We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for millennia. The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air- these things give us a sense of comfort. They ease our stress and worry by helping us to relax and think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back energy and vitality and refresh and rejuvenate. In a society yearning for healing, maybe the forests are where we can turn to find peace and renewal- Dr Qing Li, Author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness
My adoration for nature was strengthened once I began living in the Blue Mountains, closely surrounded by spectacular landmarks the like of The Three Sisters. They are an unusual rock formation towering above the expansive Jamison Valley, telling an Aboriginal Dreamtime story. The most well known and accepted legend of this historically significant site is that three sisters, Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo, lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe. They fell in love with three men from the neighbouring Nepean tribe but marriage was forbidden by tribal law. The brothers were not happy to accept this law and decided amongst themselves that they’d capture the three sisters. A major tribal battle ensued and the sisters were turned to stone by an elder to protect them. However, he was killed in the fight and no one else could turn them back.
On my days off, I enjoy exploring local walking paths. We have a nearby lake that attracts a lot of tourism- it is a popular spot for picnics, barbeques and families with children as there is play equipment. These winding trails have seen me come upon many a realisation as I sought to be grounded in intentionality and stillness. The embrace of a tree is not to be underestimated. On a deeper and more profound level I felt as if I was being hugged back, this great mass of trunk, limb and leaf bestowing upon me sources of ancient warmth and powerful presence beyond imagination.
Being exposed to urbanised living has contributed to my wellbeing in other significant ways. It’s allowed me to thrive socially and I am immensely grateful for the wealth of resources I have at hand. Nature, however, is my tonic of choice. Escaping to the nearest tree lined trail surrounding the city of Parramatta has proved soothing to life’s array of stressors. Being outside quenches a thirst and brings me the utmost satisfaction and relief, not entirely dissimilar to that first sip of water when your throat is parched.
In Japan, they practice Shinrin Yoku, also known as Forest Bathing. This does not refer to typical exercise as such- It is not mandated hiking or jogging. Rather, it is simply being in nature, engaging your senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch with vigour and ideally for a prolonged period. It’s a sensory experience, highly tranquil and similar to walking meditations. This is nature’s symphony- step into the world like it’s your first time arriving here.
In this way, you bridge the gap between your person and the natural world. Never has our society, our generations, been less intertwined with green spaces. We are completely and utterly divorced from nature. We pass it by and miss the miracle of ever budding, ever blooming new life. The latest projections show that by twenty fifty, sixty six percent of the world’s population will live in cities. A study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency made the detrimental determination that the average American spends over ninety percent of their time in a sedentary state indoors.
Forest bathing was first introduced in nineteen eighty two by Tomohide Akiyama, a previous director of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, although this practice dates back further. In the romantic words of Julia Plevin, “as evidenced in haiku poems about nature and with the concept of Wabi Sabi, the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete- much of traditional Japanese culture is based in a deep understanding of and connection to nature.”
Indigenous cultures around the world have also tapped into the possibilities within our forests and turned to green spaces for healing wisdom over thousands of years. In some native languages, the term for plants translates roughly to mean ‘those who take care of us.’
Human beings and their direct ancestors have existed for approximately seven million years with over ninety nine percent of that time spent living in nature’s ecosystem. Our genes are adapted to nature and they have not changed over two or three centuries since the industrial revolution. Yet we live in modern societies that place our bodies in conditions of stress. We need to bathe amongst the trees, attempt to wash away our mental anguish and strain.
Scientific studies have shown that forest bathing can benefit people at a cellular level and lead to regeneration. Nature could be responsible for lifting our mood, ensuring restful sleep, keeping stress levels at bay and regulating blood glucose levels. Additionally, forest bathing can lead to higher immune system function as trees produce an organic, protective compound called Phytoncides. We take this in through essential oil use. This is the same protectant trees use for their own health. At any given time, thousands of these compounds are emitted from forests. When we breathe in these essential oils, our entire nervous system reaps the benefits. Pine and Juniper closely emulate the scent of outdoor environments.
However you decide to practice forest bathing, remember that we want to practice awareness and respect the land around us. The Leave No Trace organisation is an excellent resource with helpful guidelines for practicing sustainability- whether you’re at a park or deep in the wilderness. And the app Native Land maps out Indigenous territories so that we can educate ourselves on Land Acknowledgement.
No matter where you live, accessibility is important and a large open space is not necessary for a successful forest bathing session. You’ll begin by finding a tree lined spot. Make sure to leave your phone and camera behind. Turn your devices to silent mode in order to avoid interruptions. You want to maintain your pattern of thought and concentration. Your only focus is walking at a leisurely pace. Set aside any goals that do not align with the idea of your body being your guide, your teacher, your healer. Be aimless, be slow, be light on your toes, be weightless. Listen to your intuition, tap into your mind’s eye. Where does it want to take you? Follow your nose. It doesn’t matter where you end up- there is no real destination in mind.
The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm.
This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. When you rush around constantly, you lose the ability to stand still and be content in this state of stagnancy. You may find comfort in walking alongside a guide who is a trained forest therapist and can help you find the right environment to fit your needs. In Linan Furusato No Mori Forest, there are doctors on standby who offer general health assessments. When you arrive, you are given a physical health check and a psychological questionnaire, all of which is used to construct a personalised wellness plan for you.
However, it is just as easy to forest bathe without a guide. There are many different undertakings you could try your hand at. Forest walking, yoga, eating a meal, hot spring therapy, Tai Chi, meditation, flower picking and arranging, breathing exercises, aromatherapy, art classes, pottery, Nordic walking and plant observation. Best of all, Shinrin Yoku is indiscriminate. You are called to be a part of something larger than yourself and no attention is paid to your fitness levels. They are irrelevant.
Alternatively, you could create a personal garden. Nurturing plants in your home is a beautiful way to bring the outdoors in. There is greenery to suit every space, style and weather condition. As you grow in self assurance and confidence, you’ll become a more attentive plant mama or papa, taking care to dust leaves, mist or spritz on hot days, work on fertiliser recipes and the like. A windowsill herb garden is another lovely idea, particularly if your cuisine of choice requires fresh herbs. Hot Spaghetti finished with mint anyone? Herbs are natural medicine and can be used in teas as well. They have been known to temper grief.