A lot has been written about the physical and mental health benefits of cold water swimming. For those of us who aren’t keen to throw off our warm clothes and plunge into the chilly depths, maybe Forest Bathing provides an alternative?
I spend a lot of time walking in the countryside and along the coastal paths in this beautiful part of Cornwall. It helps me to clear my head, inspires my design work and I usually return full of enthusiasm and energy for the next task.
I particularly like walking in woods and so was intrigued to learn recently about Forest Bathing. I was given a short book, written by M. Amos Clifford, an American wilderness guide, counsellor and psychotherapist who came to Forest Bathing for the benefits he found in being out in nature. His book gives a wonderful introduction to the healing power of forests – and the natural world more widely.
Japanese origins with Shinrin-Yoku
The Japanese term for this practice, Shinrin-Yoku, translates literally as “forest bathing”, and in Japan, there is a significant focus on boosting wellness and preventing disease. Forest bathing in Japan includes pre and post walk measures of blood pressure and salivary amylase, to determine degrees of stress and relaxation in absolute terms. They treat it as a science with measurable health outcomes.
Reflect the Calm of the Forest
Amos Clifford’s, approach is slightly different. As distinct from walking through the woods, he describes periods of being still in the woods, breathing in and absorbing the calmness of the forest, literally bathing in its atmosphere. He outlines how to mindfully listen to the sounds of the trees rustling, the air moving through the undergrowth, water running in natural streams, the sounds of the birds and other animals as they move through the space in which you find yourself.
His view is that “Nature is a powerful physician” and thinks that the benefits that come from Forest Bathing are clearer thinking, creativity, the ability to be more present, reductions in anxiety and increases in concentration levels.
I can’t disagree with this, since these are the kind of benefits that I have also found in being out in the woods, sitting still to rest and absorbing nature all around me. I came across this deer one day, which was simply magical.
For a list of woods near you and more information from the National Trust on Forest Bathing click here.
A Social Experience
You would think that Forest Bathing would be a solitary experience, but it seems that it doesn’t have to be. Periods of contemplation can be punctuated by sharing what you are noticing with others. This allows you to share the experience and prompts others to listen for the things that you notice. So, some time to share and maintaining a supportive silence at other times.
How is it different from a walk?
It seems that the differences are largely about pace and purpose. Forest bathing walks tend to be slow and relaxed, with distance not necessarily being important. The focus is intended to be on your senses, encouraging you to be receptive to the sights and sounds of the wood while considering the role of nature in our lives and reflecting on the partnership between the natural world and humanity.
Amos Clifford suggests an eight stage approach.
- Begin with the intention to forest bathe.
- Deliberately step over the threshold into the wood, the point at which you begin your forest bathe.
- Notice the surroundings, body sensations and how our senses bring us into contact with the forest. Sit for a while, identifying how our sense of touch is affected, maybe the wind on our skin. What can we hear – what sounds are near us, what can we smell, maybe the damp leaves or wild garlic, what can we taste and see? Deliberately noticing how are senses are affected by our environment.
- Walking slowly, it will be natural to speed up to normal walking pace, but much like yogic breathing, the idea is to slow down the tempo of your walk to focus on the forest, since slowing our body will calm our mind.
- Infinite possibilities: find something to explore in detail, this could be barefoot walking, noticing plants, feeling animal tracks, finding and exploring a stone, deep breathing, cloud watching, exploring a sound, sitting by water– the possibilities are endless.
- Sit Spot– find a place that is right and simply sit in it and let nature reveal itself.
- Tea Ceremony – prepare or bring a warm drink and a snack, perhaps to share with others to prepare for the transition back into the everyday, you might find herbs to gather or bring your own.
- Cross the threshold out of the wood and back into the everyday, pause and consider the experience and the benefits derived from the bathe.
He explains that sometimes bathers are in a dreamy state, deeply relaxed and can be sleepy for up to an hour after their forest bathe.
Keep an Open Mind
Learning something new can be uncomfortable, it brings with it lots of questions, am I doing it right, have I got time, is this really working? Amos Clifford urges us to keep an open mind, relax and lean into the experience,. Try to get past the anxiety of “is this a good use of time”, which may creep into your head. He also explains that some people find grief steals up to them, as their mind quietens.
He maintains that no special skills or competencies are required to successfully forest bathe and that people are rarely bitten by snakes or are stung by unusual plants, although a little common sense is required! He also points out that a phone on silent is usually a good plan.
For my mind, forest bathing can be done anywhere and provides an alternative meditative practice, out in the open air, in an environment that I love.
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