“I’ve found an antidote to the chaos of 2022 – it’s forest bathing”
Looking for a way to stop all those racing thoughts of impending doom? Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi headed to a field to try a spot of forest bathing and found that actually, sticking your face in a bush is as effective as anything else for calming the mind.
If the term ‘forest bathing’ has you imagining lying in a tub surrounded by trees, or perhaps lying on your back – half awake – in some kind of Disney-eque glade, you’re not alone. I always assumed that it was a wanky name given to the same act of chilling/napping in some tree-laden area.
So when I found myself being offered the chance to have a session on a hiking weekend with All Trails, the trail-finder app, I got ready for an hour’s kip in the sun. But it very quickly became apparent that forest bathing wasn’t about snoozing and despite turning up feeling knackered, I left feeling calmer, more energised and determined to try it on a weekly basis back in London.
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What actually is forest bathing?
First things first: forest bathing is not sleeping or bathing in a forest. And despite it’s Goop-y name, it first emerged as a ‘thing’ Japan in the 1980s. Shinrin-yoku or ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ is a form of ecotherapy which aims to physically and emotionally reconnect us to nature.
Our forest bathing session began with eco-therapist Maria inviting us all to lie on the grass in a clearing surrounded by bushes and trees. After a few minutes going over a few typical meditation techniques (body scanning, box breathing etc), we were asked to close our eyes and listen.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I sat or lay outside without my headphones on. Within a few minutes of simply listening (in the middle of a Derbyshire field), the noises became almost deafening. Birds were chirping to my left, the leaves were rustling to my right. Airplanes streamed overhead and my own breathing suddenly seemed to swell in volume. The world is a noisy old place, even when there’s no traffic or human chatter. And that hubbub seemed to drown out my own constant inner monologue far better than the usual podcasts or playlists.
Next up, we spent a few minutes creeping around the area at a minute pace trying to notice any and every movement. I watched as seemingly still trees took on a life of their own, swaying the more I stared. I felt a thistle for the first time (in 32 years, how have I never rubbed my fingers against the purple flower before?), pushed my face into a load of leaves, felt the grass tickle each toe. With each minute spent forest bathing, thoughts of catching the train home/how many emails I’d have to read on Monday/the cost of living crisis moved further and further away. It became as mentally engrossing as strength training – but far more pleasant and far less sweaty.
The third task involved moving to be near a tree and concentrating on that tree in silence. I chose a maple tree laden with thousands of reddish-brown leaves. As the sun shone through the cracks, I imagined what it’d be for the tree to shed all these leaves on me. ‘What would it feel like? Snug? Like being buried in feathers? What would the colours look like if I was lying amid the leaves? How would it smell?’
At the end of the session, we regrouped to share what we’d found over the course of the hour. Lots of people mentioned feeling connected to their childhoods – the sense of exploration and play that they’d lost as adults. Some cried thinking about past health issues or recently dead dogs; others still seemed to be lost in their thoughts.
Forest bathing proved to be a bit of a lightbulb moment; I spend so much time outdoors but I’m probably not reaping all the benefits because I’m forever listening to the radio. I never allow my mind to focus on the trees or plants around me because it’s plugged into Newscast or the Today Programme. I’ve now vowed to spend at least 10 minutes a week in my local green space without my phone.
What are the benefits of forest bathing?
There’s plenty of science to back up its benefits. A 2019 systematic review into the research already done on forest bathing found that the practice “may significantly improve people’s physical and psychological health” while studies have found that forest bathing can help us to better regulate our emotions through soothing and calming (the parasympathetic system), instead of fear and anxiety (the sympathetic system).
And from an anecdotal point of view, forest bathing can really help to slow down or mute those racing thoughts. It helps to focus the mind, sharpen the senses and reduce overall stress, so that you finish feeling energised rather than sleepy.
How to forest bathe at home
You don’t need to head to the countryside to reap the benefits of forest bathing. A 2020 study found that spending just 10 minutes in green space could improve mood and focus, while reducing blood pressure and heart rate.
And if you want to go further still, a 2019 study found that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health. That might sound a lot, but that’s 17 minutes a day. That could mean taking a seven minute stroll around your local park before sitting on a bench for 10 minutes. It might mean redirecting your runs so that you spend the majority of the session in green space.
As for me, I’m going to start spending a few minutes every Monday morning sitting on a bench in the park next to my house. No phone, no radio, no news. Just listening to people chatting to their dogs, the resident cuckoo and the far-off police sirens. It won’t necessarily stop me from eye rolling at whatever daft things are said in the Tory leadership race, or worrying about my gas bill come October, but in that moment, I fully expect to experience peace.
Images: Phil Sproson Photography
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