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Discover the Healing Power of Forest Bathing

Updated: May 9

What is forest bathing? And how is it different from just going for a walk in a local park?

It is sometimes easier to start by saying what forest bathing is not. It does not involve any actual swimming and it is also not about hiking or exercise.

Originating in Japan in the 1980s, forest bathing or - Shinrin-yoku - involves immersing oneself into the atmosphere of the forest through all the senses. It is about slowing down - sometimes much more than we ever allow ourselves on other occasions - moving silently, breathing in deeply and allowing ourselves to be present in the forest. 

On a hike our sense of vision tends to dominate with brief intervals of tuning into birdsong or smelling the flowers as we walk on by, often chatting to someone. During forest bathing we remember and give conscious attention to other senses - smell, touch, taste alongside vision and hearing. Most activities are practiced in silence to allow us to switch from the doing to the being mode and activate our parasympathetic (rest & digest) nervous system. Being guided as part of a group we can feel safe closing our eyes for longer periods of time and also comfortable to participate in more playful activities such as exploring objects with our sense of touch or smelling the soil ( yes - often a highlight of the session!). 

Numerous scientific studies have investigated the effects of forest bathing, providing compelling evidence of its benefits. One such study conducted in Japan found that forest bathing significantly reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, compared to urban environments. Forest bathing sessions have also been shown to normalise blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and improve overall mood. 

In another study published in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, researchers found that forest bathing can boost the immune system by increasing the production of natural killer cells, which play a crucial role in fighting off infections. These findings suggest that regular forest bathing could potentially enhance our resilience to illness and improve overall health. 

But what is it about the forest that makes it so therapeutic? Part of the answer lies in phytoncides - volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or "essential oils" given off by the trees. Trees do not emit them for our benefit, but to protect themselves from pests and disease; when we do inhale them though, phytoncides have been shown to have anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting effects on the body, contributing to the overall sense of well-being. We may be aware of phytoncides in pine forests when that distinct smell of pine is in the air, but they are present even when we cannot smell anything in particular. Scientists have also shown that phytoncides are most effective just after the rain, during temperatures of 30C and in more established ancient woodlands. 

Incorporating forest bathing into our lives doesn't require elaborate planning or special equipment. While ideally we would all be walking in ancient woodland once a week, that is not always possible. There are definite benefits of a regular full session that lasts 2-3 hours, but even small doses of nature can have beneficial effects on the mind and body. It can be as simple as taking a moment to look through the window and really notice what we're seeing, tending to a houseplant, finding our nearest local green space and paying attention to what we receive through our senses. We can all benefit from being present in nature, sometimes the first step is simply making time in our busy schedules to get ourselves there.

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