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Reconnecting with our wild selvesForest Bathing

By Leanne Downs18 December 2018

It has long been known that walking in nature is good for alleviating stress and improving our mood. But scientific studies in Japan have helped establish the practise of ‘Forest Bathing’ worldwide, after showing that connecting with nature has a higher purpose still; it is a necessity.

My eyes search the forest floor: a sea of ochre and rust that tells me autumn is now in full swing. Spotting a particularly perfect looking oak leaf, I pick it up to admire it up close. Accompanied by my forest bathing guide Helena, I’m about to enter an alternate space, where only myself and wild things exist.

Forest Bathing is growing in popularity in the UK and people are beginning to actively seek to reconnect with nature as an antidote to the digital era we now live in. In a world where technology has infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives, people are nurturing the parts of themselves that are becoming lost.

This need for reconnection with nature is not a new concept. Writing in his book ‘Our National Parks’ at the beginning of the 20th Century, John Muir describes “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people [who] are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” Penned 100 years before the release of the first iPhone, little could he have known of the electronic era to come and the new challenges that would present mankind.

Forest bathing refers to the cleansing of the spirit rather than the body. The name is translated from the Japanese term ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ which loosely means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere.’ In Japan, forest bathing is considered to be an important preventive health care technique. It has been scientifically demonstrated that relaxing in a natural place has a positive effect on blood pressure, energy levels, sleep and the immune system. Perhaps most amazingly of all, it has demonstrated an increase in so-called ‘Natural Killer’ cell counts in the body, which are critical for our health and even play a role in fighting cancer.

The benefits cited flow into other areas of our lives, an improvement in mood and sense of wellbeing helps us maintain better relationships, which in turn gives us a greater sense of happiness and satisfaction. The meditative nature of forest bathing also adds inner peace and centeredness, helping us to cope with the stresses and strains of life.

My first foray into Shinrin-Yoku has brought me to a patch of woodland in East Sussex, where my guide Helena Skoog lives in a small off-grid wooden cabin, with no running water or electricity. She knows this patch of woodland intimately, having spent the last four years living and practising forest bathing here. She tells me that becoming a forest therapy guide was a natural progression for her as a yoga teacher, and having grown up in the forests of Sweden, she has always felt a close affinity with nature. Having unknowingly practised it for years intuitively, she discovered that what she loved to do had a name, when her partner Mark introduced her to the concept of Shinrin-Yoku after reading about it online. Feeling a strong desire to share what she had discovered with others, she became a qualified forest bathing guide.

Crossing a threshold fashioned from a fallen branch signifies the beginning of my forest bathing journey. Before I cross, Helena gives me my first ‘invitation’. I’m to pour my current worries and preoccupations into a natural object and place it into a bowl. The first of many to follow; invitations act as a guide to help connections with the environment; they form suggestions and ideas for interaction and are completely voluntary. As an open-minded and curious soul, I was ready to commit fully for the next couple of hours and explore each invitation with calm enthusiasm.

I am invited to sit or lie down soon after beginning. I choose to sit at the base of a small oak tree, where sunbeams warm my face. This is a moment of stillness where I focus on my breathing, listening to the sounds around me and the feeling of my body connecting to the ground. Helena talks me through the process softly, drawing my attention to both distant and nearby sounds and the rhythm of my own breathing. I’m invited to open my eyes and look around me as if seeing everything for the first time. Then alone, I’m to spend the next twenty minutes or so moving around the forest, doing whatever feels right, moving slowly and taking my time to become aware of my surroundings.

‘Knock, knock, knock’, already tuned to the forest sounds, my ears detect a hollow knocking and I turn to see where it came from. ‘Knock, knock, knock’, again – this time, slightly to the left of me. Following the sound, I eventually track the source – a flash of colour zips overhead as a woodpecker flutters from one tree to another. I smile to myself, the magic is already happening.

