“And, into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.” – John Muir
~Forest Bathing~ (otherwise known as shinrin-yoku)
This delightful phrase conjures up all sorts of images in my head – some ethereal beauties in a mystical place, with floating white dresses, sunlight flickering through the trees and glistening on a warm pool of clear water. A lush green forest. Wine drunk out of goblets. Someone playing a flute.. and a harp…Merriment and laughter.
Turns out Forest Bathing doesn’t quite include all these things, which I have to say I find marginally disappointing.
So what does it actually involve? Forest Bathing is based on the very surprising theory that spending time in nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, decrease stress levels, boost the immune system, and increase everything from memory to creativity.
The idea with shinrin-yoku, inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, is to let nature enter your body through all five senses.
As a repeat sufferer of anxiety and depression and a firm believer that prevention is better than a cure, I enjoy researching various “natural” ways to aid my mental health. I like to think of it as arming myself with a little self-care tool kit of ammunition against the BLACK DOG.
I am lucky enough to live very close to a beautiful wooded area, and I have to admit, it is definitely my “happy place”. I love running in the woods. It’s peaceful, it’s hilly, often muddy, and I feel at home. Relaxed. Unfortunately, in forest bathing terms, the word on the street is… that you don’t quite get the benefits if you’re tearing around the trails on your feet (or on a mountain bike perhaps). This is because you are quite likely to still be hitched up to civilization – connected to your phone or your Garmin possibly? More than that, yes of course, you are obtaining some physical and mental benefits, but to really get the most out of nature, you actually need to be present in it, not distracted by your own great story of self. “When you’re pursuing a sport, you get cardiac points, but you’re not necessarily getting nature points,” – Rachel Kaplan (researcher University of Michigan).
The idea is simple: a person basically visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way (like Mr Soft perhaps?) Although, forest therapy in groups tends to involve guided activities and meditation as well.
According to (what is now becoming quite extensive) research, to experience the ‘healing’ power of trees, you only need to be in the woods for a short time. By spending as little as 15 minutes among the trees there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved.
So, as we are dog sitting for friends this week, I thought I’d multi-task and have a go at this whole forest bathing thing whilst on our early morning dog walk. I’ve been feeling a bit stressed out with 50 hour (plus) working weeks, impending Half Iron I’ve not done enough training for and business plans that need a whole lot of attention that I don’t have the time to devote to at the moment….
…..Wander calmly, with “soft fascination” (love that phrase). Peace and serenity. Breathe. Take in the smells, sights and sounds. The woods are alive. Sunlight. A gentle breeze. I totally get this forest bathing malarkey. I am feeling holier than a monk and very, very pleased with myself – for a good few minutes at least. Then the mind starts wandering, thinking about work and the day ahead, what I’m going to make for dinner later. What time I have to be up tomorrow morning? How long will it take us to get there? Did I ring that gentleman back about his granite worktops? How many steps have I done so far?… Then all of a sudden the dog spies/hears an animal deep within the bushes and goes bounding off, hurtling through the undergrowth, chasing his prey with great vigour. Seemingly the dog finds the woods his own little “happy place” too. Only he must have had a little too much enthusiasm for hounding his victim and I can no longer hear his big bouncing doberman body crashing through the vegetation. For the next 5 minutes (no exaggeration) shouts of “Murphy” “HERE!!” “Murphy Dog” “Murph” “MURPHY!!!” are echoing through the woods, my screechy voice (can’t shout) interspersed with varying degrees of successful (and unsuccessful) wolf whistles. I am now in a mild panic and start swearing under my breath a lot, wondering how I would even begin to explain that I’ve lost the doberman and where on earth would the search party start? Deep breath. Last really, really long and loud wolf whistle (the kind which would make my Dad proud) and he comes lolloping back (from an entirely different direction), totally out of breath, one ear flipped back and stuck to his head, half a tree attached to his collar and looking entirely pleased with his little adventure.
OK, so maybe it would be better to attempt my mindful wandering without the big, daft dobey, but by the time we had finished our walk I felt good. The blood was pumping a little, I was warm, flush in the cheeks. I felt totally energised. Also, although my thought patterns had appeared entirely random, wandering, lost and completely in the way of my serenity, I felt like all the worries of the day had already been solved. I was ready to face the day. I believe it’s what they call “clarity of mind”.
So, it seems that Forest Bathing is the next “new” thing on the agenda for mental wellness. A trend almost, like yoga and juicing. However, forest therapy (along with other holistic approaches – like yoga) such as Shinrin-yoku, have roots in many cultures throughout history. With the ever growing development of overweight screen addicts, aggressive/distracted lovers of the social media, those maintaining several platforms so they can be likers, sharers and seekers of approval, we have arrived at the age of Urban Desk Jockeys and Digital Narcissism… and of course the more important statistic of 1 in 4 people now sufferers of stress, anxiety, depression or other mental health issues .. perhaps we should all go and hang out in the woods.
As John Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity.”
There’s not an app for that.