Tree hugging anyone?

“Finland is officially the world’s happiest country. It is also 75 per cent forest. I believe these facts are related.”

Matt Haig

I got lucky enough over my summer break to have my first experience of forest bathing in the very lovely setting of Kew’s Royal botanical gardens. I knew very little except that the bathing is all done fully clothed, so no swimsuits needed!

Forest bathing originates from Japan (called shinrin-yoku) and became popular in the 1980s as a treatment for corporate burn-out and to encourage people to reconnect with the forest. The practice generally involves engaging all our senses whilst spending mindful time under the canopy of the forest or woodland.  Forest bathing happens at any time during the day or year, under most weather conditions. It’s all about the immersive experience of being with nature, as opposed to just passing through (as we so often do).

In recent years forest bathing has received more attention. It’s official institute in the UK was established in 2018 with Dame Judi Dench as its patron. The Duchess of Cambridge cited the Japanese practice as inspiration for her garden submitted to the Chelsea Flower Show in 2019. 

And the attention is very much deserved given its numerous health benefits. King’s College London published a study in January 2018 showing that exposure to trees, sky and birdsong in cities can improve mental health, and that the benefits could still be felt many hours after. Similarly in 2019, research conducted by the University of Derby with The Forest Bathing Institute showed the practice significantly improved mood, caused a drop in anxiety levels, as well as increased compassion and a steadier heart rate.  The research also showed forest bathing improves our connection with nature and pro-environmental attitudes, surely a very positive outcome as we face the many challenges of climate change. Other studies have shown that the chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, (something we are very exposed to as we lie under tree canopy), helps boost the immune system. For the past 40 years, Japan’s health service has prescribed forest bathing for those suffering with depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. In 2019, the Woodland Trust recommended that forest bathing should become part of non-medical therapies to boost wellbeing in the UK. 

I am big believer in the healing power of trees so am an easy convert to forest bathing. It is in the depths of Kew Gardens that my favourite tree resides. A massive Californian redwood (sequoia). This mammoth tree has been my refuge for many years, whenever I feel a tad wobbly and need a bit of grounding. Just visiting this tree, standing at its roots and looking up towards its high summit helps to slow my spinning world and bring myself back to the earth. 

So, I was chuffed that during my forest bathing experience we were invited to touch different trees and even wrap our arms around the trunks in a hug and stay there for as long as we liked. The experience of hugging something so big, solid, and old was quite powerful. I found a sturdy oak tree as my partner in this exercise. It was like reconnecting with a very dear old friend. Knowing that the hug wouldn’t end until I decided to let go. My forest bathing experience concluded with a long meditation, guided by our very able facilitator from the institute, as we lay on our mats under the forest canopy. Our eyes closed at first and then opened as we went deeper into the exercise allowing for the full sensual experience. 

I certainly found my first taste of forest bathing very beneficial. Not only did my two hours under the canopy awaken my senses, but I noticed a sense of calm within me as my heart rate slowed and my niggling headache evaporated. 

Forest bathing is available to all of us without the need of an expert guide. So next time you find yourself walking somewhere beautiful and you have a little time to spare, maybe follow these tips and see how it is for you:

  • Put your phone away (or better still turn it off).
  • Walk without any real direction. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere.
  • Slow your walking pace, maybe even stand or sit/lie down for a while.
  • Become aware of your senses- touch, see, smell, hear (maybe give taste a miss though!).  Give each sense some time to climatise to the environment. 
  • Follow your curiosity, there is no right or wrong. To just be present and aware is plenty. 
  • Notice what you experience, what you notice, how you feel. Maybe make a few notes before and after the experience. 

A lot of us relied upon walking and being in nature during some of the darker times of lockdown. We experienced first-hand how being outside amongst the trees and the fresh air sustained us for the hours stuck at home.  Forest bathing is a natural next step in building upon our lockdown experience and more importantly helps strengthen our relationship and awareness to the natural world.

Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

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