While ‘forest bathing’ may conjure up images of a steaming tin bathtub under a blossomed tree canopy – which we would love too – forest bathing in this sense is much more simple in some respects, yet much more complex in others, read on for more from Andy Hamilton:
There is a theory doing the rounds that we humans are so finely attuned to each other that, on a subconscious level, we might be able to pick up on the smallest changes in facial expression or vocal tones and worked out the “vibe” or feeling of a room. Be it a pub on a Saturday night, a couple’s house just after they have had a row or even that feeling you get when you first stand inside a house that you want to buy. Yet before I met up in my local woods with Rachel, a forest bathing practitioner, I had never paid much attention to the fact that different areas of woodlands can also feel very different too. In fact just being around certain trees can actually change your mood for the better. This is at the core of shinrin yoku the Japanese term which roughly translates as forest bathing or forest wellness.
We humans have been around trees since we started to walk upright and yet, the idea of forest bathing to improve our health and well-being is a relatively new concept. The clear benefits of even just a few hours amongst trees more than just allude to the fact that really, we shouldn’t be cooped up in our cars, offices or houses all the time; instead we might be happier in our ancestral home, the woodland.
Dr Qing Li, a Japanese Academic, certainly thinks so which is why he pioneered the development of shinrin youk back in the 1980’s and why he still takes his students out on regular forest bathing sessions today. With much thanks to Dr Li, the practice has really taken off and between 2004 to 2012 Japan spent $4 million on furthering his research.They found that spending time around trees can be transformative reducing anxiety, boosting your immune system and giving long lasting feelings of well-being.
The practice is spreading across the world thanks to forest bathing practitioners like Rachel. During our stroll, she told me the basics of the simple practice; informing me to use every sense in the forest eat something, touch, listen, get right up close and smell and really pay attention to what is around. I took her advice, but felt like I needed to experience this as a solitary activity and so decided to put in into practice in the back garden of the house I grew up in. I also wanted to see if the benefits could be found in a setting familiar to most – an urban back garden.
I also wanted to see if the benefits could be found in a setting familiar to most – an urban back garden.
My parents garden is long and set into a few different areas, a patio gives way to a small orchard then a wild patch which bleeds into a small pine wood area. I turned off my phone and sat amongst the 90 year old Scots pine trees, part of an old plantation that stretches across the back gardens of many houses in the area; creating a small linear urban woodland.
I have to admit that at first I felt like a bit of prat. I’m not sure what I expected to happen, what was I even doing here? Could the neighbours see and what would they think? Then I remembered what Rachel had told me and I started using every sense.
I found an old tree stump, used it as a stool and then I looked up. It was a bright day and so the light was shining through the branches, it looked beautiful and I could feel my breathing deepening and my thoughts becoming less self centred. It’s hard to describe what happened next, it was as if my self was unravelling and becoming part of this tranquil setting.
High above my head two squirrels ran after each other, jumping through the canopy, oblivious to the garden barriers we humans had set into place. They ran off into the next garden and then the next and down through all the gardens in the street until they were soon out of sight.
I felt as if I had the same relaxed feeling I have when meditating.
After a while it felt right to lay down on the pine needle bed that was the “forest” floor and I became aware of the sound of wind through the branches. I felt as if I had the same relaxed feeling I have when meditating. Although, something different was happening and I don’t know why, but I started giggling. I remembered something I had read of Dr Qing Li, “Joy felt in a forest is long lasting”. I pondered this for a while before thinking that I’d missed out the olfactory system all together. I lazily grabbed a dandelion leaf and chewed on it as I got up and put my arms around one of the trunks to smell the bark of the tree.
This did feel a little odd and I again became aware of the street of houses that backed onto this garden. But for the sake of science (and this article), I gave a big old sniff and kept sniffing. I was soon smelling the delightful scent of pine. I assumed I was taking in some terpenes, perhaps pinene or limonene both thought to be anti depressant.
I stayed down the garden repeating my five sense process for about an hour then wandered back up the garden and got on with my life. I did feel very much more relaxed and happy having given myself this experience. I even checked my blood pressure and noticed that it was down. The strange thing too was that Qing Li was right, I did feel a longer lasting joy from the experience. It was as if I could carry that hour with me, just on the edge of my thoughts like a dream that you can carry with you all day. Yet, rather than lasting for a day I can still tap into it a bit now, months later.
Everyone’s experience of forest bathing will differ and the experience can differ further depending on what type of forest you are in. Oak trees and beech trees for example emit quercetin which is thought to help protect LDL cholesterol, so a walk in broad leaf woodland might help with someone’s physical health whilst the levels of anti depressant monoterpenes in spruce and pine forests, especially in warmer weather, are very high and so a walk in a coniferous forest should help lower levels of anxiety. This, I believe, I was picking up when I went on my walk with Rachel.
I highly recommend going for a walk in the woods near you or even spending time amongst a small clump of trees as I can safely say it will make your life feel better. There is joy hidden between those branches and enough to go round all of us!
Read more on the benefits of being in the outdoors and breaking out of the tech world on the mind and soul here