Forest bathing: What it is, the benefits and the best way to do it
Nature heals all. We’ve all heard the proverb time and time again, but how true is it really?
Enter forest bathing.
Much like supernatural springs and mystical, mineral-rich mud, forest bathing harnesses properties from nature to heal not only the mind but the body as well.
Let’s take a deep dive into what forest bathing is and why you should be lining up to take a dip in the bottomless benefits of the forest.
What is forest bathing?
Although it might sound like a bunch of nudists frolicking in a nearby stream, it’s far from it.
In fact, there’s hardly any water involved at all.
Forest bathing is a popular form of immersive nature therapy that’s centred around spending time in a natural setting and tuning our core senses of sight, smell, touch and hearing into our natural surroundings.
Forest bathing goes beyond a conscious digital detox.
“It is as simple as walking through nature and connecting with what’s around you,” says Brighton Yoga instructor Xenia Muhlberg. “It is different to hiking, as there is no goal and nowhere to arrive. It is just taking time out in nature.”
The forest bathing practice is an entirely focused and uninterrupted reconnection with the natural world, and is even rooted in sound scientific research.
Where does forest bathing originate from?
It should come as no surprise that forest bathing hails from a country we owe many of our natural healing practices and remedies: Japan.
With tech industries beginning to boom in the early 1980s, Japanese people began searching for ways to unplug and reconnect to the natural world, eventually stumbling upon “Shinrin-yoku” now widely known as forest bathing.
While a relatively new practice, the principles of forest bathing have existed for as long as we’ve been alive.
Whether lying on the soft forest floor and soaking up the sounds of nature or running your hand along the rough ridges of a giant oak tree, there’s something uniquely peaceful and profound about being in nature that has mystified us for centuries.
So, how did forest bathing go from a peaceful pastime to a renowned therapy prescribed by practitioners around the world?
How can the forest atmosphere improve wellbeing?
Although it doesn’t take a scientist to figure out the benefits of relaxing in nature, a few were able to reveal just how valuable this practice was.
In the early 1980s, Japanese doctors began to study the effects the forest atmosphere had on patients suffering from both physical and mental ailments and discovered something spectacular.
In early trials, candidates spent up to an hour a day under the great canopies, immersing themselves fully in the sights, sounds, smells and textures around them.
Forest therapy didn’t only have a positive impact on their psychological state but could reduce harmful symptoms in a range of physical ailments.
Not long after the discovery, doctors were prescribing a healthy dose of the great outdoors to patients with conditions ranging from cancer to hypertension as well as depression.
As clinical studies continued and more positive evidence emerged, the Japanese government began to encourage locals to practice some form of nature therapy for 20-60 minutes a day.
This practice also married perfectly with the animistic elements of Shintoism, a popular Japanese religion.
Like many ancient pagan belief systems, followers of Shinto believe that natural phenomena such as trees, plants, streams and rocks are inhabited by gods and spirits.
Firmly established in the roots of many Japanese people, it was only natural to merge the practice with Shinto to create a physiological and psychological exercise that has helped thousands of people around the world.
Shinrin-yoku soon became an official part of the country’s national health programme due to its proven success through numerous clinical trials and scientific research, which would explain why wellness retreats in the wilderness have become increasingly popular in recent years.
This practice can now be found in all corners of the earth.
In Yorkshire for instance, Emmas Dale Experience Retreats is dedicated to forging an authentic forest bathing journey for yogi and nature lovers from across the UK.
“Every single person who has experienced a forest bathing session on one of our retreats has left feeling totally relaxed and destressed,” says retreat organiser Emma Dale.
“For me, it makes me focus and re-evaluate my day. If I am feeling anxious, I have the tools to help with that and think about what is important.”
Which forests are the best to bathe in?
Just like booking a restorative yoga retreat, there are a few factors to consider when finding the perfect forest to bathe in.
Although you might be able to forest bathe in any natural environment nearby, to truly experience the benefits of this therapeutic Japanese practice, you’ll need to escape from the city entirely.
In Japan, the government grades the forests in terms of their healing properties as they don’t all have the same level of efficacy.
Microbiologists and clinicians have discovered that there are certain chemicals present, as well as specific environmental factors, that enhance or heighten the success of forest bathing.
So, ditch the polluted parks and crowded trails and find a forest with these qualities for a true forest bathing experience:
1. High quality and clean air
Find a forest on the outskirts of the city that is oxygen-rich. It should be a good distance away from industrial areas or city centres where pollution levels are high.
2. Filtered light
An established forest with dense foliage and ample trees will create a dappled light effect that is calming to the senses and relaxing.
3. Serene sounds
Only the sounds of nature should be heard: bubbling streams, rustling leaves, and the calls of birds and other wildlife.
4. Healthy soil
Forest beds and soil should be rich in nutrients and microbial biodiversity, making them soft and beautifully aromatic.
5. Plenty of phytoncides
The presence of organic compounds made by plants, known as phytoncides, has a similar effect to that of essential oils.
What are the health benefits of forest bathing?
Much like embarking on a health and wellness retreat, forest bathing can have a remarkable effect on our body, mind and soul.
Spending just an hour or two in nature, without any distractions, can improve wellbeing and offer a number of psychological and physical benefits.
