Why you should try forest bathing in Knettishall Heath
- Credit: PETER BASH
Is forest bathing another wellness fad, or is it good for your health? Lucy Etherington heads to Knettishall Heath to talk to the trees
The first very important thing to know about forest bathing is the ‘bathing’ part is metaphorical, so don’t turn up in your Speedos. Dress appropriately for walking in the woods, perhaps a little warmer than usual as you will be walking slowly.
The second piece of advice is to find a forest bathing guide. While there are plenty of these in Japan, where forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku) is a cornerstone of the national health programme, they are scanty in Suffolk. After a bit of research, I track down Jane Dow who runs monthly forest bathing walks in Bradfield Woods and Knettishall Heath Nature Reserve. We arrange to meet in Knettishall carpark on a chilly December afternoon.
Jane started out as an arboreal culturist (tree expert), before becoming a meditation practitioner and teacher 20 years ago. Forest bathing, as I am about to find out, is the perfect marriage of the two. “I originally called them mindful walks, as forest bathing sounded a bit New Age,” says Jane, as we walk across the heath towards the woods.
“But now everyone is writing about it, it’s become more acceptable. I don’t think it’s a fad. Once people experience its benefits, I hope it’ll be around for hundreds of years.” Well, it sounds more appealing to me than goat yoga.
Forest bathing is not a hike or nature walk. It is the process of slowing down and increasing your awareness. Jane does this using mindful meditation techniques, which research has shown can reduce stress, and improve concentration and productivity. Mindfulness has been recommended by the government’s NICE guidelines for depression since 2004.
Studies in Japan found that a two-hour forest bathing session can reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve memory and concentration. They also found that chemicals released by trees, phytoncides, could have an anti-microbial effect and boost the immune system.
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Jane invites me to slow down my pace and deepen my breaths, then we will walk in silence to the edge of the woods, paying particular attention to sounds. As we crunch across the heath, I think how strange it is to have just met someone and walk in silence. Normally I would be asking hundreds of questions and paying no attention to anything.
Hang on, I tell myself, I’m supposed to be noticing sounds. Shut up and listen. A car drives past, then another car. Aren’t I supposed to be listening to nature? A bird squawks obligingly. Flapping wings echo in the trees like gunshots. More birds. Then silence. The odd faraway sound. We stop.
“How do you feel?” asks Jane. I feel quite calm, I tell her. It’s unusual to be given permission not to have to fill the silence with small talk, to look around, feel the expanse of the landscape. I tell her about the cars and whirring thoughts. “That’s all part of the meditation. Noticing sounds we don’t like, noticing our resistance to slowing down.”
Before we enter the woods, she invites me to notice how I respond to the environment by bringing my attention to what I feel in my body and senses. This is the basis of mindful awareness, as well as the ‘bathing’ part of forest bathing, fully immersing yourself in the experience, soaking up the surroundings through your senses.
Over the next hour, we walk very slowly through four different areas of different trees – beech, pine, oak and ash – stopping occasionally to share our experience. The gnarled, low beech trees that we walk through first feel strange and alien. I feel like I’m intruding in their space. I notice my body lifting tall among the long-limbed pines, my chest expanding – apparently the chemicals pines emit are good for the lungs. We both admit to feeling clarity.
Wandering through an area dotted with twisted oaks, I feel a sense of wonder and mystery. Each tree seems to have a personality, like a fantastic beast. Jane stops us and suggests we each find an oak and get closer to it.
“You don’t have to hug it,” she says, quickly. “It’s more about being with the tree, befriending it.” As she speaks, my eye is already drawn to a lovely old beast with a split trunk and almost open mouth, with one elephantine eye. I lay my hand on the deeply scored bark and look up at his ‘face’. I feel strangely moved. I am very close to hugging my lovely new tree friend, when my inner cynic steps in, eyebrow raised, straight-jacket at the ready. OK, I’m not quite a tree hugger yet.
When I tell Jane this I feel a bit embarrassed and say I’m probably projecting something of myself onto the tree, but she says that’s the point. “It’s about reconnecting with ourselves through being able to build a relationship to the natural world.
“If we’re disconnected, constantly on our phones or rushing about, we can’t get the benefit of the world we are living in. That sounds a bit cosmic, but wonder is part of it. Nature is amazing. When we slow down, we might notice the brilliant colours of the lichen or the ferns, the play of light through the trees. Eventually, we get to a level of sensory awareness and stillness that we don’t often give ourselves the space to experience.”
By the time we enter a silent expanse of smoky grey and rather majestic ash trees, I am feeling very slowed-down and aware. It’s a totally different way of experiencing the woods than if I was walking with friends, family or dogs.
The fact that I can remember each moment vividly as I write this from memory says just how much more I was taking in. As I am usually so scattered and rushing about, it feels like waking up to a new world that has always been there.
The sense of awareness lingers. A few days later, I walk with friends though Knettishall and stop in the middle of our conversation to admire the colour of the ferns. “Wow,” says one friend. “I would never have noticed that. I was too busy looking at the path trying not to trip over.”
Shinrin-yoku means ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘forest bathing’. It was developed in Japan during the 1980s and has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine.
Researchers, primarily in Japan and South Korea, have established a body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest. The idea is that if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved.
The scientifically-proven benefits of Shinrin-yoku include boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s natural killer (NK) cells, reduced blood pressure, reduced stress, improved mood, increased ability to focus, accelerated recovery from surgery or illness, increased energy levels, improved sleep.