Clean air, birds chirping in the trees, dappled sunlight on leafy branches, and the smell of fresh pine needles — oh yes, getting back to nature feels good. This, of course, is something that we humans have known innately to be true for centuries. But with the backing of scientific research – which has found that spending as little as twenty minutes in the great outdoors can cut cortisol levels (the stress hormone) by about 10% – we now know it for a fact. Nature does wonders for the mind, body, and soul.
This kind of therapy has a name; forest bathing (also known as “eco-therapy” or “mindfulness in nature”) and it’s arguably been given more credence in today’s world than ever before. As we face work pressures, juggle busy schedules and navigate big life events (like, you know, global pandemics and such like), we’re reminded of the importance of restoring balance, recharging our batteries, and making time for the simple pleasures in life.
What is forest bathing?
To put it simply, forest bathing is about finding peace and calm among the trees. It’s about breathing deeply, moving mindfully and noticing nature in the present moment.
Its name may sound newfangled but this practice has roots (pardon the pun) in history, and we’ve got the Japanese to thank for it. Japan is known for its intense work culture, where employees often face huge performance pressures, commute long distances, clock-off late and have very little down-time. So much so, that the phrase “karoshi” was even coined, meaning “death by overwork.” Yikes.
The idea of forest bathing – known in Japan as shinrin yoku (or “taking in the forest atmosphere”) – was conceived in the 1980s to help restore work-life balance during Japan’s tech-boom. It was also devised to encourage people to reconnect with their natural surroundings and inspire conservation efforts to protect the country’s many beautiful forests.
How does forest bathing work?
Connecting with the natural world helps your brain relax, while releasing feel-good hormones in the body and reducing nasty cortisol levels (i.e.stress hormones) that can lead to things like high blood pressure. The upshot is, after a good dose of exposure in nature, you’re more likely to feel less anxious, less depressed, less sad and less angry.
The practice of forest bathing has also been linked to higher energy levels, an increase in creativity and a greater ability to focus. Research has even found that taking regular time out in nature can boost your immune system, which makes a lot of sense as cortisol can compromise your immune defences. All in all, forest bathing (or whatever you want to call it) is a no-brainer for your mental and physical health. (natureandforesttherapy)
Who is forest bathing for?
Anyone who’s tried meditation will know that it’s no mean feat. Being still, focusing on your breath, and allowing your thoughts to wander passively can be a challenge, especially for beginners.
The good news is you don’t have to be a master meditator to get something out of forest bathing. Nor do you have to be some kind of Bear Grylls-esque wilderness enthusiast. In a forest, meditation and mindfulness come naturally when you let your senses focus on what’s around you. In this setting, it becomes much easier to be present and find inner calm. This practice of eco-mindfulness can be as simple as taking a stroll in a natural space and paying attention to what you can hear, smell, see and touch. But, while it’s perfectly easy to do this under your own steam, some folk prefer to be guided through the process in a more structured way. For this, you can pay to join trained guides for longer sessions, learning techniques along the way.
5 places to try forest bathing
Whether you’re keen to connect with nature on your holiday (whenever that may be), or are looking for somewhere closer to home, here are a few of our favourite places to try forest bathing independently, in the UK and around the world.
1. Koyasan, Japan
Japan is the birthplace of forest bathing. Although the country is known for its hi-tech gadgets and neon lights, there’s no shortage of natural beauty spots to behold – from the Japanese alps to bubbling hot springs. One of the most sacred regions in the country is the atmospheric town of Koyasan. Set in an enchanted-like forest of lofty cedar trees, here you’ll find a moss-strewn cemetery- a must-visit site, which lies at the heart of Shingon Buddhism. Here, you can stroll along parts of the ancient pilgrimage trail, soak up the spiritual atmosphere, and even spend the night in a traditional temple.
2. Pacific Rim National Park, Canada
Canada is the ultimate Great Outdoors destination, known for its dramatic glacial lakes, epic Rocky Mountains, and acres upon acres of pine forests. One of our favourite spots to lace up your hiking boots is Pacific Rim National Park. Incidentally, it’s also one of the best places in Canada to spot wild black bears in their natural habitat.
From Tofino, you can embark on one of the many walking trails on offer. Rainforest trail is one of the best, and takes you past giant cedar trees, moss-covered firs and delicate ferns. Follow your feet along the wooden boardwalk through the forest and listen to the drip-drip-drip of raindrops trickling down from the canopies – a proper rainforest experience!
3. San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica
San Gerardo de Dota is one of Costa Rica’s best kept secrets, tucked away in the remote mountains, south of the capital city of San Jose. The peaceful cloud forest here is home to an abundance of birdlife, from toucans and nightingales, to hummingbirds and the famous Resplendent Quetzal. Watch your step too, because the forest floor is just as rich with life, with frogs and reptiles going about their business. San Gerardo de Dota’s cool climate and chorus of fauna makes it an ideal spot to let go of those worries and get immersed in the sights and sounds of the forest.
4. Danum Valley, Borneo
Danum Valley Conservation Area in Borneo is an idyllic place to indulge in some serious eco-therapy. Covering 438 sq. km of tropical wilderness in eastern Sabah, the virgin rainforest here is beautiful beyond imagination, boasting wildlife in every spot. Early morning is the best time to enjoy the canopy walkway through the surrounding lowland rainforest.
Walk mindfully through the forest and the sounds and stillness of nature will soon come into sharp focus; the distant flurry of the river, the chattering of birds in the treetops, thick moss on fallen branches, scuttling beetles and an intricate cross-stitch of vine leaves. It’s an Attenborough’s dream!
5. Brede High Woods, East Sussex, UK
As a Brightonian, it would be churlish not to throw one of favourite Sussex beauty spots into the mix. A highlight of springtime for many Sussex-dwelling folk is a bluebell woodland walk – after all, half of the world’s bluebells can be found in England! At this time of year, Sussex woods are blanketed in a blue hue of fragrant bluebells. One of our favourite spots for a blue-bell forest bath is Brede High Woods, just a few miles north of Hastings in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Bluebell season varies depending on the weather, but usually begins in early April and lasts until the end of May. But whatever time of year you visit, a leisurely stroll through this ancient woodland is sure to leave you feeling calm and refreshed all day long.
A few forest bathing tips for beginners:
- Turn off your phone. This will give you the best chance to switch off and tune in to what’s around you.
- Take your time. By moving through the forest more slowly, you’ll become more aware of your natural surroundings.
- Breath deep. Take long, deep breaths deep right into your abdomen. By extending your breath, you’re signaling to your body that it can relax.
- Think about your senses. Smell, touch, see, and listen to your surroundings. Paying attention to your sense will help you pick up on the forest’s small details.
- Take a seat. Try not to think about that to-do list, and instead practice some mindful observation – you might be surprised at the things you see.
- Don’t rush. If it’s possible, give yourself as much time as you can to take in your surroundings before returning to “normal” life. Start with at least 20 minutes and, if you can, gradually build it up over time.