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WHY THE JAPANESE TRADITION OF FOREST BATHING IS A MUCH-NEEDED ANTIDOTE TO LOCKDOWN

independent– More of us are choosing to spend time outside than before Covid-19. The sounds of the wind blowing through the woods, the smells of the trees, the sunlight on our faces and the fresh air are a much-needed distraction from the pressures of lockdown.

Research carried out by Natural England during England’s spring 2020 lockdown revealed that 85 per cent of adults reported that spending time in nature contributed to feelings of happiness, and those who had spent time in nature within the last seven days were happier than those that had not.

The importance of the natural world and the impact it has on our health isn’t a new idea. The Japanese have been applying the concept of forest bathing, otherwise known as shinrin-yoku, since the 1980s. The practice involves letting go of stress in nature, while breathing deeply among the trees.

Forest bathing started out as an antidote to the tech burst that was having a negative effect on the health of the Japanese four decades ago. It soon established itself in mainstream society, and the Japanese have spent the past 40 years researching forest bathing. Sessions are even prescribed on the national health programme, the Japanese equivalent to the NHS, with over 70 elected healing forests across Japan.

I was introduced to forest bathing in September 2019 by Haruto and Akako, a young couple from Tokyo, while hiking parts of the Michinoku Coastal Trail in Tohoku, a remote region in the northeast of Japan. They explained that they were hiking the trail to completely disconnect from the outside world and invited me to join them and go further into the forest to connect with my natural surroundings.

I was under the impression that I was doing that already, but I switched off my iPhone and followed my guides as we wandered off the trail.

I was encouraged to allow my senses to guide me as we walked into the forest. I could feel the energy of the forest all around me and my senses quickly became heightened. The birds were singing louder than before in the trees above; the colours of the trees seemed sharper and the sunlight filtering into the forest appeared brighter. The smell of the fir trees was powerful and the humid air cooled as we headed further into the forest.

After about half an hour, I became distracted by thoughts of everyday life. I didn’t want to arrive late at the campsite I’d booked the evening before and started to prepare myself to return to the trail

But I wasn’t leaving: my introduction to forest bathing had only just begun. Haruto gently encouraged me to sit down on the ground where we sat for two hours, breathing deeply and slowly in and out. It felt good to be silent and still. The only movement was our eyelids flickering open, so we could absorb everything the forest had to offer.

My first introduction to forest bathing felt like total bliss. I felt happy, worry free and relaxed; yet also completely re-energised. I thanked Haruto and Akako for sharing the practice with me and promised to reconnect with nature again when back in the UK.

When I returned home, I decided to keep my promise and headed into the woods and forest bath for two hours every week. It was hard at first as I made every excuse imaginable not to, but I pushed through the urge to stay at home in my warm flat and venture outside instead. I’m lucky: I’m in Norfolk during lockdown and beautiful woodland areas surround me. So, blanket in hand, I headed to the woods and found the perfect spot deep in the woods where I’d be unlikely to be disturbed. I sat down, was engulfed by my natural surroundings and tried to empty my mind. It soon became my new habit.

Mentally and emotionally, I feel like forest bathing has been an extremely healthy choice. I have worried less, and believe that my ability to get through current lockdown restrictions with a relaxed attitude and smile on my face has got a lot to do with my time sitting in nature.

And I’m not alone. Forest bathing is becoming popular in the UK, as people look for new ways to embrace the outdoors. The Duchess of Cambridge and Dame Judy Dench are reportedly both fans, and there’s even a book about it: Forest Bathing – Seasonal Ways to Embrace Nature for a Happier You.

“People think they’re connecting with nature while going for a walk in the woods,” says Gary Evans, director of The Forest Bathing Institute (TFBI), which he set up with his wife Olga Terebenina to ensure that Japanese scientific studies into forest bathing are reproduced across the UK and Europe. “But they might be on their mobile or worrying about the kids or what the dog is doing. These are all distractions. Forest bathing is about completely disconnecting from everything apart from nature, for health and wellbeing purposes.”

In July 2019, TFBI and researchers from the University of Derby carried out the first scientific research study of forest bathing in the UK. The study measured the impact of forest bathing on both physiological wellbeing and mental health in woodland in Derbyshire. The paper, published in the journal Sustainability, showed that 57 per cent of participants noticed improvements in heart rate variability, while anxiety was reduced by 29 per cent after forest bathing.

So far, TFBI has established that UK forests discharge antimicrobial essential oils that protect trees from germs and have a host of health benefits for people including better moods, immune systems, reducing blood pressure, heart rate, stress, anxiety, confusion, sleep disruption and depression.

Forest bathing sessions could soon be doled out by your GP. In late 2018, discretionary nature prescriptions became available by NHS Shetland in partnership with RSPB Scotland for both physical and mental illnesses. While in 2019, the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK made £5m available to establish a National Academy of Social Prescribing.

One of the best things about forest bathing it can be done anywhere in the world where there are trees: in the UK, we are fortunate to have thousands of woodland areas. It’s accessible; you don’t need to be fit to do it; it’s free; you don’t need any equipment and it can be done alone. Wherever there are trees, there is a place to forest bathe. According to Mr Evans: “The sense of going into the outdoors releases the pressures from life indoors.”

A forest bather’s cheat sheet

  • Disconnect from everything by turning off your devices to give yourself the best chance of relaxing.
  • Take it slow. You’re not in any hurry. Move through the forest slowly so you can see and feel more.
  • Taking longer breaths sends a message to your body that it’s time to calm down and relax.
  • Stand still or sit down (a blanket is useful).
  • Have a look around you and engage all your senses.
  • Sit quietly and try to forget about everything going on in your life.
  • Keep your eyes open. Nature is soothing.
  • Two hours a week are recommended at first.

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