The practise of forest bathing meditation goes far beyond just taking a hike. It’s an immersive experience for all of your senses that can evoke significant physical and emotional changes. Also known as forest therapy, here I explore our ancient connection with woodland and how trees really can enhance your wellbeing. This guide also includes a list of the best forests in the UK.
There is something almost magical about spending time outside, surrounded by nature and away from all the usual trappings, cars, buildings, busy roads, that are part of most of our daily lives. Almost any time spent in nature can heighten your sense of mindfulness and increase your awareness of the natural world around you.
But the increasingly popular practice of “forest bathing” takes mindfulness a step further. “We define forest bathing as going into a forested area or other natural places and spending time in a relaxed way, without any agenda or preconceptions,” explains Amos Clifford, founder of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs and the author of Your Guide to Forest Bathing.
And you don’t necessarily have to be deep in the woods to reap the benefits. With a significant number of us living in urban areas, it’s not always easy to access traditional royal forests. Still, almost any green space can provide at least some assistance. “It’s a continuum; the more removed you are from the human-built world, the better the experience,” Clifford says. If the only access you have to nature is a window box garden, that’s still enough to offer some benefits.Research has shown that immersing yourself in the great outdoors helps to reduce levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue Click To Tweet
Stepping into woodland is a feeling like no other. That sense of history, the deep connection with nature and the power of being surrounded by living things that help keep was alive, walking among trees is both grounding and therapeutic. Calming, mystical, majestic and nourishing, trees speak to the human soul; and there has never been a moment in living memory where that desire to immerse ourselves in nature has been more vital.
The history of our bond with trees goes back centuries, where traditionally, livelihood, nourishment, safety and shelter have all been provided by our native forests. No other natural habitat has offered so much to humans. Still, we’ve not always treated it with the respect it deserves. Throughout history, England’s ancient forests have been depleted to provide building material (most notably for naval ships) and fuel for our growing population. By 1905, England’s forests and woods had shrunk to a land coverage of just 5.2%. Still, thankfully, in 1919, the Forestry Commission was set up to help rebuild our forests and introduce sustainable woodland management plans.
Today, the UK’s forest cover is up to 13%, but charity Friends of the Earth is calling for that to be doubled by 2045. If you’re wondering where all these new trees might be planted, the answer lies in our diets. If we all ate less meat, farmland (which currently uses 70% of the land in the UK) would be freed up for the planting of woodland.
Why are trees so important? Not do they filter pollutants in the air and water via their leaves and bark, but they also absorb the high levels of CO2 currently being produced by human activity. This heat-trapping gas is one of the main culprits in global warming and has also been shown to be a significant factor in the growing acidification of the seas; something that is impacting coral reefs and marine life.
Our wooded friends also hold soil in place to prevent the ground from being washed away and provide homes to countless species of birds, insects and animals. Every single one of the 3.1 trillion trees on earth plays a vital role in our ecosystem. Without them, quite simply, our planet’s time would be up.
A Deep-Rooted Connection
Our forests have long been sources of mystery and legend, so perhaps it’s on surprising to learn that trees can talk to each other. Ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered that they communicate via a network of underground fungi, sending out information about their needs and providing nutrients to each other. Next time you take a walk in the woods, consider what is happening right under your feet!
Forest Bathing Meditation vs Hiking
Forest bathing has its formal origins in Japan. It is influenced by the traditional religion of Shinto, which believes all things have spirits, including mountains, rivers and ancient trees. Clifford defines forest bathing as a way to thoroughly soak in the atmosphere around you. “The air through which we walk is undoubtedly similar to water.
It flows in waves and moves in currents. Sound travels and spreads in layered patterns of information. In these ways and more, the atmosphere is much like the seas and the oceans. The air around us is an ocean in which we have always bathed,” Clifford writes in Your Guide to Forest Bathing.
Strolling allows you to focus on all the ways a living forest can touch you, from the breeze on your skin to the sound of the leaves crunching below your feet or the birds chirping around you, the movement of the trees in the wind and the scent of the soil. “By giving attention to your senses, you turn down the volume on the noise of inner thoughts,” he writes. “Your senses will bring you into the present moment, where you can take in all the delights the forest has to offer. When the forest is allowed to live within you, it supports your body’s natural capacity for healing.”
This seems especially crucial in our ever-busy lives and non-stop culture. “Deep in our psyche we know that something is broken; modernity is destroying us as individuals as well as destroying other species on the planet,” he says. “But deep inside of ourselves in areas that are blind to the thinking mind, there’s a deep wisdom that is calling us back to nature in many different ways.”
Note that forest bathing is not the same thing as hiking. Hiking may have many benefits, including aspects of mindfulness. Still, with forest bathing, it’s all about being at your present destination, not trying to cover a set distance. The pace is extraordinarily slow: Clifford says he can sometimes walk no more than 100 yards in a three-hour forest bathing excursion. And there’s that heightened use of your senses to receive the atmosphere and energy around you.
Feeling the Change
A growing body of research has shown how being outdoors (especially in a forest-like atmosphere) can boost your health. A 2015 review from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found a wide range of benefits tied to nature, including reduced rates of diabetes, improved surgical healing, lower rates of migraines and a reduction in cancer and respiratory diseases. On the flip side, the less green a person’s surroundings, the higher their risk of morbidity and mortality.
