What exactly is 'forest bathing'?
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
Taking a walk in woodland is not a new thing - people have been doing it for leisure for centuries. But it wasn’t until the 1980s when people actually started to study the potential health benefits of deliberate, slow, mindful time spent in nature that our understanding of the true power of what became known as ‘forest bathing’ really began to emerge. This study originated in Japan - a country where despite 80% of the population living in urban areas is actually 68% forested (compared to the UK’s 13%). The forest bathing movement is taking off around the world, so here’s our guide to ‘shinrin yoku’, what it is, and where you can do it in the UK.
What is ‘forest bathing’?
The translation ‘forest bathing’ comes from the original Japanese term ‘shinrin yoku’ (shinrin = forest, yoku = bath) and contrary to popular belief amongst the uninitiated, does not actually involve getting wet! Quite simply, the concept of forest bathing is to immerse yourself in the quietness of a woodland and to allow your senses to take in the sounds, smells and sights of the forest as you connect with the environment around you. As your mind and body relax you will become attuned to things you may not otherwise notice on a normal walk - rustling in the undergrowth, the sound of the wind, the petrichor rising from the damp earth, birds singing, twigs falling. Spending time tuned into nature like this has been shown to reduce blood pressure, stress, depression and anxiety, boost the immune system and help improve sleep and creativity.
Whether you choose to sit, stand or lie down, go alone or with a friend or two is entirely up to you. Alternatively you may choose to join an organised forest bathing walk where your guide will help you become ‘present in the moment’, teach you breathing techniques to help you slow down, show you through the forest, introduce tactile surfaces and help you tune into the sounds and smells of nature. Up and down the country there are small groups that meet regularly, national organisations and private, qualified forest therapy practitioners who run their own sessions starting at around £25 per person for a two hour guided walk.
Where to forest bathe in the UK
Here in the UK, 99% of the population is less than an hour’s drive from a Forestry Commission woodland and their website gives a wealth of information on suitable forests, with accessibility and parking details as well as more information on getting started with forest bathing and other forms of forest-based wellbeing. They also offer many established nature trails up and down the country. Similarly, some of the larger organisations such as the National Trust, Forest Holidays (the holiday arm of the Forestry Commission) and some of the private estates offer nature therapy sessions.
If you’re going it alone without expert guidance it is worth doing your research first and our top tips for getting started (below) will point you in the right direction. You can buy books on how to get the most out of forest bathing, so speak to your local bookshop or go online to do your research before you head out to ensure you get the most out of your time.
If you would prefer to join an organised group, a quick web search should lead you to local and national forest bathing organisations such as The Forest Bathing Institute.
How to get started with Forest Bathing
Remember, the essence of forest bathing is to simply slow down and let your senses take over, so if you’re planning your own forest bathing walk do all you can to give yourself the opportunity to truly unwind:
Leave your electronic devices behind. Whether you leave them in the car (if it is safe to do so) or at home, a digital detox is paramount when it comes to forest bathing. There would be nothing worse than the ‘ping’ of a notification to shatter the moment for you and everyone else around you. The urge to check for messages or quickly look at the time will all detract from your ability to engage with the natural world around you.
Identify quieter times in the woods. The main search engines and some of the forest websites themselves should be able to tell you when the quieter times of the day or week are, such as early mornings and evenings. Try to go during school times if you can as weekends are generally busier all round. Also, don’t be surprised if you don’t have the woodland to yourself during bluebell season for example, although we fully understand the appeal of sitting on a fallen tree surrounded by a sea of blues and purples of course...
Take your time. If possible, try not to have any time pressure on how long you can stay or ‘be back at the car by’. A general rule of thumb is to allow at least two hours for a slow shinrin yoku walk and not constantly checking your watch will help you change down the gears and immerse yourself in your surroundings. If you have to put the Sunday lunch in the oven before you leave, put it on low and buy yourself some extra time!
Focus on your breathing. Close your eyes several long, slow deep breaths through your nose that fill your lungs, exhaling slowly through the mouth each time. As you do this you will start to notice that your heart rate slows, your ears become more attuned to what is going on around you and you may start to pick up the smells of the forest that you hadn’t previously noticed.
Open your eyes and take it in. Once your breathing is slow and deep, open your eyes and start to take in the woods around you. Look for the small details, be attentive to all your senses. Avoid sudden movements. If you’re walking, walk slowly, tread lightly. Touch the trunks of trees and feel the leaves in your hands. Touch the soil. Listen to birdsong and the sounds of movements in the undergrowth.
Stay as long as you feel comfortable. Whilst the recommended duration of a forest bathing walk is two hours, you may not reach that time immediately particularly if you have a busy lifestyle and know you have other commitments that day. Instead, you can build up over time. A 20 minute walk in the woods is better than no walk at all and it may take time to find a woodland or time of day that works for you.
There are no rules when it comes to forest bathing, just guidelines, so experiment with all of the above and find the combination that is most effective for you personally.
Dr Qing Li of the Nippon Medical School in Japan, and one of the pre-eminent experts on forest bathing sums this all up in his book The Art & Science of Forest Bathing as:
“Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”
Who is forest bathing for?
You may be unsurprised to hear that forest bathing is for everyone! Even for those who cannot get into a woodland for whatever reason, just being amongst trees and greenery in a park can have similar beneficial effects. There is increasing awareness amongst GPs of the benefits of spending time in nature, particularly when so many of us are increasingly restricted to urban areas, spending more and more time indoors and working longer hours. In the UK, an estimated 20% of GP consultations are caused by what are primarily social problems such as employment stress, debt and social isolation, that cannot necessarily be rectified with medication or other conventional treatments.
Doctors are therefore increasingly prescribing non-clinical activities and access to wellbeing services such as volunteering, sports and exercise classes, gardening and cookery classes as well as spending time in nature. An initial study by the University of Westminster has shown that this ‘social prescribing’ can reduce GP appointments by up to 28%. That’s not to say that forest bathing alone can cure all ailments of course, but after almost 40 years of study, the benefits of spending slow time in nature are finally being truly understood and certainly worth trying for yourself.
The Art and Science of Forest Bathing - by Dr Qing Li (ISBN: 9780241346952)
Forest Bathing: All you need to know in one concise manual - by Sarah Devos & Katriina Kilpi (ISBN: 9781785217364)
The Little Book of Forest Bathing: Find Peace and Happiness with the Healing Power of Trees - by Summersdale Publishers (ISBN: 9781786859419)