The chirping birds, the wet grass, the towering cathedral of trees, and the hills and dales bring everything to a still. A person’s connection to the world has no place here. It is a paradise on earth, a luxury for many and a way of life for a lucky few. Nature is an answer to the prayers of the weary, overworked and dog-tired.
It is no surprise that Oscar Wilde, Robert Frost, Hendry David Thoreau, Hermann Hesse, Isaac Newton and Buddha, all found bliss in the wilderness. Trees have long been a source of inspiration, introspection, even enlightenment for the greats. And now, we have found they do more: Trees are also nature’s healers.
We rarely question the psychological and physiological wellbeing that is associated with walking in nature. Interestingly, it is now a therapeutic practice. In 1982, The Forest Agency of Japan proposed the idea of ‘forest bathing’, also known as Shinrin-yoku. Supported by studies about the benefits of forest bathing, the healthy practice soon became a therapy.
So, what is forest bathing? According to Dr Qing Li of Tokyo-based Nippon Medical School, a pioneer in forest medicine, Shinrin-yoku is simply a walk in the forest, for better health.
It is all about hearing the chirping of birds, seeing the lush colours of nature, and breathing in the fragrance of the soil and plants around us.
Forest bathing is not about accumulating our walking miles on Fitbit. It is not an accomplishment. It is simply a way to relax. Once we are on the forest trail, all we do is walk for a certain distance, stop, meditate and open our senses to the surroundings. The purpose of this walk is to take in the atmosphere of the forest, by being consciously mindful. And that means we cannot let our mind wander off to Timbuktu or workout a Christmas plan.
Shinrin-yoku is known to be rejuvenating and calming. For a restless mind, exhausted body, and screen-addicted eyes, a walk in the woods can do wonders. A study was conducted in 2010 across 24 forests in Japan, on people who took part in forest bathing. It was found that they had lower blood pressure, calmer heart rate and a lesser concentration of stress hormone, than the people who walked in an urban environment.
Even the aromas of the forest act as mood enhancers. Ecology expert Julie Kerr Casper, in her book Forests: More Than Just Trees, explains how natural plant oil aromas stimulate the brain to ease stress. Going by her studies, we are bound to feel exhilarated amidst the greenery of the forest. In fact, ardent followers believe Shinrin-yoku opens our senses to nature and helps develop deeper intuition.
In addition to being therapeutic, sauntering through the woods could teach us a lesson or two about appreciation. We may have taken a walk in the park many times, chatting away on our phone, or daydreaming. But it is different, when we mindfully walk in the woods, solely to bathe in nature’s goodness. Forest bathing can open our hearts and nudge us to acknowledge the beauty of small things in life. Country singer Mac Davis aptly described the virtue of appreciation in his song Stop and smell the roses. It went:
You got to stop and smell the roses
You’ve got to count your many blessings every day
You’re gonna find your way to heaven is a rough and rocky road
If you don’t stop and smell the roses along the way