yourself.
Jen Morgan has been a member of Yoga West for over 10 years. She is a forest bathing guide and trained at The Forest Bathing Institute (www.tfb.institute) and will be supporting forest bathing events at Kew Gardens in 2022. Please check kew.org for further details.