Healing in the Forest - West Wind Hardwood

A Guide to Forest Bathing

Take a walk in the woods with no specific destination in mind.  When was the last time you walked into the woods with no plans; no set agenda? 

Wander, observe and immerse!  Allow your senses to guide you.

This is exactly the experience offered by a forest bathing session.

Forest bathing, forest therapy, or Shinrin-yoku, was developed in Japan in the 1980s.  There is a large amount of scientific evidence surrounding the health benefits of spending time in nature. Because of this, forest bathing became an integral part of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.

The idea is that when humans spend time in a natural setting, especially under the canopy of a forest, they experience rejuvenating benefits to the mind, body and spirit. This is not a novel concept. Traditionally people sought the restorative benefits of the forest as part of their everyday life. However, with the increase of industry and modern civilization, we moved away from the forest and into the hustle and bustle of the city. We lost touch with nature.

From FOREST BATHING: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li, published on April 17, 2018, by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Qing Li, 2018.

We all know how good being in nature can make us feel. We have known it for centuries. 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, help us to relax and to think more clearly. Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy and vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.

But what exactly is this feeling that is so hard to put into words? I am a scientist, not a poet. And I have been investigating the science behind that feeling for many years. In Japan, we practise something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere or taking in the forest through our senses.

This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.

Never have we been so far from merging with the natural world and so divorced from nature. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. According to a study sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American spends 93% of his or her time indoors.

But 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 will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you. Numerous studies I’ve conducted have shown that shinrin-yoku has real health benefits.

So how does one go about forest bathing?

First, find a spot. Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.

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 of phytoncides. 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. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge to happiness.

When it comes to finding calm and relaxation, there is no one-size-fits-all solution – it differs from person to person. It is important to find a place that suits you. If you love the smell of damp soil, you will be most relaxed where the natural landscape provides it. Then the effects of the forest will be more powerful. Maybe you have a place in the countryside that reminds you of your childhood or of happy times in the past. These places will be special to you and your connection with them will be strong.

When you have been busy at work all week, it can be hard to slow down. You may have been rushing around so much you no longer know how to stand still. Walking with a guide who is a trained forest therapist can help you feel more comfortable and find the right environment to fit your needs. In one of my favorite forests, Iinan Furusato-no-Mori, the forest-therapy program includes guided walks. Doctors are on hand to offer general health assessments. When you arrive, you are given a physical health check and a psychological questionnaire. The therapist then works out the best walking plan for you.

But it is just as easy to forest-bathe without a guide. And there are many different activities you can do in the forest that will help you to relax and to connect with nature. Here are some of the things people do: forest walking, yoga, eating in the forest, hot-spring therapy, T’ai chi, meditation, breathing exercises, aromatherapy, art classes and pottery, Nordic walking and plant observation. It doesn’t matter how fit – or unfit – you are. Shinrin-yoku is suitable for any level of fitness.

You can forest-bathe anywhere in the world – wherever there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine or snow. You don’t even need a forest. Once you have learned how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere – in a nearby park or in your garden. Look for a place where there are trees, and off you go!

If navigating your way through a forest bathing experience on your own seems a little overwhelming, there are many organizations that offer guided experiences. Check out the Association of Forest and Nature Therapy or Global Institute of Forest Therapy to find a program or guided opportunity near you.

I can only speak to my home on Vancouver Island. The Greater Victoria and Sooke area have many great parks. Contact Elemental Magick Adventures for guided excursions into Victoria’s Pacific Coast Rainforests. Hosted hikes to East Sooke Park and the Sooke Potholes, or a little further afield to Sandcut Beach are available through The Natural Connection.

Science Agrees: Nature is good for you

  1. Reset the Stress Button
  2. Kick-Start Your Creativity
  3. Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful

People who spend time in the forest experience decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which can help relieve high blood pressure, heart conditions, skin conditions, and asthma. High-stress levels can compromise your immune system. By reducing these levels your body’s natural defence system is able to work its magic. Trees release oils into the air, called phytoncides, and inhaling these natural essences can actually help to boost your immune system. Physical activity in the form of a 40 minute walk in the forest was associated with improved mood and feelings of health and robustness.

Port Renfrew, the land of the Tall Trees, has inspiring forest walks. One of my most memorable is Avatar Grove. Immerse yourself in the magic. You will find a mixture of boardwalks and lightly challenging trails/stairs. The upper walk is shorter but steeper and includes the world’s gnarliest tree. The lower grove has larger trees and a little easier to reach. Neither are no less magical and restorative for man’s intervention.

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