Forest Bathing: A Practice of Mindful Healing
The ancient Japanese were the ones who originally embraced and noted the value of communing with the forest with the term 'shinrin-yoku' or translated as 'forest bathing' and more commonly called forest therapy. An alternative to the Western traditional medicine where you’d seek out a medical doctor and meet them in an office with walls - forest therapy is a guided experience under the canopy of trees with the ground beneath you.
As I take you on this journey through forest therapy I'll use the guidelines of a forest therapy Invitations provided by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. Let's take this journey into forest therapy together, I'll act not as a guide (that would require training by ANFTG) but as an interested co-participant and learner in the process.
Why would you want to do forest therapy?
Like me you are probably a person who finds more comfort in nature than in being within the confines of 4 artificial walls with a ceiling that obstructs your view of the stars. Perhaps you are intrigued in getting 'more' from your time in nature and want to experience some of the many documented health benefits from practicing forest therapy. Me too! Adam Atler wrote a piece in The Atlantic about the medical benefits of indirect forest therapy on patients recovering from surgery who merely had a view of trees versus a view of a brick wall. If merely looking at trees can improve recovery time imagine the possibilities for improved health & wellness by walking/sitting and just being (aka "sit spot") with the trees can provide. It's limitless and very exciting to think about!
Adopt the Pace of Nature: Her Secret is Patience. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
One of the wonderful (non-medical) things about being in the forest among the trees is the lack of gear required. There are no special clothes or shoes and nothing ‘extra’ you need outside of a willingness to listen to the trees and leave your 'life' behind as you open your mind to the forest therapy experience. Enough talking about it, let's walk through it with a few of the forest therapy Invitations suggested by the ANFTG before you go seek a guide and go on a trip yourself.
The first Invitation is 'Shake Off the Road Dust' which is as it says, leave your baggage outside the forest. Similar to preparing for a relaxing bath at home and you remove the literal baggage (your clothes) that cover your body so you can be at one with the water/bubbles. As you start forest bathing you will be deliberate and make the time you set aside for it just that, time in the forest bathing your entire self.
Another suggested Invitation is the ‘Pleasures of Presence’ which directs participants to create a spirit of mindfulness at the start that lays the foundation for a meaningful experience in the forest. Similar to when you practice yoga, it's important to just "be" not focus on the outside world but focus on that moment, starting with this minute through the end of the forest therapy. In that state of mindfulness you will create/develop an awareness for the sight of the site, the softness/harshness of the sounds, the pungent/fragrant smells and the soft/hard earth where you step, among others.
With enough practiced mindfulness in forest bathing you may become in-tune with proprioception you "...perception of movement and spatial orientation” within your body. Proprioception isn't the goal or will it happen with everyone regardless of how long they practice forest therapy but it can be a happy unintended consequence of a deliberate practice. Becoming more aware of how your body rests, moves and reacts to stimuli has many implications for a personal journey of reflection and wellness.
As you practice forest bathing you engage your senses in that moment, let your eyes not just look at the forest and all that's within it but really see what's there. This is something that when a guide directs you you get verbal cues to engage with your eyes which stimulates your other senses. Medical research acknowledges the existence of a sixth sense in about 1% of the population called Synethesia where one of our senses "...produces an automatic involuntary perception in another" (Flaherty, Harvard Medicine, 2014). Try it for yourself and see if a smell can trigger a feeling in another sense as you take in what the forest has to offer in that moment.
Whether you want to see the physical benefits of forest therapy or engage in an additional way of being more mindful and communing with nature in another way you will be changed the next time you take a walk among the trees if you take the time to let them speak.
I'd love to hear about your forest bathing experiences so we can learn from each other. A closing Invitation is ‘Thanking the Forest’ which I'd encourage you do to every time you are in nature. I hope you want to engage in this practice with me even though it's from a distance so we can all develop an additional respect for just being in nature in this way that we allow the trees and all that provides them life and lives among them. I’ll end with a thank you to you for going on this mindful journey with me and learning more about forest bathing/therapy.
Alter, A. (March 29, 2013) How nature resets our mind and bodies. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/03/how-nature-resets-our-minds-and-bodies/274455/
Association of Nature & Forest Therapy: Guides & Programs (2016). http://www.natureandforesttherapy.org/
Flaherty, PhD., A. (2014). Uncommon sense: Synethesia helps the brain luxuriate in metaphor. Harvard Medicine. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/harvard-medicine/uncommon-sense