Before going any further, it’s important to clear something up: forest bathing doesn’t involve sitting in a muddy woodland pool in your swimming costume or speedos.
The term comes from the Japanese,shrinrin-yoku, and while forest bathing is a literal translation, it is better understood as ‘taking in the forest atmosphere.’
There is some debate about how old and unique this practice is, but forest bathing has proved very popular in Japan – and is now increasingly catching on in the west as a way of re-connecting with nature and helping to develop or strengthen a mindfulness/meditation practice.
First, a bit of background. Japanese society, like most urbanised cultures, can be stressful, and the country’s connection with, and appreciation for, nature, is deeply embedded in the collective psyche. You can see this in the ancient Shinto religion, an indigenous belief system that predates the arrival of Buddhism in the country.
Shinto adherents believe that spirits, orkami, are all around us in nature. The popularity of forest bathing in Japan has also helped to preserve forests and woodland, under pressure from creeping urbanisation, tourist resort development and other unhappy trends.
For us in the west, forest bathing can be a great way of enjoying nature in a more meaningful way – and it’s about a lot more than a nice walk in the woods. The psychological benefits are clear, and being out amongst the trees will make just about anyone feel better than slumping in front of the TV for another Netflix binge. Cultural historians will also point out that a reverence for nature, specifically woodland and groves, is also deeply embedded in European pagan traditions.
I recently attended a wellbeing retreat in the beautiful hills overlooking Tintern Abbey, run by yoga teacher Hayley Court and her husband Tom, who runs the forest bathing workshops. During the retreat, Tom took the group on a three-hour session which involved lots more than just sitting on a tree stump and trying to empty your mind.
We were asked to find a particular location by just following our gut instinct, for example, or walk barefoot along an ancient path in the woodland behind the retreat centre. People were nervous about shedding their pricey walking boots at first, but there is something very cathartic about getting your feet dirty and really feeling your physical connection to the woodland.
Another fascinating activity involved pairing up with a partner, closing your eyes and pretending be a camera; your partner then guides you and asks you to ‘photograph’ something they’d noticed in the woodland.
Or, we were asked to sit silently and try to identify all the different noises we could hear around us. It’s all about developing a greater awareness of the glories of nature. Eventually, you tap into a more instinctive way of being, a state beyond the constant mental chatter and compulsive phone checking that drains our time and energy in everyday life.
Tom is also a mine of information about the different trees and plants in the woodland, and their culinary and medicinal benefits. He talked a lot about fungi, but also the wide variety of berries, and later made us all some delicious tea from pine needles.
This was my first experience of forest bathing and I would highly recommend it. Anyone can take some time out in the local woods, or drive out to the countryside, but doing a structured workshop or course with a trained guide like Tom can make the experience much more enlightening.
I certainly felt much more invigorated afterwards, and it has encouraged me to find out more about foraging, or learning more about edible plant species. Tom also shared some cautionary tales about the risk of toxicity from certain species – another reason to go out with an experienced guide.
I would also recommend forest bathing as part of a retreat, or at the very least, a full-day course, as it takes you away from the distractions of the rest of your life.
Some sceptics may scoff at the more extreme claims surrounding forest bathing – that it can boost the body’s resistance to cancer, for example – but you can enjoy the very immediate psychological and physical benefits without having to join the debating society. The proof is in the pudding and it certainly worked for me.
Combine forest bathing with yoga, as on Tom and Hayley’s weekend retreats, and you are pretty much guaranteed to return to the ‘world’ feeling a whole lot better than when you left for Tintern. For more information see forestretreats.co.uk
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