STANDING in a forest, I inhale the gloriously fresh and tangy smell of wet trees. I stare intently at the dark green, crinkle-edged leaves of an oak tree, shivering in the cool breeze. It’s easy to forget I’m in south London, not deep in an enchanted forest — until the angry jab of a distant siren breaks the spell.
I’ve come to my local woods to try forest bathing, one of the biggest wellness trends of the year on the back of several books promoting its benefits. Contrary to expectations, forest bathing doesn’t involve plunging into a fairy pool in a woodland glade — rather it’s a form of meditation in the natural world.
‘Forest bathing essentially means taking a leisurely trip to an area of woodland and having moments of stillness,’ says Samantha Lyster of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (rspb.org.uk), which offers forest bathing sessions at various locations around the country. ‘Listen to the sounds, breathe in the smells and concentrate on the colours. Forest bathing is designed to help people to stop, be still and feel joy.’
The term ‘forest bathing’ is a translation of the concept of shinrin-yoku, developed in Japan in the 1980s for the good of public health. The practice, which in recent years has become hugely popular in the US, feels particularly timely in the UK as Japanese lifestyle philosophies such as wabi-sabi, the art of embracing imperfection, take root in the UK psyche.
Scientific research backs the health benefits of forest bathing sessions, with one report, published by the journal of Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, finding that forest bathing could lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, reduce pulse rates and lessen blood pressure. It’s also thought to alleviate depression and even boost the immune system.
Yet while we all know that taking a short stroll in the woods is probably better for us than scrolling for half an hour in an Instagram vortex, it doesn’t mean we actually do it. By committing to the concept of forest bathing, it’s more likely we’ll get out there.
‘People like to label things, to give them weight and meaning,’ agrees Sarah Ivens Moffett, author of Forest Therapy: Seasonal Ways To Embrace Nature For A Happier You (Piatkus). ‘Forest bathing is something we all instinctively did as children but we lose these natural instincts as we grow up and get weighed down by life. Labelling the idea of reconnecting with nature as ‘forest bathing’ can help set it up in the mind as a self-care practice, like meditation, yoga or a good night’s sleep.’
And there’s no doubting how refreshed and happy I feel after my DIY forest bathing session, my head swimming with satisfaction despite my proximity to London’s untranquil South Circular road. If you go down to the woods today or any day, you might just boost your physical and mental health.
The Little Book Of Forest Bathing (Summersdale) is out now
A beginner’s guide to forest bathing
GARY EVANS of Holistic Healing (holistichealingtherapy.co.uk), which has partnered with RSPB Sandwell for forest therapy sessions, is your guide:
■ Turn your phone off, or put it on to aeroplane mode, for at least 30 minutes. Try to work your way up to two hours of phone-free relaxation time.
■ Forest bathing is not just about sitting down. You can incorporate a slow walk but take very small steps, so that you can appreciate the forest environment.
■ Focus on taking deep breaths into the lower abdomen. This will help absorb the extra oxygen in the forest, while breathing deeply releases endorphins.