The Global Wellness Summit cited our need to reconnect with nature as one of just eight main wellness trends of 2019, and forest bathing as an increasingly popular part of this process. Spotted as a trend to watch way back in 2015, it has been growing apace each year, and for travellers, there’s more emphasis on green spaces and outdoor activities at hotels and other places to stay around the world.
So what is it? Forest bathing begun in Japan, where it’s called shinrin-yoku, which loosely means, spending more time around trees. Forest bathing doesn’t involve any swimming – instead, you soak up the special atmosphere of the forest by using all your senses. And you do it for all the reasons you want to get into the great outdoors – to escape life’s busy-ness, get away from emails and get off social media, and remind yourself what being alive really feels like. As the GWS report points out, we’ve lost touch with nature. More than 50% of the world now lives in an urban area, and by 2050 that will rise to 68% – compare that to just 30% in the 1950s. Studies have shown we need nature for positive mental and physical health, and the medical profession has begun to incorporate this into their treatment plans for certain patients.
So how does forest bathing work? In theory you can bathe yourself in a forest all by yourself, wherever you may be, on your own terms and in your own way, but forest bathing isn’t a clever ploy to rebrand going for a walk as a holistic therapy. It’s closer to mindfulness than hiking or exercising outdoors, requiring us to slow down, walk slowly and pay attention to everything around us. In a forest bathing session, you are gently guided in a series of meditations that requires you to close your eyes, sense the leaf-padded ground beneath your feet, smell the trees around you, listen to the breeze, and so on – all to help quieten the mind and deepen our connection with what’s growing, moving and generally going on around us.
We all know that fresh air and exercise increases our sense of wellbeing, but a more intricate science behind forest bathing was first discovered in the 1980s by the Japanese government. The scientific research they commissioned found that a two-hour forest-bathing session could reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory. It found that chemicals released by trees known as phytoncides could have an anti-microbial effect on our bodies, boosting the immune system, and that spending a regular amount of time in forests helped reduce depression. As a result of this research, shinrin-yoku was introduced as a national health programme in Japan, the most densely populated country on earth, with correspondingly high stress levels, but also one of the most heavily forested.
The first designated forest-bathing location was the beautiful Akasawa forest in Nagano prefecture on the old Samurai Trail, where groves of Japanese cypress trees tower 35m high. And today, the Forest Bathing Society lists 62 forests on its website which are deemed to have the optimum environment for shinrin-yoku and which have signposted ‘therapy roads’ or trails. One of the most accessible from central Tokyo is the Okutama Forest Therapy Centre, a two-hour train journey from the city, which offers guided walks and forest yoga.
But whatever trip you’re on or holiday destination you’ve chosen, you don’t have to be in a magnificent forest to forest bathe. Whether you’re in a woodland, public park or private garden, it’s still possible to explore and reconnect. Published last year, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature by forest bathing expert Amos Clifford offers specific activities you can use to begin a practice of your own, wherever you are.
Guided forest bathing for stressed city dwellers is also catching on in the world’s cities. In New York, Treebath offers guided forest-bathing experiences in Central Park, Battery Park and the Hudson River Park (tree-bath.com), while in London pop-up forest bathing sessions are on offer in many of the largest parks. In the UK too, The Forestry Commission, which manages almost 1m hectares of woodland in England, has published a top 10 trails to forest bathe and plans to roll out its own forest bathing programme soon (see forestry.gov.uk).
Increasing numbers of wellbeing holidays are also offering forest bathing as part of their mix. Reclaim Your Self offers a Japan holiday that mixes dynamic yoga, forest bathing, hot springs and temples (see reclaimyourself.co.uk), while La Clairière, a bio spa hotel in the Vosges natural park in Alsace in France, offers a five-night forest bathing package which includes three guided forest walks and a body treatment with essential pine oils (see la-clairiere.com).
Forest bathing isn’t just good for us, of course – it’s also helping more people to respect our beleaguered eco systems and take better care of them. The more people who fall in love with the great outdoors, the more they want to protect it. So let’s get out there and commune.