Story and photo by Inga Hinnerichsen
Forest bathing . . . Forest what?
Though the pairing of those two words may seem strange at first, forest bathing is a term used for the intentional practice of connecting with nature and surrounding yourself with the energy of the natural world. It is the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or taking a slow walk in the woods and absorbing the forest atmosphere with all your senses. The Japanese word shinrin means forest and yoku means bath.
Never have we humans been so far from merging with the natural world and so divorced from nature. According to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency (USA), the average American spends 93% of his/her time indoors. Canadians are not far behind.
The good news is that even a small amount of time in nature can have an impact on our health. A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It’ll bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you. Numerous studies have shown that shinrin-yoku has real health benefits.
The calming benefits of spending time in nature are well documented. They include decreased anxiety and a strengthened immune system. Japanese studies have shown that people who spend time in the forest inhale beneficial bacteria, plant-based essential oils, and negatively charged ions. Trees take in CO2, carbon dioxide, from the air. They keep the carbon atoms and give back the oxygen. They also emit phytoncides, anti-microbial compounds, that the tree uses as defence against invading bacteria, fungi and insects. Phytoncides are also beneficial to us. They are our natural aromatherapy The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy lists myriad benefits including reduced blood pressure, increased energy, and increased ability to focus.
I first heard of this practice only a short while ago. It was developed in Japan in the 1980s. Forest therapy isn’t a new concept, it has roots in many cultures throughout history. Most of us know how good it feels to be out in nature—the sounds and scents of the forest, the sunlight streaming through the leaves, and the fresh, clean air all give us a sense of well-being. Being in nature can restore our energy, refresh and rejuvenate us. Forest bathing has now gained great popularity on the west coast.
I’ll try to explain the concept of “Forest Bathing” in the following. First, you need a treed area, such as a forest. Trees are essential for this experience. Then, you open all your senses, sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch, to absorb the atmosphere of the forest. Forest bathing can be practiced any time of the year and is suitable for any fitness level. It is almost a type of meditation. You may go with a group or by yourself, with or without a guide. You walk along slowly, almost aimlessly, often stopping.
Forest bathing is not hiking or jogging. Unlike an interpretive nature walk, or hiking, which involves moving purposefully across terrain, forest bathing isn’t about following a defined route and may span only about one kilometre in an hour or two. Rather than the destination, the point is to focus on the details of the journey. Take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savoring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.
Leave your camera and the binoculars at home and turn off your phone. You don’t need any distracting activities. You may want to sit quietly for a while. Listen to the wind whispering in the tree canopy. Maybe there are birds calling or some insects buzzing. Observe the movements of the plants, trees and any living creatures around you. You inhale slowly and deeply and exhale calmly. Take in the aroma of the earth and the trees, you can almost taste the air. Touch the textures around you, the different barks of tree trunks, the leaves of the saplings and plants—but leave the Poison Ivy alone! Release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature.
Recommended reading: Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li
A local Tree enthusiast and “Zen Guy”, to use his own words, Tommy Berencser, occasionally leads forest bathing walks in our area. Check out his “Tommy’s Tree Talks” on YouTube and his Facebook page “Zen in the forest of Norfolk County”