Dipping my Toes into Forest Bathing
Most of us that work in Nature Conservation are subconsciously aware that nature is ‘good for us’ that it makes us feel better and can lift our mood. Many of us perhaps consciously prescribe ourselves that lunchtime walk, or make time to be outdoors in order to benefit our own well-being. The idea that people need nature is one that is being researched more and more each year, with startling findings emerging.
Regular contact with nature improves your mental well-being, can help reduce post operation recovery times, reduces stress, reduces pain and lowers blood pressure. Doctors are increasingly beginning to prescribe outdoor activities such as nature walks as one strand of tackling conditions such as mild depression and anxiety, obesity and addiction.
This all seems fantastically positive and progressive, except that I was surprised to discover that it has been formally recognised and going on for years in other parts of the world. In Japan the activity known as Shinrin Yoku, which translates as Forest Bathing or Forest Therapy became common practice in the 1970’s after the government commissioned a study into whether spending regular walks in forests proved to be more beneficial than carrying out the same regular exercise in a city. The study found that overwhelmingly it was. It improved sleep, increased ‘natural killer’ cells, anti-cancer cells which fight disease and a whole host of other incredible and scientifically proved improvements!
Here in Dorset our project is focused on Heathland habitats, rather than woodland or forests, but trees are an important part of the landscape and usually aren’t far away. Heaths need to be managed as such to retain their ecological value, left to their own devices they will eventually return to woodland. In addition, many of our heaths were used, particularly in wartime, for creating plantations – providing quick growing timber for boat-building and other military needs. Therefore the majority of the Dorset Heaths are flanked by either pine plantation or broadleaf and mixed woodland, with some overlap of species.
I have a strong interest in connecting people to nature, not only through learning and scientific study, but through well-being, the arts, emotional connection and simply the enjoyment and value of being among nature. So when I had the chance to attend a two-day course near Dartmoor on Forest Bathing and how to lead sessions for groups, how could I turn it down!?
So what does Forest Bathing involve? Many people are scared off by the term thinking it involves stripping off and plunging into water (it doesn’t) or sitting in circles meditating (not necessarily.) Essentially, it means immersing yourself within the forest, spending time there. At least two hours at a time to be precise, a minimum of two hours is recommended in order to make a difference to your health and well-being.
Myself and one of our Back from the Brink volunteers Kat launched ourselves into the spirit of the course, attempting to disconnect from our busy lives and switch off for a couple of days, and see if we really did sleep better. I admit there were a few moments of barefoot tree hugging, which wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but essentially, they focus in on your senses. We were guided to do straightforward exercises such as closing our eyes and exploring the textures of a tree or leaf, getting comfortable sitting against a tree and focusing on breathing, or listening to as many sounds as we could near or far. For people who have experience leading outdoor sessions none of these exercises were too far out of our comfort zone, in fact they were pretty straightforward, but it was nice to be given time and allow ourselves to connect with the forest in this way, and knowing it was going to improve our health helped too! There are other angles you can explore during your sessions ‘bathing’ in the woods such as smell and taste. We were given the opportunity to experience the scent of various essential oils that had originated from the forest, we had a cup of tea made infused with pine needles, and there was a chance to listen to some poetry inspired by the trees.
I had a great time on the course, I did sleep well that night although I will never know if that was the trees doing their job or the fact that I was staying in a hotel away from my frequently waking toddler! I came home with a renewed sense of purpose around spending time with nature. I have since been able to run a session along with Kat to pass on what I learnt to colleagues, volunteers and partner organisations, and inspire friends. It’s good to be reminded that spending time outdoors is never wasted – all those hours spent out surveying for rare creatures that don’t appear are never in vain, our immune systems will be thanking us for taking a break from the screen.
We often talk of going out and spending time in nature, as if it is something to discover and conquer, whereas many see this type of practice, forest therapy, as a natural antidote to the modern life. We ARE nature, we are part of wildlife and the natural world and therefore to immerse ourselves within it isn’t something new or strange but in fact is returning to the normal state that makes sense. Our lives have pulled us far away from the natural world and for many people the nearest experience they will get of it is through a TV or phone screen, perhaps we need nature more than we realise and would benefit greatly the more we start to see ourselves as part of it rather than looking for it.
Lindsey Death, Plantlife
Outreach Officer - Dorset Heathland's Heart
Would you like to help these incredible species? There are numerous ways in which you can:
- Why not volunteer for Back from the Brink? Check out our events page for opportunities near you.
- Help us to spread the word of this species, and the others we will be helping over the next 3 years, by sharing our message across our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube pages. Follow us: @naturebftb.
- Finally - help support the work we do across England by donating. Our impact will be greater with your help.