Shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’, started as a therapy in Japan, but is now growing in popularity all over the world. Unofficially, people have been practising it for centuries, but after Japan’s government gave it official backing in the 1980s, it became a subject for research and there is already substantial evidence that it is good for our wellbeing.
I often suggest to clients that they consider a regular run in a park or a walk through the beautiful countryside that surrounds Sheffield. I am a keen fan of yogic breathing, and I recommend the practice outdoors in Nature, if possible. While forest bathing also involves spending time outdoors and enjoying Nature, there are differences. Forest bathing means to immerse oneself in the forest environment, to consciously slow down, and mindfully experience the forest atmosphere by using all of the senses. Forests are Nature on a grand scale. So, a forest or woodland space brings out our innate sense of wonder, in the same way as looking up at a majestic mountain, or looking across at a vast ocean, or gazing up at a starry night sky. Forest bathing is not about jumping into a forest lake for ablutions! But it is about immersing oneself in a communion with Nature, and experiencing the awe and innocent wonder that a child or primitive man and woman would experience when faced by the grandeur of Nature. Forest bathing is also about the experience of freedom, the freedom to stroll through the forest, taking in its beauty, sounds and scents; or to sit and contemplate; or to lie on the forest floor and soak in the atmosphere; or even to hug a tree or two. One can leave behind one’s inhibitions and worries in the urban life that has given rise to them in the first place. Everywhere we look in a forest environment, our brains take note of the fractal patterns that appear everywhere in Nature, e.g. the rhythmic patterns in flower petals and in the veins of a leaf. Fractal patterns are known to please the eye and soothe the brain. Even if there is no forest or woodland nearby that we can access, research has shown that when we view images of fractal patterns, our brains begin to produce alpha waves, something that happens too in meditation, and alpha waves give rise to a relaxed mood.
The physical and mental benefits of forest bathing are many. Even after just 20 minutes of forest bathing, the body’s muscles ease, blood pressure reduces, the heart rate slows, and we feel more calm and relaxed. Our concentration improves and the mood lifts. After forest bathing, we are left with a peaceful but alert feeling. Research shows that our creativity can increase by as much as 60%. Forest bathing is particularly good for anyone who needs to unwind and de-stress. The fast pace and tensions of urban living can, over a period of time, lead to burn-out; and forest bathing provides a natural and delightful healing.