Over the last few years, there’s been an explosion of interest in the practice of Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. At its heart, this is the practice of immersing yourself in nature in a mindful way to find things that bring you a sense of calm and happiness.
“Forest bathing is a process of rewilding, simultaneously the most natural and the hardest thing. It’s a stomping out of all our learned behaviors so we can reacquaint with our true selves and, with that, the web that comprises every living thing.” ― Julia Plevin, The Healing Magic of Forest Bathing: Finding Calm, Creativity, and Connection in the Natural World
Connecting with nature through your senses offers a wide range of benefits, including improving your mood, elevating your energy levels, and reducing the production of stress hormones in the body.
Gary Evans, Director and Founder of the Institute of Forest Bathing, describes it as a very gentle entry point to deep relaxation.
If you've been intrigued by the idea of forest bathing but are unsure how to start or if there's a 'correct' way to do it, you've come to the right place! This article takes you through everything you need to know to start immediately.
You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to integrate forest bathing into your lifestyle and enjoy the proven physical, emotional and cognitive benefits of this natural and ancient practice.
The Origins of Forest Bathing
Over recent years the practice of forest bathing has gained popularity as people search for a way to balance their hectic techno-obsessed lifestyles with a calm connection to the natural world.
Of course, retreating into the wilderness to reconnect with nature and oneself to gain insight is as old as humanity itself. Zen Buddhist monks and sages from every religion have traditionally removed themselves from civilisation to learn from nature.
However, in modern times, the practice of Shinrin (forest) Yoku (bathing) was popularised in Japan in the 1980s as an antidote to the high-pressure working culture that was creating a stress-related health crisis in the country. Forest bathing was promoted as an effective strategy to help people relax and enjoy the healing atmosphere of the forests.
Where Can I Practice Forest Bathing?
While the name suggests you'd need to head deep into the woods to practice forest bathing, that's not the case. Many of us live in urban areas far from the wilderness. And we don’t have the luxury of free time to travel to find such spaces and immerse ourselves in them for extended periods.
The good news is that even in cities, nature is all around. So practising forest bathing exercises in any urban park or small green space near you can be a great way to refresh your senses at lunchtime, perhaps after a hard morning at the computer.
At first, the noise from people and traffic may seem like barriers that prevent a calm connection with nature. But the more you listen, the more you'll start to appreciate the sounds around you – the birdsong, the wind rustling through tree branches, or the excited barking of dogs as they play.
Even if your mobility is restricted and you cannot access an urban park or outdoor space, it's still possible to practice sense-based mindfulness activities in your home. Bring natural elements indoors: pot plants, pieces of wood, and stones, and use these for contemplation and to reconnect with the natural world outside.
How Do I Do It?
There's no single right way to practice forest bathing, but there are some guidelines to help you have a calming and enjoyable experience, whether you're walking slowly, deep in the wilderness, or sitting on a park bench. Try out as many as you want, finding which ones you enjoy most and which help you feel a sense of calm.
- You’ll probably have an idea of the time you'll allocate to your forest bath, and that's fine. But avoid setting any goal for what you need to achieve in that time. The only goal is to enjoy being in nature.
- Take a few moments to get centred. Then, start by noticing just one thing (perhaps the chatter of nearby birds or the pattern of the bark on a nearby tree) and connect with that sound or sight.
- Expand your senses. Listen to all the sounds around you. Start to notice how many different sounds you can hear.
- Can you hear the stillness between the sounds?
- Notice the things you can hear but can't see. Spend some time just listening.
- Move on to your sense of sight. Notice things close to you that you can see but not hear.
- Notice things close to you that are moving (blades of grass, insects, etc.).
- Lift your gaze, and look into the distance. How many things are moving
- How many colours can you see? Take your time to identify each one.
- When you're ready, move on to your sense of smell.
- Take a deep breath.
- How many different scents can you detect? (No need to name them)
And so on. You may want to move on to explore your sense of touch and even your sense of taste.
