Forest bathing is a Japanese practice hailed as a holy grail for health and wellbeing, so this Stylist contributor set out to see what all the fuss is about.
When I was asked to try forest bathing I saw myself taking a nymph-like dip in a highly instagrammable forest pool, and so the night before I was due to go, I checked the forecast, packed multiple bikinis and set off.
If you haven’t heard of forest bathing, you’d be forgiven for making the same assumption that I did. Translated from the Japanese Shinrin-yoku, forest bathing means to ‘take in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘bathe in the forest’. My overnight bag would have been far better packed with something other than than fresh white trainers and multiple swimsuits, to be honest.
Developed in Japan in the 1980s, Shinrin-yoku has become a trusted part of preventative health care and healing in the country, with an ever-expanding body of scientific research to support its effectiveness, along with its growing popularity across the globe.
The popularity is in part thanks to the fact that studies have found forest walks decrease levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. One study even found that subjects who gazed at a ‘forest setting’ for 20 minutes had 13.4% lower cortisol levels than those gazing in an urban setting.
It’s also noted that, after forest walks, our parasympathetic nervous system activity increases (conserving energy, prompting rest and increasing gland and intestinal activity) and both blood pressure and heart rate decrease.
It’s no secret that stress takes its toll on our skin, brain function, overall health and existing conditions. Even our immune systems can suffer as our front line defenders are suppressed by stress hormones, so in theory forest bathing is something the majority of us could probably benefit from, me included. Especially since I got my first ever eczema breakout this year due to stress, along with a sty the size of a peanut and, at my most frazzled, I missed periods.
So I reasoned that, although a forest bathing experience might not get me a bikini shot for the ‘gram, it would be good for me in other ways.
What happens during forest bathing?
Our guide Helena Skoog (Skoog translates to forest in Swedish, I kid you not), takes groups out from the Spread Eagle Hotel and Spa once a month for a two hour session in Midhurst, West Sussex. Looking exactly as one would expect a forest bathing guide to look (i.e, dressed in mossy greens and brown suede with feathers in her cap), Skoog found me a spare pair of wellies and thick socks while I stuffed my fresh white kicks back into my bag as quickly as I could.
Our group was entirely female, mostly in their sixties or seventies, meaning they were far less phased than me by the first instruction: to turn off our phones.
At the entrance to the woods we were told to see stepping through the gate as stepping into another world; one in which we should remain largely silent, give each other space as we walked, and adopt the mischievous attitude of a child at play.
Setting out down a path, Skoog asked us to silently greet the plants that we passed. Upon reaching a clearing with huge trees, we each had to choose one and introduce ourselves.
“All right big fella’, how’s it going? Bet you think we’re a right bunch of idiots,” was how the internal dialogue to my chosen tree went, mostly because it’s natural to resort to humour when feeling awkward - and if I’d had a friend with me to swap sideways glances or covert smiles, I would likely have stayed in that head space. But, with no one to make wise cracks to, and keen to really make sure I got the full experience, I found myself taking things seriously.
Most of the exercises or instructions centered on focusing your senses; stopping to contemplate simple things and tuning in to their presence. We were there to connect to the natural network that spans our entire planet. We stretched our hearing to the skies, then centering it right down to our breath, we ate blackberries straight from the bush and walked barefoot on long wet grass.
A misstep saw me dip my toes in cowpat and, after initial panic, I wasn’t that phased. Gone was the ill-prepared, white trainered Londoner, I had poo on my feet and didn’t care. Mother nature has claimed me now, I thought. But it seems that even children of the earth have limits, and after smelling handfuls of soil, the suggestion we taste it was a stretch too far. Not wanting to let myself down, I braced myself and dipped my tongue into the tiniest crumb.
I know it probably doesn’t sound like most hygienic of days but it was all perfectly safe. In fact, evergreen trees secrete natural defensive chemicals known as phytoncides, which have been associated with improving the activity of our own immune defences. The positive effects of forest bathing have been studied in everything from cardiovascular issues to cancer, as well as significant mental health problems and general well-being.
Next, we placed our hands on the soil and connected ‘directly to the heart of Mother Earth’, and were told to speak to her. All I could say was sorry, sorry for what we’re doing to the planet. I found out later that’s what we’d all said.
Mother Earth theatrically replied with a rumble of thunder, and while my palm was still in the dirt, it started pouring. After taking time to consider how the smells and sounds had changed with the storm, and to drink rainwater from the leaves (which seemed pretty normal by that point), we began our journey back.
Reaching The Spread Eagle, wet through from the rain, we were met with warm towels and rushed into the changing rooms to strip off, blow drying each other’s clothes and pass round flip-flops. We emerged to forest berry fizz mocktails, which we drank in our robes, talking through the shared experience over a group lunch. By this (warm and dry) point, the downpour felt almost like an added kick to excursion. I felt unexpectedly amazing.
How it feels after forest bathing
This session certainly pushed me and taught me how to approach that connection, but you can start small. The main take away I’m putting into practice is to choose one spot (it can be a bush, a rock in a garden or park) and return daily, weekly or monthly, become familiar with it over time, through the seasons, and foster a personal connection you can draw from.
Forest bathing wasn’t relaxing like a massage or a bubble bath, it was unfamiliar, demanded focus and was, at times, uncomfortable. But I felt calm, like somebody had hit the pause button on my world, but the real relaxation came afterwards and life no longer seems so overwhelming, which is a feeling that’s stayed with me (the effects of forest bathing are said to last up to 30 days). It makes sense, after all, that we really are all just part of this giant eco-system and maybe we’ve strayed a little too far from it.
Forest bathing has done me a world of good - far more than the Instagrammable forest pool in my imagination would have done, anyway.
Images: Elena Chabo/Helena Skoog