It’s World Mental Health Day 2020, and I am standing in a forest, about to take a bath. Don’t get too worried, this particular bath does not involve water and takes place fully clothed. Forest bathing or Shinrin-Yoku as it’s called in its native Japan is a form of nature therapy, designed to bring benefits to both the body and the mind. At Lime we are always keen to explore new and interesting ways to stay healthy and after a year of pandemic, lockdowns and enormous challenge to the mental health of millions it feels even more important.
The concept of forest bathing emerged in Japan in the 1980s but the idea behind it really isn’t anything new. At its heart it’s about slowing down, focusing on your surroundings and immersing yourself in the natural environment. Forest bathing is as simple as walking into a quiet woodland, turning off your phone, breathing deeply and taking time to mindfully and consciously notice the world around you. No hiking, no climbing, no worrying about meeting a work deadline or whether you locked the car. Just be. Preferably for an hour or more, the longer the better. And of course, it’s totally free and very accessible. You don’t have to trek into pure, undisturbed wilderness (thank goodness), even standing among a few trees in your local park will do.
For something so simple it sure promises a lot. Enthusiasts list improved mental and physical health, from a reduction in stress and anxiety to stronger immune systems. And it seems that there is some evidence to back up these claims. A 2009 study found significantly increased levels of human natural killer cells (a key part of our immune system) in the days and even weeks after a visit to a forest. A different study found that volunteers reported reduced hostility and depression and increased liveliness after being in a wooded environment. A further study found clear evidence that just 30 minutes in a forest can reduce physical and mental symptoms of stress when compared to an urban environment.
Sounds like it’s worth trying doesn’t it!? So, what is it actually like?
I stepped off the path into the forest feeling just a little bit silly. Forest bathing requires slow movement with periods of stillness to soak up the world around you. You breathe deeply and try to empty your mind of everything except the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. At first, I was very aware of a dog barking in the distance and people walking down the trail behind me, but as I headed deeper into the wood, I stopped feeling self-conscious and started to relax.
Immediately I began to notice more. The slightly earthy smell of the forest, the rustle of a bird in the undergrowth, the way the breeze gently moved the leaves. Everywhere I looked I was struck by something. Interesting toadstools and crookedly shaped trees, the smell of pine needles and the way the sunlight glinted on a spider’s web. The tension of daily life ebbed away and I really did start to feel peaceful. It’s a bit like meditating, particularly as you’re breathing slowly and deeply, but because there is so much to see in a forest it’s much easier to keep your mind focused. I didn’t start wondering about what I should cook for dinner or whether I had remembered to add laundry detergent to my shopping list. It sounds cheesy, but I was captivated by the beauty of the forest.
I can’t testify to the physiological or long-term benefits of forest bathing, but I can say that I felt calmer, more relaxed and perhaps most importantly, I had fun. In the few days that have followed I find myself slowing down and noticing little details in the world around me. Forest bathing also brings a sense of perspective, a feeling that the world will keep turning no matter what troubles are worrying you. I think we could all do with a bit of forest bathing in our lives.
To find out more about forest bathing and to find your local forest, try Forestry England’s website: https://www.forestryengland.uk/blog/forest-bathing
To find a forest in Scotland: https://forestryandland.gov.scot
To find a forest in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/find-woods/