I can no longer see Helena but she’d assured me that she would never be too far away. Spending my time walking slowly, I explore the forest floor and the canopy above me, looking for interesting shapes, fungi and experiencing the view around me. I come to rest on a bench sitting on the edge of the forest looking out across a field, drinking in the soft autumn sunlight. I feel a quiet peacefulness and a gratitude for getting to spend the morning this way.

Over the next two hours I am mostly alone. Helena comes to find me occasionally to guide me to a new part of the forest and give me further invitations. We spend some time connecting with water, placing our fingers in an icy cold pond and holding them there, feeling the burning sensation tingle our skin. We throw rocks into the water and watch how the ripples move across.

I begin to feel sharply attuned to the movement of the forest and Helena invites me to pay close attention to this before vanishing again. Almost as if summoned, the wind comes rushing through the trees with more vigour than before and something catches my eye to the right of me. The ghostly silhouette of a squirrel bounding along a branch.

Moving deeper into the forest, I find Helena at the base of a magnificent chestnut tree. It is a giant and I am awed by its height and diameter – I had no idea they could get this big. The tree must be almost 400 years old, weathering storms, standing proud through both World Wars, seeing so much in that time. This thought is humbling and I feel a strong urge to connect to the tree through touch.

Seeing my reaction, Helena invites me to ‘introduce myself’ to the tree, so I reach out to stroke it, admiring the deep ridges of bark on its trunk. We then sit at the base of the tree for a while and examine the soil and connect with the earth – admiring the exquisite compost of leaf matter, moss and bark. Helena invites me to take a taste of the soil and against my preconceptions, I put a tiny piece of it in my mouth. I’m surprised by the flavour: it’s fresh, sweet, clean.

The most magical moment of all happens shortly after this when Helena leaves me alone again. Hearing the snapping of twigs I look up from the mushroom covered branch I am examining to see three small female Roe deer bound gracefully into view. Sensing my presence, they freeze and we stare into each other’s eyes. Longing for the moment to last, I dare not make the tiniest movement. The surprise connection with one of our nation’s largest mammals gives me a surge of emotion and even brings a tear to my eye.

Daydreaming of the deer, I wander on and almost trip over the prone body of Helena stretched out on the floor, nearly invisible amongst the leaves. I tell her about my encounter with the deer and she is thrilled for me. She’s had many similar encounters, and attributes them to the unique stillness achieved through forest bathing. The deer would not have come so close had we been moving at normal speed through the trees.

My penultimate invitation is to lay down and observe the canopy above. Watching the trees sway in the wind, I notice the creaking of an old dead tree and the silent and peaceful rocking of the young living trees. Our time in the forest is drawing to a close and I can sense myself beginning to slowly awaken from my present state and time begins to move more quickly again as I step back over the threshold, signifying the end to my forest therapy session.

I feel energised yet deeply relaxed; the hyper-aware state I’d experienced in the past three hours, clearly a tonic for mind. The time spent wandering the small patch of woodland has been surprisingly rich with experience; a series of clarified moments containing profound thought and feeling, sparked by sounds and sightings that would have gone easily unnoticed on my usual dog walk in the woods.

Walking back through the trees afterwards, my mind is re-tuned to reality and thoughts of my journey back home, and I’m no longer synchronised with my surroundings. It’s as though the forest’s secrets are only unlocked with a present state of mind. The lasting effects are there though – my experience has shown me how a simple walk in the woods can become more than that: transforming your mood and giving your mind a break from the everyday.

For me, connection with nature is the most exciting aspect of Forest Bathing, in that the benefits extend beyond the individual. Healthier and happier people make for healthier and happier communities, benefiting society as a whole. Acknowledging that we are not separate from nature and giving it vital status will help ensure its protection for future generations, securing health benefits for both people and planet for years to come.

To learn more about Forest Bathing and Helena Skoog, visit her website forestbathingsussex.com 

Leanne Downs

About Leanne Downs

Leanne Downs is the content editor for Thryve and works as an outdoor writer, blogger and photographer. She loves hiking, hillwalking and wild camping.

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