What I Learnt Forest Bathing

To mark World Meditation Day, our content editor Kelly Green tried forest bathing – a form of meditation in nature that has inspired the Duchess of Cambridge’s Chelsea Flower Show garden this year.  Here’s what she learnt. 

Last week I was invited by Allbirds to go forest bathing in Queen’s Wood in Highgate to celebrate the launch of their new Tree Breezer flat shoe made of FSC-certified sustainably harvested Eucalyptus (incidentally the most comfortable pair of ballet flats I have ever had the pleasure of wearing – like your comfiest pair of slippers, but acceptable to wear outdoors).

We’re big fans of Allbirdssustainable footwear at Eco-Age, so despite not knowing what I was letting myself in for, I signed up for the forest bathing session and turned up at Queen’s Wood’s community garden at 8.30am on Friday morning hoping it didn’t involve stripping off and taking a dip in muddy puddles.  Thankfully, it didn’t.

What it did involve was a calming and energising meditation session amidst Highgate’s ancient woodland.  We were guided through the practice by founder of Nature as Nuture and humanistic pschotherapist Claire de Boursac.  “The name can be confusing, and for some off-putting as they imagine swimming in a muddy pond,” says Claire when I asked her what forest bathing means. “The name is a direct translation of ‘shinrin yoku’ and the practice has its origins in Japan in the 1980s. The Japanese government undertook extensive research into the health benefits of time spent mindfully in nature and were so impressed by the results that they wove Shinrin Yoku into mainstream healthcare and established over 60 special ‘healing forests’ for this practice.

“Essentially, forest bathing is about spending time mindfully in nature, particularly among the trees. It’s slow-paced, restful and restorative, combing mindful or meditative walking with a series of ‘invitations’ – exercises or practices to help you connect more deeply with yourself and nature.”

Forest bathing has many wellbeing benefits, including reducing stress, alleviating anxiety and depression, breathing cleaner air, encouraging empathy and creative thinking, and helping to create a sense of calm and relaxation.  The practice has even inspired the Duchess of Cambridge’s Chelsea Flower Show garden this year. 

We were enjoying the forest at arguably the most beautiful time of year, but Claire runs forest bathing sessions at Queen’s Wood year round. “Each time we forest bathe it’s different – partly because nature is ever changing and also because we are ever changing in terms of our mood/energy levels/hormonal cycles/what’s been happening in that day or week,” she explains. “The look, feel, sounds and smells – the atmosphere – of the woods really varies across the seasons and different things will come foreground in our attention in different seasons.  It’s wonderful to carry out the practice across the year to witness the changes – this gives us a different sense of time passing and also shows us that change is normal, when many of us fear it.”

Here’s what I learnt during our taster forest bathing session:

It’s good to slow down
The fast pace of London life and constantly racing from one place to the next meant that at first I found the amble through the forest painfully slow. My natural instinct was to race ahead at my usual London walking speed – something I wasn’t even really aware I had developed. But once I slowed down and started walking more mindfully, and silently, through the forest, I felt calmer, less tense, and much more aware of the beauty of my woodland surroundings.

Look up!
At this time of year, the forest canopy is thick with green leaves, only allowing dappled sunlight through to the floor.  So often, particularly in the city, we look down at the ground or our phones, or at best straight ahead as we try to navigate through swarms of people, traffic and the odd crack in the pavement. Looking up, carefully, not only was a welcome stretch of the neck, but it was nice to discover that there’s a whole world up there in the tops of the trees – from the trees themselves, to the birds and squirrels chasing each other – which often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. 

Touch isn’t just good for touch screens
Standing in the forest clearing, we were invited to feel the ground beneath our feet, notice the light breeze and the sunlight on our skin, and to feel the trees as we walked past them, to awaken our sense of touch.  Strange as it might sound, walking through and noticing the feeling of the tree trunks – the coldness, the roughness or smoothness – actually felt quite grounding and calming, and made a welcome change from the touch of my phone screen. 

There are way more than 50 shades of green
At one point on our amble through the trees, we stopped and were invited to count how many different shades of green we could see in the trees and bushes that surrounded us. Of course I lost count (it was a lot), but that didn’t matter. “Various studies show it’s good for us to be in green – perhaps because we evolved in landscapes that were very green,” explains Claire. A 2016 study even found that those living in or near green areas had better mental health and lived longer. 

Green light is also the easiest colour on the spectrum for our eyes to process, involving least muscular effort in the eye to look at,” she adds.

There are birds – even in London
With a little focus, the distant hum of traffic and aeroplanes flying overhead was drowned out by birdsong – a much nicer and more relaxing backdrop to the usual soundtrack of the city.

The air is cleaner amongst the trees
We often think we need to escape the city to get some fresh air, but London’s many parks and green spaces mean that cleaner air might be closer than you think.  “Trees do a phenomenal job of cleaning the air,” says Claire. “London has over 8 million trees and it’s estimated that they remove over 2,000 tonnes of pollution from the atmosphere every year and store over 2.4 million tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to 2.6 billion vehicle miles.”  So next time you need a little fresh air, head to your nearest green space – and thank the trees for the cleaner air you breathe in. 

Getting out in nature is a great start to the day
With our senses awakened, at the end of the session everyone in the group noted that they felt not only more relaxed, but also more energised and ready to take on the day ahead. Not only that, as someone that already cares deeply about nature, I found an even greater appreciation for our trees and woodland. Whether it was being out in the fresh air, or simply spending time away from our screens, I can’t think of a better way to start the day. 

Inspired? Try it yourself! Claire shares her tips for how you can start forest bathing:

“As long as you can see nature, you can do nature-meditation. Even taking 3 minutes to bring your awareness to the nature you can see from your desk will be good for your health.  But, being out in the sounds, smells and being able the bathe in the atmosphere is best.

“You can do it on your own, of course, but to start with it’s great to attend a group session.  Alone we may feel shy to engage in the ‘invitations’ and participants often tell me that being in a group gives them permission to really truly be present in that time, and not checking a phone.  So, just Google forest bathing, find your nearest session and go.

“But, you can also take a walk in nature, turn off your phone and keep your attention as much as possible (your mind WILL wander and that’s OK) in the present moment.  Work your way through your senses one at a time and take in the world around you – what can you see, hear, smell; how does nature feel to touch?   Then take some time to simply sit still in silence and observe.” 

Nature as Nurture runs regular group and bespoke forest bathing sessions in North London.