Written by Laura van der Veer
As the trees breathe out, you breathe in;
as the trees breathe in, you breathe out.
In Japan, and increasingly across the globe, there is a notable preventative medicine that is being practiced by growing numbers of the population - and supported by a growing body of scientific research endorsing its many benefits: Shinrin-Yoku.
What is Shinrin-Yoku?
Shinrin-Yoku, or Forest Therapy, is a Japanese practice that was coined in 1981 in response to a public health crisis, where high levels of stress at work spiked rates of auto-immune disease.
Today, Japan has over 48 official ‘Forest Therapy’ trails designated for forest bathing by the Forest Agency. "A way to frame forest bathing is mindful time spent under the canopy of trees for health and wellbeing purposes,” says Gary Evans, founder of the Forest Bathing Institute in the UK.
What are the benefits of forest bathing?
Guided forest bathing is a brief, seemingly simple journey, so it often surprises people with its transformative powers.
Some of the research-backed physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of forest bathing include:
- Reduced stress and increased sense of relaxation
- Kick-starting creativity Improved and stabilized moods
- Boosted immune system functioning
- Reduced blood pressure
- Stabilized blood glucose levels Improved sleep
- Faster recovery from surgery or illness
- Better focus and greater mental clarity
- Increased happiness and sense of wellbeing
- Improved relationships
Forest therapy connects humans and nature, both benefiting from a strengthened relationship.
What can you expect on a Guided Forest Therapy Walk?
We usually begin with setting an intention and drawing attention to the present moment through a guided nature meditation. This is followed by various, carefully sequenced sensory activities. The practice is usually 1-3 hours and enjoyed at a very slow pace.
Guided walks are generally structured in three stages: connection, liminal space/time, and incorporation. The first stage uses sensory connection to shift awareness to the present moment and place.
Participants then move into the second stage, a state comparable to walking mindfulness meditation. There is a greater sense of communication with the world around us.
During the final stage, participants incorporate the forest by sharing tea made from local plants and start to reenter regular life again.
As the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy says, “The forest is the therapist. The guides open the door.” By guiding an intentional, gentle flow of a forest therapy walk, a forest therapy guide provides a safe and exploratory environment allowing participants to have their own experiences and reach new levels of awareness and connection with nature and self.
A Forest Therapy Sensory Exercise You Can Try
Invite the forest in through your senses during your next walk in nature:
Look: Pretend you have just been granted the gift of sight. Instead of looking at things, look for things. Play a game of noticing. Seek out small details that might otherwise escape your attention. Take delight in discovering:
- Patterns and textures in bark
- Delicate plants growing close to the ground
- Bursts of lichen on rocks
- The intricate shapes that ice makes
- The play of light through leaves or on water
- The silhouette of a bird against the sky
Listen: Stop walking, close your eyes, and listen. Do you hear the rustling leaves or the creak of branches rubbing together? Birds? Scurrying animals? Trickling water? As you listen, try to separate the layers of sound in your mind. Follow them to their sources.
Smell: Have you ever said that the air smells "like Fall" or "like Spring"? What are you smelling? Dry leaves? Honeysuckle? Thawing snow? Wet earth and fresh green leaves?
Touch: The forest is full of textures; the soft fronds of ferns or mosses, the smooth bark of a birch or rough bark of a pine, an ice-cold stream, a lick stone. What does the ground feel like beneath your feet? Hard and rocky? Soft and needle-strewn? Perhaps you take your shoes off and let your feet get in contact with the ground beneath them, skin to earth. Get a little risky. Nature is nothing if not sensual. Taste: Enjoy the tastes of wild blueberries or blackberries, dripping sap, the sour pucker of wood sorrel. If you are near the ocean, you might detect salt on the breeze. If you are in a pine forest, you might feel as though you can taste the sun-warmed resin. If it is raining or snowing, simply stick out your tongue.
This exercise was inspired by Hannah Fries’ Find Wholeness in the Company of Trees.
Laura van der Veer
Certified Forest Therapy Guide
Co-Founder of She Summits Forum
Laura is the co-founder of the She Summits Forum and a Certified Forest Therapy Guide. She is an innovative and creative community builder, women-led business mentor, and simply loves nature and human connection! When not empowering and engaging with other like-minded women you'll find her outside mushroom foraging, trail running and hiking with her dog Bo, and always taking photos.
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