When I told my 17 year old son I was going to have a go at forest bathing, he rolled his eyeballs, whilst simultaneously raising his brows and shaking his head, with a look of complete horror spread across his face.
“Mum!” he moaned “you’re so weird! Why the hell would you want to strip off in a forest?!”
To his visible relief, I explained that whilst some indeed might like to get natural in nature, it wasn’t my cup of pine needle tea, I’d be keeping my clothes on. All of them. It’s February.
So, what on earth is forest bathing if it’s not skinny dipping in puddles of water in the woods?
Forest bathing is allowing nature to envelop your soul, it is to be mindful in a pure place. It’s like a bath for your mind. (Don’t let the ‘hippiness’ of those sentences put you off…stay with me.) Imagine you’re soaking in the tub (a real one), you’re relaxing, the water is the perfect temperature. You might have some silky essential oils in there caressing your skin, the aroma gently filling the room, the house is peaceful, you don’t need to rush off anywhere or do anything anytime soon, you can just enjoy the blissful moment. It’s a gorgeous feeling isn’t it? Well, that’s like forest bathing – allowing the moment of the forest to fill your senses. It’s being mindful of your surroundings. It’s taking the time to breathe in the scent, listen to nature and switch off from the hectic pace of life. It’s taking the time to reconnect with yourself.
Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, started in the mid-80s in Japan to combat the stresses of modern life, and its now landed on our shores in the West. When I first heard of it, I felt mixed emotions. I felt sad that modern life has made us so disconnected with nature that we have to make a ‘thing’ out it, but I also thought it sounded really quite cool.
I always considered myself as an outdoorsy person. I row, cycle, go for walks, like to swim, dabble in a bit of paddle boarding when its warm, I like camping and bbqs on the beach. But really, when I think properly about it, I’m fooling myself. I spend about 10 hours a day, Monday to Friday, in my classroom, rarely even looking outside, let alone get out in it. What must being contained in metal and concrete boxes all week do for my mental and physical health? Not much I can tell you.
So with the reality of me probably not being as Bear Grylls as I though, I quite easily came to the resounding conclusion that forest bathing was for me. So I did it. Clothes and all.
The easiest way I have found to practice forest bathing, or any mindfulness, is to concentrate on your five senses.
I chose Yelverton on Dartmoor (because it’s near the Warren House Inn). I walked at a slowish pace, trying to get my mind ready to relax, pushing out thoughts of work, food shopping etc, so when I arrived at the trees I hoped I would be ready.
I walked through the forest really slowly, listening to my footsteps. I was aware of the sound of the gentle snapping of twigs and earth shifting. I breathed in deeply and tried to slow down both my walking and my heart rate. The smell in the air was pure, of damp, rich soil and foliage. It had just rained, and everywhere had awoken, become brighter. I stood still and concentrated on the moment.
Fat raindrops teetered on the edge of leaves, they balanced artfully on the points of blades of grass and the sky was dark and ominous. I could see it was going to rain again, and I didn’t care. I wanted to feel the cool water hit my skin. Sounds cheesy, but it was true. The deeper I breathed, the more relaxed I became. I closed my eyes and listened to birds calling each other through the trees. Then, more subtle sounds became apparent. I heard a fly buzz past, I heard something in the undergrowth, I had no idea what it was, but it was going about its business not minding me. I could hear everything around me settling, moving in the breeze, stretching after the rains. The smells of the forest became more intense. I was sure I could taste pure oxygen.
The tension I always seem to hold in my shoulders and neck was starting to melt away. I felt good. I felt like I was getting taller, opening up. I carried on inhaling deeply. My mind wandered for a second… I realised I was stood not to far from a path, eyes closed, smiling to myself. If anyone walked past they would have had me pegged as someone who needed some form of intervention, but I didn’t care. Plus, I would have heard them come clomping from way off, I was atune to everything around me. I was at one with nature. I was nature woman! (Clearly, the oxygen was going to my head.) I put my hand out to feel a tree next to me. It’s papery bark seemed to stroke my fingers. For a very special, beautiful moment I was exactly in the present. Nothing else was invading my mind other than my surroundings. It was utter bliss. I slowly opened my eyes and adjusted my sight to the light levels. Everything was exactly the same, and I’m not going to say that I had transformed into some higher, spiritual being (despite the magnificent effects of the oxygen) but I certainly felt better. Dartmoor felt so much more special, sacred even. I was chilled. I was ready for anything the day threw at me.
Top tips for forest bathing (or any form of mindfulness)
- Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed by anyone
- Focus on one sense at a time – this helps concentration
- If your mind wanders that’s ok, just slowly bring your focus back to your breathing and listening
- Mindfulness can be quite difficult, you need to train your brain to concentrate on one thing at a time, so start off trying just for a couple of minutes, increasing the time as you get better at focusing
- If you practice mindfulness on a regular basis the longer the effects last. If you’re not lucky enough to get into a forest everyday (if only!) try practising mindfulness in more average settings: sitting on your bed when you wake up, or even take a minute or two to centre yourself sitting at your work desk. You’ll still feel the benefits!
I hope I’ve inspired you to get out there and breathe in the goodness. Life is tough, take a minute for yourself.