Stressed? Slow your mind down in the forest

| 5th January 2018

Forest bathing in Sandwell Nature Reserve

New years’ resolutions typically consist of promises to exercise more, sleep better and generally be more healthy and less stressed. As everyone returns to work this can be a real challenge. A practice originating in Japan and now being trialled by the RSPB and on Forestry Commission holidays could help you achieve all this and more. CATHERINE EARLY reports

One person that came on the walk commented that their mind had gone from 100 miles per hour to zero.

New years’ resolutions typically consist of promises to exercise more, sleep better and generally be more healthy and less stressed. A practice originating in Japan and now being trialled by the RSPB and on Forestry Commission holidays could help you achieve all these and more.

Forest-bathing, or shinrin-yoku, means simply “being in the presence of trees”. Participants are guided into deep immersion in their natural surroundings through exercises including mindfulness meditation and natural aromatherapy. Sessions aim to open the senses and hone intuition.

The practice is popular in Japan, where numerous scientific studies have demonstrated health benefits including a boosted immune system, decreased stress, lower blood pressure and better sense of wellness.

Patch of nature

In November, the RSPB decided to trial forest-bathing on its Sandwell Valley reserve in a former industrial site in Great Barr, just outside Birmingham. The reserve is known for its birdlife, which include little ring plovers and willow tits, as well as butterflies, dragonflies and bats.  

Samantha Lyster, communications manager for RSPB Midlands, was introduced to the concept in Amsterdam by a Japanese friend. “When I took on the role and visited Sandwell Valley I felt it was something that would help to connect people with the natural surroundings, while also offering another way to reduce stress.”

The first session, led by local therapists Olga and Gary Evans, was attended by nine people from a variety of walks of life. Locals Nicola Fox and her partner Jem Gotch, are avid walkers and jumped at the chance to try forest bathing to ease the stress of a recent house move.

Fox said: “Life is so hectic, especially in urban environments, and it’s as though people need permission to slow down. I just felt so calm and peaceful post session, and we love being outdoors so this will help with our own walks.”

Gotch said that one of the exercises reminded him of scuba diving at night. “Gary asked us to frame a small patch of nature with our fingers, just as a photographer or painter would do, and then just concentrate on it.

Mindfulness and meditation

“With night diving you can only see a small patch in front of you, where the light of a torch shines, and you think you will see very little but actually there’s so much that comes through because you’re really looking. It’s a very calming and enlightening experience, and that’s how I felt about the forest bathing.”

The couple are planning to incorporate some of the exercises into their regular walks.

Cath Edwards from Sandwell also attended the session. A yoga teacher of 20 years, she was very familiar with the concepts at the heart of forest bathing.

“It's interesting that science is catching up with what has been a part of yogic philosophy for hundreds or even thousands of years. On my yoga course, we were told that being outdoors in nature is beneficial to your health, that being barefoot on the earth is a good thing to do, and of course that mindfulness and meditation are helpful in many ways.”

Slow down

RSPB Midlands is planning another session of forest bathing on 28 January. The idea is being trialled in the Midlands but the RSPB is considering rolling it out to reserves nationally.

The Forestry Commission is also encouraging forest bathing on its land through its holidays arm, Forest Holidays. Forest rangers at its Blackwood Forest site in Hampshire and the Thorpe Forest retreat in Norfolk have been specially trained by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programmes and offer guided outings both for those staying overnight or just visiting for the day.

Charlie Houlder-Moat, a ranger at Thorpe Forest, said that forest bathing is about far more than going for a walk in the woods. “It takes you to a different level of sensory awareness. I guide them through it so they don’t have to think about time. It gives them the space to slow down and take in the forest.”

“One person that came on the walk commented that their mind had gone from 100 miles per hour to 0, it’s really restorative to both the body and the mind,” she said.

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.