Psychological benefits of forest bathing
1. Increase energy levels and improve sleep
Studies show that two hours of forest walking can radically improve people’s sleep patterns, reducing disturbances at night which in turn increases energy levels.
2. Reduce stress and anxiety
While a walk around the block can help you clear your head, forest bathing has the power to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which is a key contributor to high levels of stress and anxiety.
3. Boosts mood and motivation
If you’ve spent time in nature then you know how great it can be for your mood and motivation.
A good forest bathe can also boost creativity and improve concentration.
4. Cultivates deeper connections
Clearing your mind in nature also has an effect on our ability to create deeper connections with living things.
Without constant distractions, your mind has the space to reconnect and focus on the smaller things in life we often take for granted.
But the benefits of forest bathing don’t stop there.
This relaxing outdoor therapy also has plenty of physical benefits.
Physical benefits of forest bathing
1. Lower high blood pressure
The forest environment has proven to reduce blood pressure, helping participants relax and improve the overall health of their hearts.
2. Improves muscle recovery
Tense and sore muscles experience complete relaxation in the forest setting.
This soothing environment helps troubling areas heal faster, reducing aches and pains.
3. Bolster the immune system
The forest is also incredibly kind to our immune system.
Plants produce phytoncides which are volatile organic compounds that possess antimicrobial, antibacterial and antifungal qualities.
When ingested, these valuable substances strengthen the immune system, helping us fight diseases and infections.
4. Decrease inflammation
The oxygen-rich environment is cleaner, freshener and filled to the brim with compounds.
A deep breath in the woods can decrease inflammation and improve respiratory problems.
How do you take a forest bath? 5 easy steps
Compared to Ashtanga retreats, forest bathing is a walk in the park.
The practice requires very little skill and is an easy way for beginner yogis to relax, reconnect and heal from the inside out. Here’s how you can forest bathe in 5 simple steps.
Step 1: Find a forest
Forest bathing is the most effective in an unspoilt setting far from people and other distractions.
If you have woodlands available to you, by all means, take advantage.
If not, just find a quiet space in a nature reserve, nearby park or even your garden.
Step 2: Dress comfortably
Wear suitable walking attire, like a decent pair of closed shoes.
If the environment allows, you can go barefoot, which helps you absorb healthy bacteria from the forest floor.
Take a jacket in case it gets cold and a bottle of water.
Step 3: Switch off
Leave all electronics and digital devices at home, or at least put your mobile on silent if you’ve packed it for safety reasons.
Don’t take any photographs either.
This is all about you and the forest – no filter required!
Step 4: Awaken your senses
When you arrive, start to slowly engage each of your senses one by one.
Mindfully become aware of the many sights, sounds, aromas, textures, and even tastes of your natural environment.
Listen to branches groan in the wind and water trickle in a nearby stream.
Stroke a moss-covered log.
Breathe in pine resin, and simply be.
Step 5: Let go
Forest bathing can be static or active; you can stand in one place or walk aimlessly.
If you decide to walk, be led by instinct.
Don’t head towards a specific destination. Indulge your senses completely and revel in the experience and wonder of small details.
Observe. Explore. Engage.
Before heading back to the ‘real world’ just take a minute to thank the space for its time, energy and healing.
Gratitude is a powerful emotion!
How long should you forest bathe for?
Ideally, as long as you can!
If you are a bit pressed with time, 20 or 30 minutes of deep meditation beneath the forest canopy should do the trick.
But if you really want to feel the results, it’s advised to spend at least 1 to two hours surrounded by trees and wildlife.
Where can I go forest bathing in the UK?
You can essentially go forest bathing on any peaceful trail surrounded by trees, but if your neck of the woods is a bit bare or blaring with traffic, then a health and wellness retreat in the UK’s great outdoors is the best option.
1. Cumbria – Get in tune with your body on a bespoke yoga, nature, and well-being retreat in Cumbria’s calm countryside.
2. Devon – Reset and relax in the middle of the woods on a positive mindset and meditation yoga retreat.
3. Scotland – Let go of your inhibitions and soak up the great outdoors on a nature immersion retreat in Scotland’s untamed forests.
4. Wales – Discover the healing properties of nature on a disconnect and reconnect retreat in the Welsh countryside.
5. Cheshire – Experience a reawakening in the forest on a magically immersive experience in Cheshire’s wondrous woodlands.
Where can I go forest bathing in the US?
The United States is teeming with acres of untamed forests, many of which are home to renowned yoga retreats.
The country’s forests have become an ideal way to de-stress, slow down and reconnect with the present moment.
Whether trekking through Colorado’s peaceful pine forests or walking aimlessly in a national park, nature lovers are spoilt for choice in the United States.
If you’re a newbie to forest bathing, a retreat is the best way to find your feet in a new practice and understand its core principles in a safe and supportive environment.
Guides will offer prompts and make suggestions for those who feel hesitant as to how to start their practice.
However you decide to practise forest bathing, submerging yourself in nature is a guaranteed way to improve both your mental and physical health.
If you’re eager to reconnect to nature and soak up its goodness on a forest bathing experience, book your next retreat with Basubu – the simplest way to start a life-changing journey.