Have you heard of forest bathing? Contributor, Hannah Stuart-Leach, recalls her first experience from her recent trip to Washington D.C. and reveals the surprising benefits for both the body and the mind.

When I first heard of ‘forest bathing’ the cynic in me assumed it must be a marketing gimmick – I was wrong.

The Japanese practice of ‘shinrin-yoku’ is a scientifically-backed mindfulness therapy, which helps stressed-out city folk establish a greater connection with nature and feel more at peace. Studies have found forest bathing reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, bolsters the immune system and improves mood and mental agility.

Keen to try it, I arranged to meet a certified guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy, Clare Kelley, during a recent trip to Washington D.C. The capital of America may not spring to mind when you picture communing with nature, but it’s blessed with an impressive array of green spaces, from small secret gardens perfect for contemplation to Rock Creek Park with its 32 miles of hiking trails.

With a friend in tow, we set off down Lovers’ Lane to Dumbarton Oaks Park, one of Clare’s favourite places to forest bathe in the city, and she explained its feminist backstory.

“You’ll notice, once we’re inside, all the buildings are concealed by trees”, said Clare, “that’s deliberate.” The park was designed by pioneering landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand as part of the grand Dumbarton Oaks Estate; its wild, wooded feel a deliberate contrast to the polite and ordered house gardens she also created. She was the first professional woman architect in America.

 

Slowing down
Despite being forewarned that “forest bathing is not a hike or a nature walk”, the biggest surprise for me was how little walking was involved. When faced with the great outdoors my instinct is to get going, but I was forced to resist the urge to get the heart racing – forest bathing is about slowing down.

Instead, Clare guided us through a series of ‘invitations’, or exercises. To ease us in she asked us to notice what was around us and then, if we wished, say it out loud – the gradient of colour on the changing leaves, from green to gold; the stone bridge over the stream; the blue sky.

It felt a bit odd, but the guided meditation that followed helped me unwind. With our eyes closed, and hands outstretched, we retreated inside ourselves, free from inhibitions or expectations. We listened for sounds near and far, from the aeroplanes in the distance to the water rushing over the rocks beneath the bridge.

Clare herself, also a yoga teacher, was the best advert for her nature therapy. Her skin glowed, her green eyes sparkled, and her auburn hair, casually braided, was thick and glossy. But she only found forest bathing after a period of ill health that left her struggling with fatigue and cognitive difficulties. Nature, she told me, had been her nurse.

 

Being present
We journeyed through further invitations as, step by step, we gently crunched and crackled round the park like curious bear cubs. Most exercises were private, encouraging us to develop our own relationship with the forest, but there were partner games too, including one where we took turns finding a view we could both mimic with our bodies – like a patch of fluffy-looking grass swaying in the wind.
At one point we were asked to introduce ourselves to a tree in whichever way felt natural (I went for the cliched hug, but it felt satisfyingly soothing). And I loved the ‘sit spot’, where we sought out our own place to sit quietly and meditate on our surroundings. I picked a bench amid a handsome collection of native trees and closed my eyes. I felt the solid ground beneath my feet supporting my body and the refreshing bite of the breeze whipping at my hair. I focused in on the crisp flutter of the leaves overhead, and listened to the delicate drop of those blown from their branches. I let go: my jaw unclenched; my shoulders eased down and my breath slowed to a steady in… out…. in… out….

There was poetry along the way, too, which gave me a deeper appreciation for the experience. ‘Lost’ by David Wagoner, an American nature poet, stuck with me. “Wherever you are is called Here,” Clare read carefully, reminding us to stay present. “Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.”

 

Giving thanks
Shrugging off the conventions and distractions of the modern world is not easy for most of us, programmed to be always-on and instantly reachable. Clare soon learnt to be strict about time keeping, so her busy forest bathers wouldn’t be checking their phones. Only once people can trust they won’t be late back to work can they even begin to switch-off from the day-to-day and tune into the forest. For me, just having a guide there gave me the permission I needed to relax.

We finished with a beautiful tea ceremony. Clare laid out a colourful cloth mat with an artful arrangement of twigs and clementines at its centre. She handed round the fruit and I made a conscious effort not to finish mine too quickly; to see the vivid orange of the peel and savour the softness of each segment, the sweetness of the juice. Then I felt my cold fingers warm around the Japanese-style teacup as she poured her special blend of oatstraw, chamomile, Russian sage blossom and rose hips – all thoughtfully foraged from the free bounty surrounding us. I noticed a fourth cup. “Oh, that’s for the forest,” explained Clare, and we watched the earth drink up as she tipped out the steaming, fragrant tea. “It’s a thank you for having us.”

 

Forest bathing in the UK
Get an introduction to forest bathing on one of Forest Holidays’ 3-hour experiences – including a tea ceremony – with a qualified Forest Therapy Guide. Available at Blackwood Forest and Thorpe Forest as part of a cabin stay or separately.

words by Hannah Stuart-Leach

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