A couple of weeks ago I had my first official experience of forest bathing. Never fear, I haven't been prancing around the woods in a swimming costume, I'm actually talking about the Japanese art of Shinrin-Yoku, often translated as "taking in the atmosphere of the forest". It all started officially in Japan in the 1980s to enhance people's health and wellbeing and to reconnect them to nature, as greater numbers of people abandoned the countryside to live in cities, and work increasingly long hours. An official forest bathing walk is lead by a trained guide, and is a slow walk, covering a short distance, with the guide offering a series of invitations designed to allow participants to slow down, engage their senses and really connect to nature.
The positive effects of forest bathing has and continues to be, scientifically researched. Amongst other things, it can boost the immune system, decrease anxiety and reduce stress. It can improve your sleep and your mood. So back to my experience. We walked into a quiet area of the wood and our guide Caitlin explained about the session; she would offer us invitations, each with the intention of getting us to slow down and notice. Firstly we settled in one spot, I was leaning against a friendly tree, and she lead us through each of our senses. I could see sunlight on the tops of the trees. Although we were in an urban setting, the sounds of the city faded away, as I began to hear the leaves rustling and the sound of birdsong became very loud. With our eyes closed, she asked us to face the different directions of the compass; I could feel the sun on my face. After this meditative experience, we shared what we had discovered, and then we started to walk further into the trees. Caitlin set the pace and I think several of the group were struck by the effort it took to really slow down. I am naturally a fast walker, I often walk from a to b, to get where I am going, and I want to get there efficiently. Over the years however, with the influence of my (slow!) partner, I have become a wanderer. Sure, if I think the bakery are going to run out of my favourite buns, then I walk as quickly as possible (whilst also trying to be zen about the fact that whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye) but if I'm going for a walk, especially in a park or wood or beach, it's not about getting my heart rate up, it's about getting my heart rate down! We then spent 10 minutes or so on each of a variety of invitations - to search out small things on the forest floor, to connect with a particular tree and my favourite, to use a magnifying glass to examine things more closely. Although phone use is discouraged during a forest bathing experience, I did pull mine out to snap the above picture. There seem to have been perfect conditions for fungi this autumn, or maybe I just never noticed them in previous years, but it was such fun to be able to peer through a magnifying glass and see them in exquisite detail. We rounded off the session with a tea ceremony, drinking homemade herbal tea amongst the trees, which was truly magical. You can find out more about forest bathing on Caitlin's website, but you can also just take yourself out to some trees, walk slowly and scan through each of your senses, and see how you feel.
While we are talking about forests, did you know that there are rainforests here in Britain? I don't know that I had ever particularly thought about it, until I came across a programme on Radio 4 this week. Whilst it no longer exists in the way that it did, there are small pockets of temperate rainforest right down the west coast of the country from Scotland to Devon. I highly recommend listening to Open Country as well as checking out the Lost Rainforests of Britain website and the Alliance for Saving Scotland's Rainforest. As well as being full of fascinating facts, these websites are the home to amazing pictures taken in the forests, of moss covered rocks, trees dripping with lichens and an abundance of ferns. If you're not able to get out into a forest, just looking at the pictures is restful and you can imagine the damp, woody smell surrounding you. As we start to head into the festive season, I invite you to bring those scents indoors, with your Christmas tree or make some pine oil, and have your own indoor forest bathing experience.