There’s no right or wrong here. You have the freedom to be creative. Take a light and curious approach to the practice, like a child discovering something for the first time, and enjoy each rich, sensual experience – bathe in them!
How Much Time Do I Need to Practice Forest Bathing?
You can practice forest bathing anytime in any safe, natural space. There are no fixed rules about how much time you should spend. While to gain all the benefits, it’s recommended that you practice for at least 2 hours per week, break this up according to your lifestyle.
For example, you could practice for 30 minutes three times per week during your lunch break, then perhaps spend one hour in a local park at the weekend. And if the park is too busy and distracting during the day, maybe try going just after sunrise when fewer people are around.
Or, if you can make time, head into the wilderness for a more extended session once a week. Use your senses to discover the things in nature that bring you peace and happiness.
Extended forest bathing sessions, with all mobile devices, switched off (naturally), have an incredible therapeutic effect. You may be surprised at how time slows down, sounds become clearer, and colours appear richer and more vivid.
And if you don't have two hours per week to spare, make time for a short session whenever you have a few moments free. You're in control.
Is Forest Bathing the Same as Meditation?
Forest Bathing is certainly a meditative practice. It encourages you to notice what's happening around you and be mindful of the present moment.
However, while many meditation practices encourage you to turn your attention to what's happening inside you, perhaps by focusing on your breath, forest bathing helps you become mindful by concentrating on the world around you.
Many people who attempt seated meditation find it frustrating to remain motionless and focus on their breath - even for a few minutes. Controlling one’s thoughts isn’t easy for beginners, and it’s not uncommon for people to decide it’s not for them and give up after a single session.
No discipline is required, and no worry about whether you’re doing it right. However, when we immerse ourselves in nature during a forest bath, it becomes easier and more enjoyable to calm the mind. As we connect more deeply with the world around us, the endless chatter of our scattered thoughts becomes quieter.
By focussing gently on the experience of our senses, we get all the cognitive benefits of meditation and gently restore our emotional balance and physical well-being.
Do I Have to Practice Forest Bathing Alone?
Not at all. Forest bathing can be practised with companions if you wish.
Here's a sample practice to get you started:
- Walk quietly to your chosen spot with your group and stand (or sit) still.
- Notice your surroundings – take around 5 minutes.
- Taking it in turns, share just one thing that's making you feel calm
- Repeat – each time you fall back into silence, your senses will have been enriched by the insights of your companions, strengthening your connection to each other and with nature.
What are the Benefits of Forest Bathing?
First and foremost, it’s enjoyable. In recent years, extensive research has been carried out and confirmed the benefits of spending time in natural environments.
Physical benefits: Studies have shown that our stress levels decline within minutes of entering a green, natural space. Blood pressure stabilises, cortisol (stress hormone) production diminishes, and muscle tension decreases. In addition, forest bathing boosts immunity, reduces illness time, and promotes faster recovery from surgery or injury.
Mental benefits: As the body becomes calmer, mental and emotional benefits kick in. Our mind becomes clearer, and 'brain fog' starts to evaporate. As our mood lifts, vitality and positive outlook increase.
Multiple studies confirm that just 20 minutes per day of forest bathing can help manage and improve our mental health. And in today's connected world, we shouldn't underestimate the benefits of disconnecting from the ceaseless chatter on our devices for even a short time – improving our ability to concentrate, improving memory, and crucially restoring our ability to get a good night's sleep.
Emotional health: With all the stresses of today’s world, it's no surprise we sometimes feel sad, angry, and anxious. Although it’s harder to measure, the calming effects of forest bathing fight depression and alienation, leading to improved relationships and a more profound sense of connection to others.
Now that we've explained what forest bathing is and how easy and enjoyable to practice, it’s time to give it a try for yourself.
Use your senses to explore the natural world around you, and you'll not only enjoy the experience, but you're also likely to benefit from a whole range of positive physical, emotional and cognitive changes.
We hope your discovery of this profoundly healing technique will lead to a calmer and more mindful approach to everyday life. Enjoy the journey!