“When I am among the trees,

they give off such hints of gladness.

I would almost say that they save me, and daily.” 

Mary Oliver

I am sure that most of us can relate to Mary Oliver’s heartfelt message about the importance of trees in our lives. Trees do save us both figuratively and literally. Maintaining our connection with nature is more vital now than it has ever been. Stress is at an all time high, and our brains and bodies are overstimulated by our ever increasing digital lives.

We are so fortunate to live in an area that provides ample opportunities for us to plug into the beauty of nature every day. In minutes it is possible to leave the noise, bustle, and stress of our modern lives and immerse ourselves, or ‘bathe’, in the lushness and peace of the temperate rainforest. The craggy branches of hemlock, fir and cedar welcome us in, inviting us to be cocooned in a blanket of moss, lichen and ferns. Here, the shrill whine of sirens are exchanged for the soft chatter of birds, sitting in traffic breathing exhaust, for sitting on a mossy log breathing in the fresh sweet scent of trees and damp earth, walking on hard concrete for walking on spongy soft fir needles … if you are already feeling relaxed just by reading this, then you have an idea of what the concept of forest bathing is.

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku originated in Japan in the 1980’s, where it has links to ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices. Literally translated into English, ‘shinrin’ means forest and ‘yoku’ means bath, where bath refers to soaking in the forest atmosphere by using your senses. Forest bathing isn’t about jogging, or hiking. It is not meant to be physically challenging or have any definite goal. It is slow, and meditative, and works on a different level that can be approached by anyone of any age or physical ability, making its health benefits readily available to everyone.

In Japan shinrin-yoku has been studied for many years. Its many purported health benefits are supported by a large body of scientific evidence and as a result it has become an integral part of the medical system in Japan. Forest bathing has been scientifically shown to positively affect our health in many ways, including decreased cortisol (stress hormones), decreased blood pressure and blood sugar, improved sleep, mood, mental health, creativity, ability to focus, memory and cognitive skills. According to Dr Quin Li, the world’s foremost expert in forest medicine, “by fully opening our senses we are able to bridge the gap between ourselves and the natural world”. In part forest bathing works because it connects us back to our natural state, or biophillia, which lives in harmony with nature.

To start, find a forest near you. Choose a location that you feel relaxed in, that is quiet, and that offers lots of interesting features to engage your senses. The sound of streams and ponds will enhance the experience. Lynn Canyon, Lynn Headwaters Park, the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, Capilano Regional Park, Stanley Park to name just a few spots that offer lots of variety, some of which include trails that are accessible to strollers and wheelchairs. My favorite forest spots in West Vancouver are Lighthouse Park, Whyte Lake, and the Yew Lake and Old Growth Forest Loop trail in Cypress Provincial Park.  If possible choose to visit your forest spot earlier in the day and during the week when there are fewer people.

Before starting your walk either leave your electronic devices at home or turn them off and put them in your pack or pocket so that you can fully immerse yourself in nature without distractions. Get ready to slow down, you will cover no more than one kilometer in 2-4 hrs. It is important to slow down as you move through the forest so you can see, hear and feel more.

Walk down a trail until you are completely surrounded by trees. Stop and spend at least 20 minutes either standing or sitting, taking in all that is around you. Quietly list what you notice, trees, animals, stumps. Feel your feet on the earth, you may imagine roots extending from your feet into the ground. Breathe in deeply and gently let go of any intrusive stressful thoughts floating through your mind and allow nature to flow in instead, through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Then return to mindful walking using your senses to guide you.

SEE the trees, fungi, moss and lichen. Look up and down trees for animals, look closely at crevices in the bark. Notice all the colors, shapes and textures that surround you. Notice patterns of light sifting through the leaves and branches of the trees, known as “Komorebi” in Japan.
HEAR the wind rustling in the leaves, bird songs, or running water. Really open up your ears to hear subtle sounds. In late October while walking in the forest I heard a slight swish of dry leaves under the salal next to the trail. I looked down through the intertwining branches of the salal and was thrilled to see a beautiful sleek yellow striped garter snake looking back at me. You never know what wonderful surprises you can see when you slow down and open your senses fully.
FEEL the cool dampness of moss, the prickliness of a fir cone, the soft needles on a hemlock branch, and the strength of a tree trunk against your back.
SMELL the fresh air given off by the plants and trees, earthiness of rotting logs and leaves, take a bit of sap on your finger and breathe in its sweet scent.

Finish your forest bath with a relaxing cup of tea or healthy meal or snack before returning to your normal pace of life. If a two hour walk is too much at first or you are pressed for time you can always start brief and build up. Even taking a 10-minute nature break in your own backyard has heath benefits.

“May your time in nature lead you to yourself…” –Shikoba-

If you want to learn more about Forest Bathing read ‘Forest Bathing: How Tress Can Help You Find Health and Happiness’,  by Qing Li

Forest Musings by Eleanor – Ecology Centre staff