What are the benefits of Forest Bathing?
How much time do you spend in nature? Back in 2010, research in the UK found that just over half of us spent time in natural green spaces once per week, but that now in the post-pandemic years, there’s a significant increase in how many of us spend time in nature, and who cite it as beneficial for mental wellbeing. Walking in woodland or fields isn’t simply a ‘woo woo’ recommendation to help us reconnect to Mother Earth however; scientific studies show that spending at least 120 minutes in nature each week is associated with good health and wellbeing for both our bodies and minds.
Although more of us are spending time in nature, there’s something else we’re spending a lot more time connected to: Technology. Endless emails, Zoom calls, social media feeds and Whatsapp groups mean our senses have never been so in-demand or overwhelmed throughout the entirety of human history. Too much screen time is directly linked to eyestrain, brain fog, breathing issues, increased stress, poor posture, low mood and fatigue, as well as feelings of loneliness. Thankfully, one of the very best antidotes to a life filled with busy-ness, screens and stress, is nature.
In this Self-Care Sunday blog, we want to introduce you to the practice of Shinrin Yoku or ‘Forest Bathing’ as a way to soothe your senses and restore your wellbeing. Walking through the woods is indeed good for us, but when you’re aware of the powerful benefits of Forest Bathing, and you’re armed with some mindfulness practices to use on your adventures, you’ll be able to experience the truly therapeutic benefits of time spent in nature. Read on for our tips and practices to restore your senses with Forest Bathing.
Discover more ways to disconnect from your phone and reconnect to yourself with Goodbye Phone, Hello World by Paul Greenberg
What Is Forest Bathing?
It sounds like an ancient mystical practice, but Forest Bathing was actually first coined as a term in the early 1980s, when it was developed by The Japanese Department of Forest and Fisheries as a response to major health and stress problems within the urban Japanese population, mostly linked to over-working. The two innovators of Forest Bathing – Miyazaki Yoshifumi and Dr. Qing Li – carefully measured differences in the blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels of volunteers who were initially taken on short walks in nature, and the results showed benefits such as:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced stress
- Healthier heart rate variability
- Improved immune health
- Increased levels of ‘natural killer’ cells, which are vital in protecting the body from cancers
- Improvements in mood
- Improved cardiovascular health
- Reduced rates of insomnia
How To Practice Forest Bathing
The Japanese word Shinrin Yoku translates as ‘Forest Shower’ or ‘Forest Bath’, and whilst you definitely don’t have to take any clothing off, the idea is that your entire being is immersed in the forest. Your senses of sight, sound, smell, touch and even taste can be deeply restored through the practice of being immersed in nature, here’s how:
Spending excessive time in front of screens can not only cause eye strain, but the hyper-focused tunnel-vision-like way we stare at screens can also make us feel stressed too. When we’re indoors, we’re also of course not getting the incredible benefits of natural daylight, which impact every aspect of our wellbeing. Practicing Forest Bathing allows our eyes to shift from a fixed and focused point, to what is known as soft fascination. Professors Stephen and Rachel Kaplan introduced this term, which is defined as ‘attention held by a less active or stimulating activity that provides the opportunity to reflect and introspect’. Their research forms part of what is known as Attention Restoration Therapy (ART), a theory that suggests being in nature is not only pleasant, but helps restore cognitive health, attention capacity and the ability to concentrate, as well as enhancing creativity. If you’ve ever had a spark of inspiration or a sense of clarity whilst walking in nature, you’ve experienced the benefits of ART.
To practice Soft Fascination:
- Choose a place to immerse yourself in nature
- Do not look at your phone – keep it in your bag or pocket
- Whilst walking, allow your eyes to simply take in the world around you; what colours can you see, what is moving? What is still? Are there animals? What is closest to you? What can you see that is furthest away?
- There’s no need to focus on a particular spot, simply allow your gaze to wonder as you wander through nature
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Pause for a moment and listen to the sounds around you; what can you hear? Traffic? Building work? Aeroplanes? Music? A bustling workplace? The hum of your appliances? Whilst we can’t see noise pollution, excessive noise is a common cause of chronic stress and irritability. In Europe, an estimated 22 million people suffer ‘chronic high annoyance’, 6.5 million people experience sleep disturbance, and 12 million school children suffer reading impairment in school due to noise pollution. Just as humans have never spent so much time attached to technology, we’ve never been surrounded by so many unnatural noises either. Practicing Forest Bathing is an effective and supremely soothing way to reduce stress and reintroduce our ears to the sounds of nature again. Even hearing birdsong has been shown to reduce mental fatigue and stress.
