What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Forest Bath’?
A rather nippy dip in a rather murky stream? That doesn’t sound very inviting and one of the main principles of Forest Bathing is the orientation to pleasure – so fret not!
Often known as Forest Bathing or Forest Therapy, Shinrin-Yoku (森林 浴) focuses on the immersion of your senses in the natural world.
The transformative practice is where yoga was in the UK 30 years ago – just beginning to knock at the door but far away from the mainstream.
So where did it all start?
If you think back to our ancestral ways, we used to be at one with nature, humans worked and lived together in unity with the land and their natural surroundings. So, is it any wonder that even now, all these centuries later and with all our mod cons, we still long to get away from it all? Be that camping in the middle of nowhere or climbing mountains to feel alone and free?
We’re simply going back to our ancestral ways.
Forest Therapy Bases established in Japan
Fast forward to the 1980s in Japan – the government recognised that the country was gripped by a stress epidemic. The working class, in particular, were quite literally working themselves to death and so the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries dedicated certain forests as Forest Therapy Bases (FTB) and began prescribing ‘green prescriptions’.
The scientific data around these Forest Therapy Bases was so compelling that it led to the creation of over 60 bases dedicated to the practice, with plans to reach 100.
Forest Bathing doesn’t have to happen in the deep wilderness; the Japanese deliberately designed the practice to take place at the edges of the forest, the ‘satoyama’ as they call it. The intention being for people to begin seeing the human world as part of nature, rather than something to separate or making the practice inaccessible to some because of the long hike required at the start.
Benefits of Vitamin N
The forests used as therapy bases are cultivated with Sugi and Hinoki cypresses, known for their sense-enticing aroma – essential oils known as phytoncides – that lower blood pressure and increase production of NK cells and improve mood. Read more about the physiological benefits.
These phytoncides are emitted by trees to protect themselves from attack, so it makes sense that they’re so beneficial to us humans too, doesn’t it? Here in the UK, it’s mainly Conifers and Oaks that emit the airborne antibacterial chemicals; and Neem trees are the equivalent in India.
A Way of Life
Shinrin-Yoku has emerged as part of Japanese culture, which is known for its appreciation of nature and for finding beauty in simplicity, and where the wellbeing of both humans and nature is considered to be a reciprocal relationship.
Even the Japanese language reflects the zen-like beauty their culture emanates. There are hundreds of untranslatable Japanese words that relate to nature and have no English counterpart: ‘komorebi’ describes a beautiful forest with sunbeams of light peeking through the leaves of the trees, ‘hanafubuki’ refers to the way cherry blossom petals float down en-masse like snowflakes in a blizzard, and ‘kawaakari’ refers to light reflected off a river at night. Each word conjures up an entire landscape in my mind’s eye.
In fact, translating Shinrin-Yoku to Forest Bathing doesn’t really do the experience justice. It should really be Forest ‘soak’ or Forest ‘drench’, as it completely soaks you in nature.
Shinrin-Yoku also finds its roots in religion. Shintoism, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people, holds nature sacred. The people believe that if we humans respect nature, nature will respect us. Mountains peaks, deep valleys, and the wide ocean are viewed as dwellings for the divine, and other natural objects such as evergreen trees are considered to be symbols of divine spirits. Shinto translates directly into “Way of Kami” (Gods) and the most important Kami in Shinto are Amaterasu the sun goddess and the wind god Susanoo (what a brilliant name!).
Modern Day Nature Connection around the world
Shinrin-Yoku is now entirely integrated with national healthcare in Japan and accepted as preventative medicine to reduce stress and slow chronic illness.
The Forest Therapy Bases partner with large organisations such as Nissan and Mazda Motor Corporation, police unions, schools and music groups.
Demographics are not routinely tracked by the FTBs but those that do report 2 broad categories of visitor; older retirees whose goals include leisure and socialising, and workers – predominantly female – who attend through employee wellbeing programmes.
Health checks are carried out in some FTBs with things like mouth swabs being taken to measure cortisol, but the data isn’t shared across the bases nor standardised.
In homes, wooden materials and plants are used as decoration and believed to aid relaxation (read more about biophilic design here).
The I-Turn is part of Japan’s internal migration programme. In some regions, authorities are handing out cheap homes to encourage relocation from cities to rural farming towns where young people are long gone and much outdoor space is unused. This way, the young families that move to rural locations can enjoy all the local green space, and ghost villages full of irreparably damaged properties are avoided.
I’m in contact with Makiko Sugishita (木下) who lives in Yakushima, Japan and is training to become a certified Shinrin-Yoku guide. She’s had her own deep nature connection experiences – “When I encountered ancient Japanese cedar trees, they made me cry with joy… it felt as if they were bringing back long-forgotten, beautiful memories“ – and also loves to see her customers open up to nature and trees – “it feels like my tree told me I can be who really I am” shared one customer recently.
She’s able to guide in both Japanese and English and I for one will be joining one of her sessions when I finally fulfil my dream and get to visit the country.
But it’s not just in Japan that the practice has received support.
The practice is popular in South Korea too; the country has a Korea Forest Service and 34 National Healing Forests. They have embarked on a national training programme that includes 500 Forest Therapy instructors and are planning coordinated medical research across the 34 sites.
In Singapore, there is quite a following with groups meeting in urban parks, botanical gardens or at the beach due to the absence of forests.
Scandinavians also believe that nature helps support physiological and mental health. The expression Friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv) literally translates as “open-air living” and was popularised in the 1850s by the Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen, who used the term to describe the value of spending time in remote locations for spiritual and physical wellbeing.
It’s very much a way of life now, with organisations encouraging employees to spend time outdoors during their working hours (90 mins on a Wednesday afternoon is the standard time slot).
Forest Bathing in Hampshire and Berkshire
So, we’re a little late to the party here in the UK, however, we are at least off the mark. The Forest Bathing Institute is partway through a 5-year scientific study with the NHS on the effects of Forest Bathing and the University of Derby continue their work on Nature Connectedness.
If you’re in Hampshire or Berkshire UK and you’d like to experience a guided Shinrin-Yoku session with Adore Your Outdoors, take a look at the events on the website. You can join a group experience either in person or on zoom, book a private session or series of sessions for a team or community group, or even bring your children to the family session.
I look forward to showing you how to develop and deepen your connection to nature and discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.
This video shows something of a typical session: