Written by Lucille Howe
If you want to get away from it all, there is no better place than a forest. In Japan, this is called shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” It’s an antidote to the high-tech, always-on culture of today. Like many people around the world, my days are often occupied by technology, through Zoom calls, watching back-to-back TV series and being glued to social media. So, when I’m eventually able to go beyond the city limits, my first thought is to go to the woods.
It’s early morning when I arrive in the forest. As the light mist lifts, revealing a colourful, dense playground of stately redwoods, delicate ferns and leaf-strewn brooks, I feel small—and so do my worries.
With nothing to distract me, I notice raindrops caught in a spider’s web, the satisfying snap of a twig underfoot and—taking a deep breath—the revitalizing scent of sun-kissed pines. Forests in fairy tales are about transformation, and I’m ready to shake off the stress of last year and bring back a sense of well-being.
According to the book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li, the first thing I’m to do is leave my phone at home, which I have. The second is to use my breath to ground myself. I exhale through my mouth until I have emptied my lungs (including all the stale air at the end) then inhale through my nose, expanding my ribs and breathing into my lower back and abdomen.
“As well as having a higher concentration of oxygen, the air in the forest is also full of immunity-boosting phytoncides. They are the natural oils within a plant and are part of the tree’s defense system,” explains Dr. Li. “There is also harmless bacteria in the soil that we breathe in called Mycobacterium vaccae. It stimulates the immune system and our emotions.”
“The forest seems to be pulsing with its own gentle rhythm.”
I hear the soothing sound of birdsong. The forest seems to be pulsing with its own gentle rhythm, from the cooing of a wood pigeon to a ‘whoosh’ as the breeze lifts up the leaves in its path. It’s a luxury to listen to the nuance of these sounds instead of the drone of modern life. “People are most sensitive to sounds between the frequencies of 2,500 and 3,500 hertz,” explains Dr. Li. “This is also the range that birds sing in, which might explain why birdsong sounds like music to us.”
“Forest bathing is an official part of Japan’s preventative health-care program.”
The practice of meditation and centering oneself was around in Japan long before white noise entered modern life. So perhaps it is no surprise that forest bathing began there and that official bodies recognize its benefits. In 1982 the government declared forest bathing a therapeutic act, and it became an official part of Japan’s preventative health-care program. There are now 44 forests accredited for bathing across the country.
The science of forest bathing
The rigours of daily life can take their toll on a person physically and mentally. Reconnecting with nature can alleviate some serious issues. Research shows that two hours of forest bathing can:
- reduce stress and anxiety
- lower heart rate
- lower cortisol levels
- strengthen the immune system
- reduce depression
- enhance well-being
- increase empathy
- stimulate creative thinking
Engaging all of my five senses, I spend the day reconnecting with nature. The touch of damp moss on a fallen log takes me away from any busy thoughts. The flashes of sunlight between pine needles help me stay in the moment instead of raking over the past or worrying about the future, and seeing my shadow dance across the jigsaw-like bark on an oak’s trunk makes me smile at my form.
After just two hours, my mind is clear and my body is relaxed. Because the Earth has a natural low-level electrical charge, I feel grounded and in harmony with its frequency. That night I journal the experience before the best night’s sleep in months, and dream… of the forest.