To practice the Human Radar listening meditation:
- Choose a place to immerse yourself in nature
- Find a quiet spot and close your eyes
- Imagine concentric rings starting close to your body and gradually expanding outwards away from you
- Notice what you can hear in the area closest to you
- Expand your awareness outward a little – what can you hear?
- Continue to expand your listening further and further, until you notice the very furthest sound
- Then, slowly move your awareness towards your body again, finishing by noticing what you can hear closest to you
Find peace and calm with the sounds of Yoga Nidra.
Our sense of smell doesn’t just help us recognise the delicious scent of Springtime flowers, it also has a deep connection to our emotional wellbeing and immune health. The word petrichor refers to the smell of damp earth after rainfall, and is something humans all seem to enjoy and benefit from. Scientists reason that perhaps humans appreciate the scent of earth after the rain because our ancestors may have relied upon rainy weather for survival in hot months. Phytoncides are another beneficial scent found in the forest, although we cannot usually smell them. Phytoncides are natural chemical substances emitted by plants and trees, from the Latin phyton meaning ‘plant’, and cide, meaning to ‘exterminate’, and essentially means ‘exterminated by the plant’. These chemicals are part of how plants and trees naturally protect themselves from harmful insects and germs, and it turns out they help protect our immune systems too. Phytoncides are a part of wood essential oils like Cedar, Pine, or Sandalwood, which can all help reduce inflammation, improve respiratory health, increase the production of cancer-killing cells and improve immune health.
To practice Scents Of The Forest:
- Find a place to immerse yourself in nature
- Close your eyes and notice what you can smell – how does this scent make you feel? Does it remind you of anything?
- Open your eyes and continue to wander through the woods, being led by your sense of smell
- Stop to smell plants, flowers, tree bark, and kneel down to inhale the scent of the earth beneath you
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The textures we encounter in nature are inherently unpredictable and help bring us back to our human roots; the sting of a nettle, the softness of mud, crunchy leaves and babbling streams all have textures that simply cannot be found in the man-made world. Connecting to nature simply by touching it also helps us engage with the practice of earthing; when we connect to the earth’s natural electric charge, it stabilises our physiology to help reduce inflammation, stress and pain, as well as improving immune health blood flow, energy levels and a greater sense of general wellbeing. You don’t always have to take your shoes off and walk bare foot to get the benefits of earthing either – simply touching trees and plants can give similar effects too. Another powerful ways to calm the nervous system with our sense of touch is by allowing ourselves to be held by the earth.
To practice Held By The Earth:
- Find a place to immerse yourself in nature
- In a clearing, take off your shoes and lie down on the earth
- Place the soles of your feet and palms of your hands on the earth, and allow your eyes to look up towards the tree canopies
- For a few minutes, simply allow yourself to be held and supported by the earth, knowing that there is nothing else you need to do, no one else you need to be, and nowhere else you need to go.
- This practice can often be cathartic and you may experience strong emotions – allow them to flow if you are comfortable to do so.
Our skin loves the feel of natural fibres. Wrap yourself in the Hemp & Organic Cotton Yoga Blanket when you’re practicing meditation or Savasana.
Before we talk about taste and nature, it’s important to remember that you should always consult an experienced foraging expert before picking or consuming anything you find in the woods! That said, foraging is a wonderful way to connect with nature and get to know the plants around you better. Depending upon the season, you may stumble across nettle, dandelion, mushrooms, berries, nuts, and the much-loved wild garlic in Springtime. Wild foods are not only free, they have the added benefit of containing a much higher level of antioxidants and nutrients than cultivated varieties, and you can almost always guarantee they’re organic too. Remember to head out into the woodland with an expert, where you may find these seasonal treats:
- Spring: Nettle, dandelion, ground elder, wild garlic, chickweed, cleavers
- Summer: Bilberry, sorrel, chanterelle, hawthorn berries, elderflowers
- Autumn: Elderberries, blackberries, beechnuts, rosehips, sloes, wild plum, apples
- Winter: Chestnuts, hawthorn berries, hazelnuts, rose hips, cranberries, crab apples
Find plenty of plant-based recipes in Vegan For Good by Rita Serano.
Try any of these sense-soothing practices on your Self-Care Sunday Forest Bathing walk, and help restore your body and mind.