We all know that spending time in natural world is good for our minds and bodies. From the fresh air, to the gentle sounds of nature, to the feel of sunlight on our skin, spending even a short amount of time outdoors can leave us feeling refreshed, revitalised and rejuvenated.
But if you love walking, running or cycling along trails and footpaths, why not deepen your connection with the natural world a little further? By really slowing down and taking the time to experience your environment through each of your senses, you might find even more solace in the stillness.
The art of slowing down in nature has a name. Forest bathing, or shinrin yoku as it is called in Japan, is a practice that was developed back in the 1980s. Shinrin yoku, which literally translates as ‘bathing in the forest atmosphere’, encourages people to get back to nature quite literally, and was introduced at a time when urbanisation (and its accompanying ailments) was on the rise. What’s more, Japanese doctors studied the physiological effects of shinrin yoku and found that spending time in forests was not simply a placebo – there were real, measurable health improvements.
The practice of forest bathing and its associated benefits is now widely recognised, including in the western world where more and more people are discovering its joys. But how do you do it? We spoke with Liz Dawes, a Certified Forest Therapy Guide, to find out more.
What is forest bathing?
The practice of forest bathing involves simply spending time in a forest, woodland or other natural landscape. Not jogging or running through it; not even walking through it necessarily; simply resting within it and experiencing it via all your senses – sight, smell, touch, taste and sound. This really allows you to awaken to the environment around and within you.
Dawes, who trained as a guide with the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, says that this opening of the senses is the key to stilling your mind and forming the symbiotic relationship with the natural world that is important in forest bathing.
‘When we’re experiencing through our senses, we’re not thinking about tomorrow or about the past, all that kind of stuff,’ she says. ‘And when you bring people out of their heads in this way and slow down, it’s almost like you enter a liminal space. We’ve left our ordinary lives behind for a moment and can drop the masks we all wear in our everyday lives – suddenly, we don’t have to be the mother, we don’t have to be the boss, we don’t have to be the nurse. And all because we’re tuning into the sensory awareness of what’s around us.’
How to do forest bathing
As humans, we’re all so conditioned to be busy and to go for a walk to get from A to B, that at first, simply sitting or wandering ‘aimlessly’ and slowly through woodland can feel alien to us, uncomfortable even. But it’s something that, deep down, we all know is good for us.
‘Really, spending time in nature is age old,’ says Dawes.
However, she says that when you first start out, it can be helpful to have a little guidance.
‘I think it’s really useful to have a guide at first,’ she says. ‘Take yoga, for example. You don’t usually start doing yoga by yourself, do you, even though you can? It’s best to have a teacher, to really show you how to do it properly.’
Of course, when it comes to forest bathing, Dawes explains she is not really the teacher or therapist.
‘The forest is the therapist; the guide simply opens the door,’ she reveals. ‘I also consider forest bathing to be a practice, because the more you do it, the deeper the connection you’ll start to have with nature. If you go back over and over again, your experience deepens each time. You might notice different things, not only externally, but internally as well.’
During a guided forest-bathing walk, Dawes invites people to follow a series of steps, to help deepen their connection with the natural world:
1. Pleasures of presence
‘The first invitation I offer is something called “pleasures of presence”,’ says Dawes. ‘Really, this is a guided practice to bring people into their bodies. I invite people to notice what sounds are around them, what they can smell, what they can taste and then what they can touch. It’s really bringing people into their bodies and out of their heads, and it lasts for about 15 minutes.’
2. What’s in motion
‘Next, we do a really slow walk called “what’s in motion”, and the invitation for this one is simply to notice everything that’s moving,’ Dawes explains. ‘We really walk at a snail’s pace, and it’s quite remarkable the difference in that kind of walk to how we normally go out for a walk. Generally we’re on a bit of a mission to get from A to B, we’re not slowing down, we’re not really noticing what’s around us. But this “what’s in motion” invitation, it sounds so simple, but the effects are really quite profound.’
© Liia Galimzianova – Getty Images forest bathing
3. Partnership invitation
‘Then I offer the partnership invitation,’ says Dawes. ‘This is where I work in partnership with the woodland and offer invitations that are again designed to bring people into sensory awareness of what’s around them. So it could be, go out and explore the different textures around you. It’s working with different elements of nature to bring people really into contact with nature in a way that they’ve not been before.’
4. Tea ceremony
‘At the end of the forest bathing walk, we have a tea ceremony, where people talk about their experience,’ reveals Dawes. ‘It’s a really beautiful conversation about this shared experience in the woodland.’
How long does a forest-bathing session last?
Dawes’s guided forest-bathing sessions span two-and-a-half hours, which gives you the space to breathe, unwind and connect. But really, she says, any daily interaction with nature is going to be beneficial.
‘Obviously not everyone has got the time to take two-and-a-half hours out, but doing that once a week, once every two weeks or once a month – whatever you can fit into your schedule – is going to help. I try to get some kind of nature connection every day – it might just be sitting on my back step for 10 minutes.’
What’s more, it doesn’t even need to be in a forest or woodland setting, if that’s not available to you.
‘My mentor lives in New Zealand right by the coast, so she does all her forest bathing walks on the sea shore,’ Dawes says. ‘She says the beach is her forest. “Forest bathing” is only a term – you can absolutely do it anywhere, even in an urban park. As long as it’s a green space where you can slow down and really experience through your senses, you’re going to get a lot of benefits.’
Benefits of forest bathing
Those who practice forest bathing may well experience both mental and physical improvements, including decreased anxiety, lowered stress levels and deeper relaxation, as well as physiological changes.
In fact, a study reviewing the physiological effects of forest bathing found that spending time in forest environments promotes lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity and lower sympathetic nerve activity than spending time in city environments.
Indeed, Dawes has seen this first hand.
‘We’ll start with the physiological. So there’s less stress because you’re really slowing down, and when you really start to slow down, it suppresses the sympathetic nervous system and invokes the parasympathetic nervous system – the rest and relaxation part of our nervous system.
‘And then when you’re slowing down, it’s like you’re giving yourself space. You’re really slowing down and resting. After a walk, people report having greater energy. They’ve just given themselves that special time to slow down and just be, instead of being lost in their head, which is exhausting. So less stress and less anxiety are key.’
Forest bathing vs. mindfulness
Is forest bathing simply a form of embodied mindfulness?
Dawes suggests that being mindful is a key element of being able to fully experience your time in the forest, but says it goes much deeper than this.
‘Mindfulness is definitely incorporated into this forest bathing practice. But it’s more than mindfulness. It’s also about relationship – the relationship we have with ourselves and then also this relationship with nature that’s developing. People have a realisation in the woodland – it’s almost like the woodland has helped them to reach this realisation, and when people realise that the woodland has helped them, a connection forms. This has definitely deepened for me in the past year, because I’ve had so many experiences in nature that have been so helpful to me personally, and then my connection to the trees has really deepened. And because of this – because the trees have been helping me – I want to help the woodland. It’s this reciprocal relationship. I love this aspect of it – this reciprocity. That sense of, the forest is helping me, so what can I give in return? I really think that when it comes to climate change, it’s all very well giving people the statistics, but I think you’re going to have more of an effect if people actually connect with nature. And really make this kind of heartfelt connection, instead of an intellectual connection. Because the more people who have that heart connection to our planet, the more people there will be who are really going to want to protect it. That’s what forest bathing offers.’
Liz Dawes is a Certified Forest Therapy Guide, who leads forest-bathing sessions near Skipton. For more information about forest bathing or to join a guided session, please visit theforestguru.co.uk.