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What is forest bathing?

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Shinrin-yoku is defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing”, and is a mix of mindfulness, physical activity and group experience. Although it sounds like you might end up in a body of water, forest bathing is instead just the art of fully immersing yourself in the experience of being in the woods. Shinrin-yoku is different from just taking a walk in the forest and is attracting a serious following.

Why is being in the woods so appealing to some people? Turns out that we are either “biophilic”, those outdoorsy types who are drawn to camping and hiking, or “biophobic”, those who see the outdoors as a somewhat threatening place, filled with unsavoury bugs and critters.

I must admit, I have a serious love affair with the forest. I’m not picky – if there are trees and something that resembles a path, I’m in. I have spent a huge amount of time in the woods in the past few years while trail-running. Sometimes I run with a group, or with my dog, but often I am alone.

With a small pack of safety equipment and food, I can spend hours navigating roots and rocks while just listening to my breathing and taking in the sights and sounds. Spending so much time alone in the forest has been one of the most healing things that I have ever done – as a woman, there is something so powerful about being alone in the woods but no longer feeling afraid.

Why Forest Bathing?

In a large survey of activity patterns of North Americans, researchers found that adults typically spend 92% of their day indoors. This data tells me that not only are we missing out on a lot of daily physical activity, but we are also not getting the potential benefits that come with simply being outside. Research into our relationship with the outdoors has revealed some interesting results.

Studies of spending time in a forest environment have linked spending time in the woods with stress reduction, improved immune function, reduction in blood pressure, improved pulmonary function, and reduced stress hormone release.[1]  Although the current studies have not yet discovered the mechanism by which these changes occur, the value of being in the forest may have more of an evolutionary explanation than a biological one.

One of the more popular theories is that during the course of human evolution, the huge shift towards artificial environments has made our modern homes and workplaces fundamentally more stressful; when we go to the woods, we are returning to the place of our original resources, food, and shelter, and this more natural environment inherently gives us a greater sense of calm and comfort.

That sense of calm doesn’t need to come to us via an epic hike or run. You can reap the benefits of being in the forest just by going on a mindful walk. For women who want a new way to find relaxation along with a novel social outing, forest-bathing might be just the ticket. 

What are the steps to forest bathing?

1. Round up some open-minded girlfriends. The best way to get the most of a forest bathing experience is to go with a group of friends, but you will need to go with those who are willing to immerse themselves in the experience. Plan to be together but not discuss the experience until the end of the walk or after a certain time period. Catching up over drinks or coffee can be part of the fun later, but for the walk, silence is the challenge.

2. Leave the electronics in the car. One of the biggest benefits to forest bathing is the full disconnection from electronics for an hour or two. If you are in a more remote area, make sure at least one person retains a phone for safety purposes, but make sure it is turned to silent mode.

3. Set out to walk with total mindfulness. Here is where the magic happens. If you have ever struggled to be in the moment or have trouble with traditional seated meditation, walking in the forest provides an entirely new perspective. Your only job is to take in as much as you can with your senses. What are the smells, the sounds, the colours, and the contrasts? How do your feet feel contacting the ground? The forest is one of the most spectacular cathedrals you will ever visit. Take it all in.

4. Forget having a goal. This isn’t a hike and you don’t need to accomplish anything other than pure relaxation. The slower and more mindfully you walk, the more likely you are to feel relaxed.

In the end…

Taking a walk in the woods is never a wasted day – being in nature can provide us with an easy way to lower our stress levels and increase our sense of calm and well-being. Forest bathing provides a unique means for you to practice some self-care, disconnect from day-to-day life, and reconnect with your friends.

What if you’re biophobic or there’s no forest near to where you live? There are other things that we can gain from our “built environment”. Next week I will be writing about novel (and fun) ways to interact and gain benefit from a more urban landscape. Make sure you follow the link in your email to read all about it.

As always, if you think a friend might benefit from this content, please use the share buttons to send this post out over social media or by email. 

Your sister in health,

 

[1] Byeongsang Oh, Kyung Ju Lee, Zaslawski, C., Yeung, A., Rosenthal, D., Larkey, L., & Back, M. (2017). Health and well-being benefits of spending time in forests: systematic review. Environmental Health & Preventive Medicine, 22(1), 1–11.

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