Shinri-Yoku - practising the Japanese art of forest bathing in Yorkshire
- Credit: Archant
You don’t have to climb a mountain to reap the green goodness of the outdoors – your back garden is the perfect starting point.
We’ve all become used to the new normal of social distancing and now that lockdowns rules are being relaxed, the outdoors is coming into its own for the importance of our wellbeing.
Timely then to immerse yourself in some forest bathing, a Japanese practice of relaxation, which Liz Dawes, aka The Forest Guru, brings to Yorkshire.
Known in Japan as shinri- yoku, forest bathing is essentially about being calm and quiet in nature, connecting through your senses to all that surrounds you, helping you to de-stress and improve your mental and physical wellbeing.
As Liz says: ‘Stress and anxiety weaken our immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to viral infections. Many studies have found that being in nature stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, which allows our bodies to relax and repair.’
‘Spending time around trees supports our immune system. In addition, there are many studies that show that simply viewing images of nature, especially in 3D, helps reduce stress and aid sleep.’
She goes on: ‘When we breathe in phytoncides, the essential oils that trees emit as a natural defence mechanism, there is increased activity of our ‘natural killer cells’, which can help eliminate tumours, viruses and bacteria in our bodies. Also, the lingering of viruses doesn’t happen outside in the same way as it does in buildings. So, in these uncertain times, if we are well and observing the social distancing rules, there are many reasons to spend time in nature.’
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Usually, forest bathing takes place in woodland but it can be just as effective if you can incorporate it into your daily outdoor exercise, or pop out into the garden. If you can be near trees, even one tree, or just see them, great, but just being out in the fresh air, and taking in nature around you is enough to feel the benefits.
Liz offers forest bathing sessions for public and private groups on the Broughton Hall Estate near Skipton, and for guests on retreat there or staying in the estate’s holiday homes. During lockdown she’s been holding sessions on Zoom.
Her previous job was a far cry from what she does now. Liz was a lawyer in London for 11 years but in 2012 she decided to give it all up after doing the Hoffman Process, a personal development course. ‘I’d been miserable for years,’ she says. ‘Law wasn’t for me at all. I left London and moved to Hove on the south coast. I did a mindfulness course and a couple of weeks in, I was hooked and later trained to teach mindfulness courses.’
Liz spent time travelling in India and Nepal, where she continued to teach mindfulness. However, it was a chance meeting with a film director called Sylvie Rokab in California, while Liz was visiting her father and brother there, that she found out about forest bathing. Sylvie had made a film called Love Thy Nature, narrated by Liam Neeson, which examines the beauty and intimacy of mankind’s relationship with the natural world. ‘I was fascinated by what Sylvie told me about forest bathing, so when I returned to the UK in March 2019 I began to research it. I love being in nature, but mindfulness is most commonly practised indoors so this seemed like the perfect combination of both. I trained to be a Forest Therapy guide with the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy.’
The appeal of forest bathing is that it is more than just going for a walk, says Liz.
‘I feel such a connection with nature which has deepened considerably since I started doing this work. It’s so different to just going for a walk, because generally when we walk, we tend to be on a mission to get from A to B. Rarely do we slow down enough to really connect through our senses to what is around us.’ ‘Forest Bathing offers so many benefits,’ continues Liz.
‘It helps repair the relationships with ourselves, with others, with the natural environment and with time. So many of us are lost in our heads and that’s where stress, anxiety and depression is created. When we experience through our senses and our body, we are not lost in thoughts.
‘We’re always in such a rush to get everything done and really when we go on these slow walks it’s almost like time evaporates. We aren’t in a rush to get anywhere; we are simply being.’
A forest bathing session usually takes place in a group and Liz suggests a few ‘invitations’ throughout to help people connect to nature. After each invitation, Liz will offer a talking piece, normally a stick or a leaf, and whoever is holding the talking piece is the one who has the opportunity to speak; everyone else listens. They will often talk about what they’ve heard, smelt, seen, or how they feel. We’ve used a similar method in my house when the family needs to have an important conversation, the person with the wooden spoon gets to speak.
‘It means that the other people in the circle are wholeheartedly listening,’ Liz says.
‘It’s a different way of having a conversation. We don’t normally listen properly as we’re usually thinking about what we can say next. When people have the opportunity to express themselves in this way, and really be heard, it often makes a real difference.’
Forest bathing is about slowing down. Taking it all in. Appreciating what’s around us.
Some advocates of forest bathing are even calling for it to be prescribed on the NHS, the Duchess of Cambridge is a fan too, so it’s certainly worth giving it a try.
Take it slow
During your daily exercise, slow down.
Find a space to stop for five minutes and initially bring your full awareness to your breath.
Then begin to awaken your senses. Feel that connection to the earth beneath you.
Touch the ground, the grass, get a sense of the textures.
Then bring your attention to your sense of smell and notice all scents in the air, maybe moving your head from side to side to pick up scents from different directions.
Notice what tastes are present in your mouth, maybe then sip in the air around you.
Connect to the sounds – noticing all sounds, birds, wind, water, even man-made sounds.
Try it at home
Try walking bare foot. Earthing (or grounding) brings a host of benefits including better sleep and reduced pain.
If you can’t be outside, there are still ways in which you can introduce calming nature into your day. If you have house plants, really spend tending to them.
On your screens, try a natural screen saver: trees, mountains, rivers.
If you can look out on to trees even better. Having a view of nature from a window makes people feel better and reduces stress.