With its focus on appreciating the intricacies of the natural world, “forest bathing” allows us to take a step back from our increasingly wired lifestyles.
It’s a warm Saturday afternoon in Sydney, and Centennial Parklands is busy with picnickers and sporty types. But instead of joining them, I’m rubbing my hands over the trunk of a tree. There are others around me doing the same thing. But they’re not my concern—rather, I’m focused on the texture of the silky paperbark and the coolness of grass beneath my bare feet; the sound of rustling gum leaves and the earthy smell of eucalyptus. Simple things I neglect to notice on my regular commute through these gardens because I’m always in a hurry to get somewhere and I’m usually plugged into a device, scrolling aimlessly.
Like many people, I switch off most of my senses on a daily basis. I get busy with work, I skip lunch to meet deadlines, I latch myself to my desk. I forget to look around. It’s a pattern of behavior that could be killing me—or at least, it’s not making me any healthier or happier. And so, in a bid to be more mindful and less stressed, I’ve signed up to hug a tree, or “forest bathe,” as this form of nature-based therapy is known.
The concept of shinrin-yoku (literally, “forest bath”) took off in Japan in the 1980s as a way to counteract a fast-paced, work-obsessed urban existence with nature-induced well-being. The Japanese understand—as we all have for centuries—that wandering in the wilderness makes us feel, well, good. Breathing in clean air, listening to wildlife, smelling flowers, seeing the world through unpolluted light—it’s the ultimate way to de-stress, relax, and boost your mood.
Increasing scientific evidence backs this up: studies indicate time spent in nature can slow our heart rate and decrease blood pressure. Moreover, organic compounds released by plants (known as phytoncides) have been shown to positively impact our immune system, protecting us from illness and disease.
Despite its name, the practice of forest bathing doesn’t involve taking a dip. Nor do you even need a forest. “It’s about awakening all of your senses in nature,” says Julianne Evans, a forest-bathing practitioner based in the Australian capital, Canberra. “You switch off completely, and become intensely aware of the beauty that surrounds. You can practice anywhere outside, really, at any time of day or in any season. A forest is lovely, but as long as you’re in nature, you can enjoy shinrin-yoku.”
While there’s a lot of flexibility, there are also some “ground rules,” according to Evans. “You should leave technology behind, and be aimless and slow—this is not a hike or a race. A forest therapy walk may take two hours, but cover less than one kilometer of trail.”
“The goal is to get so immersed in nature, in the present, that you forget about time,” adds Bronwyn Paynter, a forest-bathing guide in South Australia. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere—it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what that tree is called or what bird is making that sound. All you need to do is savor them. It’s extremely freeing when you realize this.”
While many people enjoy shinrin-yoku as an individual experience, guided sessions can be useful, especially for first-timers. “We often need help to slow down,” says Paynter. “We’re so used to going at full speed, we don’t know how to do this.”
Led by a guide, who looks after our group of 11 people, the 2.5-hour forest bathing session in Centennial Parklands begins with breathing exercises and sensory awareness activities. For 20 minutes, I focus on what I can hear, what the air smells and tastes like, how sharp the sunlight is, how cool the ground feels. It’s meditative. Then we walk around a canopy-covered patch of grass. Slowly. At first, it’s almost uncomfortable wandering at this pace. But then I fall into a rhythm, and appreciate the trance-like state this idling induces. Our guide invites us to touch tree trunks, dip our toes in the lake, smell herbs. Time slows, and I feel deeply relaxed, perhaps a bit dazed.
According to the California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs, there are now more than 1,500 guides around the world who offer experiences like the one I’ve just enjoyed. “Connecting with nature is nothing new,” says Evans. “But at the same time, it’s great to see more of an awareness of the need to do this. Spending any time in nature is good—but more is better.”
This article originally appeared in the October/November 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Touch Wood”).