Forest bathing – the intro experience

On Thursday I went on my first forest bathing experience.    Forestry England describes it as a ‘Japanese practice is a process of relaxation; known in Japan as shinrin yoku.’  They advocate it as a ‘simple method of being calm and quiet amongst the trees, observing nature around you whilst breathing deeply [that] can help both adults and children de-stress and boost health and wellbeing in a natural way.’  

My scepticism meter needle was on high.  Forest bathing sounded like the latest fad, with lots of enticing words and promises that would line the pockets of specialist practitioners, who describe themselves as a ‘forest therapist’, or eco therapist, and Forest Guide Certificated.   I thought about bucking the guidance and just going for a walk in the woods by myself.  But I decided to be open minded and curious as I headed to the meeting point in the car park by the local woodland. 

Having told us to switch off our phones – not just put them on mute – our guide opened the experience with a bit of the history of forest bathing.  ‘The term emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”). The purpose was twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests.

It’s of note that ‘in the 1990s, researchers began studying the physiological benefits of forest bathing, providing the science to support what we innately know: time spent immersed in nature is good for us. .. . Many cultures have long recognized the importance of the natural world to human health.’ 

As I’ve spent time, in my professional life, looking at biophilic office designs,  I am familiar with the evidence that when offices that are designed with living greenery, workers are more productive, motivated and have a greater sense of well-being than employees who lack access to elements of the natural environment in their workplaces.    Similarly various research studies suggest that patients recover more quickly in hospitals when they are in environments that have living plants and views of greenery.  

There is a lot of work going researching the links between the natural environment and health and wellbeing including a report on the topic from the UK Government.

The guide continued with a bit of the science behind why forest bathing is good for health.  I was on this experience with a friend who’s a nurse.  We learned that the benefits of forest bathing are due to the phytoncides – a new term to me – ‘volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or “essential oils” given off by trees. These chemicals have natural antimicrobial and insecticidal qualities that protect the tree from germs and parasites.

A tree emits these active substances to create a field of protection around itself against harmful bugs, bacteria, and disease. Other green plants, like vegetables, do this too.’

So here we were on the edge of the woods – with a bit more knowledge on forest bathing.  The guide moved on to what we were actually going to do, beyond walking.  We were going to be ‘invited’ to participate in four or so activities each one related to one of our five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste).  If we wanted to talk about our experience of the activity we could, but there was no pressure to talk.  But first, a poem.   It was the W H Davies poem ‘Leisure’, opening with the lines.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

The four of us looked solemn as we listened, getting primed to stand and stare.  My thoughts flickered.  I remembered learning the poem by heart at school. 

We walked in single file to a clearing.  Our guide stopped and extended the first invitation.  ‘I invite you to find a spot to sit or stand, where you feel comfortable, to close your eyes, and listen to the layers of sound all around you. You’ll do this for 10 minutes – try not to open your eyes – and I’ll call you back with this call-back sound when the time is up.’   So,  no staring in this first invitation.

I found a nearby tree and stood leaning against it, obediently closing my eyes.  After a few minutes I wondered what I wasn’t hearing. Wearing hearing aids, as I do, cuts out lots of sound, and muffles and distorts other sounds.  It’s not the clarity one might expect.  I heard helicopters, multiple aircraft, a police siren, and for a split second a bird singing.  Surely there were other sounds, where were the layers?   What was I missing?   

Remarkably quickly I heard her calling us back. How could 10 minutes go so quickly? And I hadn’t opened my eyes for the duration.   

Our guide, picked up a stick.  ‘This is our talking stick’, she announced.  Then, ‘Who would like to talk?’ This was the time to stand and stare.  There was a long pause then, slowly, someone accepted the stick.  This person talked about the anxiety of having her eyes closed in a space that could be unsafe.  It had put her off listening.  She’d had to open her eyes when she heard a rustle.   Do younger people feel less safe than older people, I wondered?  Safety hadn’t crossed my mind, I assumed it perhaps?

Three other invitations – each around 10 minutes – followed as we wended through the woods. We were given an Invitation to look at all the different shades of green, to touch the differently textured leaves/bark/stems/stones/grasses, and to find a tree that ‘called to us’ and go and communicate with it.  

As the bathing ended our final invitation was to drink some ginger, lemon and honey tea, and discuss how we were feeling now. 

Our guide closed by reading this extract:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.”  William Blake, from his communications with the Reverend John Trusler, 1799

How was I feeling at this point?   I felt I’d participated in a generous experience, people were open, curious and vulnerable and the guide led us kindly and cheerfully.   Whether ‘bathing’ is of more benefit than simply being alert through all my senses as I walk, I’m still somewhat sceptical, but maybe I’ll give it another go and see where a second experience takes me.


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