Studies have shown that the forest air contains airborne chemicals called phytoncides, which plants produce to protect themselves from insects. They also have antibacterial and antifungal attributes. When we breathe in these phytochemicals, we may increase the number of immune cells, specifically natural killer cells. Other research has found that forest bathing may help decrease cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension and coronary artery disease while lowering blood pressure levels and stress-related hormones such as cortisol.
And there are undeniable benefits for our mental health. Immersing yourself in nature can help relieve the severity of depression and anxiety disorders, invoke a more profound sense of relaxation and make us less likely to ruminate.Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience Click To Tweet
Into the Woods
You can think of forest bathing as an enjoyable way to get outside and soak up some nature. Still, it’s often not as easy as just slipping on a pair of hiking boots and heading out to the trail. Forest bathing can, of course, be done on your own, but you may get more out of the experience by working with a forest therapist, Clifford says. “A therapist guide will open some of the doors for you,” he adds. “We train guides to provide a safe and effective container that helps people get the maximum benefit from the limited amount of time they can spend in the forest.”
There are currently about 400 trained guides in 27 countries and on six continents, and their numbers are rapidly growing, says Clifford. (Search for one in your area at natureandforesttherapy.org.). “We invite people to be in the mode of childlike exploration,” he notes. Groups often separate out and reconvene to share what they notice.
Most importantly, says Clifford, approach your experience without any set expectations. “The story I tell myself and offer to those I guide is that the forest will decide for each one of us what experience we need,” he writes. “No two of us will have the same experience. Trust that the forest will guide you to what will speak to you.”
What Does Forest Bathing Mean?
Get the most out of your time in nature by following a few general guidelines. Give yourself about two to four hours to complete this experience, and ideally, find a place where there’s minimal human intrusion (for example the sounds of traffic or construction). Here are the steps Clifford recommends to achieve an optimal flow and maximize your experience outdoors.
Have a firm intention to forest bathe: Beginning with a clear purpose helps prevent the walk from morphing into a hike or a time for conversation. The primary intention can be something such as “I will not hike, and I will be silent and attentive to my senses and the forest. For the next hour, I will simply be forest bathing.”
Find a threshold: A threshold is a place that marks a transition from one place to another. Using thresholds while on a forest bathing walk, invites the more than human world into a partnership that supports the journey. The entry sign at the beginning of the path is itself a threshold. A bridge over a stream could mark the transition from “here” to “there”. A single branch that arches over the trail or a bend in the path where there is a felt sense of entering the forest would be another example.
Stay in one place for at least 15 minutes: Use your senses to explore here, now. The first 15 or 20 minutes of a forest bathing experience doesn’t involve walking anywhere; simply stand or sit in one place. Staying in just one site like this establishes a mental framework for the pace of the entire walk. Sometimes so much wide variety is discovered that forest baths never move beyond the starting point, which is also known as “embodied awareness.”
Stroll for 20 minutes: Walk slowly, while silently noticing what is in motion in the forest. There is always movement, even when things seem perfectly still. Notice how strands of a web drift in the air, trees move in the breezes, birds fly by, and squirrels scramble in the branches, grasses bend, insects crawl.
Find “Infinite Possibilities“: Invitations are everywhere in the forest. The glass invites us to lie in it. The clouds ask us to gaze. The hawk suggests we spread our arms like wings and walk as if we were flying.
The steepest part of the trail invites us to slow down and notice how we carry our centre of gravity. The worm invites us to explore the soil. These are simple invitations, easy to discover. Choose a couple of invitations that are a good fit for the weather, the place, the people, and the mood.
This part of the journey is called “Infinite Possibilities” because the forest offers many choices, and can last up to two hours.
Sit in one spot for 20 minutes: Although the preferred time to sit is towards the end of the walk, it is not just an afterthought. When we do this at the end of our forest bathing walk, just before the tea ceremony, we are in a relaxed and attentive state of mind that is ideal for sitting. This is not seen as a formal meditation practice, and there are no expectations other than to find a place that feels right and simply sit there. You may choose to journal if you wish, but writing may distract you from noticing many things that might otherwise make themselves known.
Hold a tea ceremony: An ideal way to begin the transition out of the forest bath is to brew a pot of tea to share with those who have been your companions on the walk. Clifford prefers to use a lightweight backpacking stove or thermos of hot water to make “trail tea” from herbs he has gathered along the path. Of course, if you do not know your local plants and aren’t sure which ones are safe to use, you can also bring along some tea in a thermos.
End with the “Threshold of Incorporation”: This marks the end of the forest bath and your return to ordinary experiences. If you marked the threshold of connection to begin your walk, return to that spot or choose a new place to cross a second threshold to formally end the walk. Pause at the threshold and consider the gifts you have received on your walk. Invite them into your most profound awareness, knowing that these gifts will live on somewhere within you.
This is what incorporation actually means; to take into the body, in corpus. Step across the threshold, and return to ordinary life, now carrying the gifts the forest has given.The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness Click To Tweet
Where are the Best Woodland Wanders?
The best woods and forests to visit in the UK:
- Kielder Forest, Northumberland: England’s largest forest, Kielder, stretches over 250 square miles. This vast, beautiful woodland is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including roe deer, otter, red squirrels and badgers.
- New Forest, Hampshire: Atmospheric and breath-taking, this ancient woodland, once a royal hunting preserve and now a thriving working forest, teeming with wildlife, has so much to offer, and fall in love with.
- Tollymore Forest Park, Co Down: With the River Shimna flowing through the forest, this woodland is as beautiful as it is calming. If it looks familiar, that might be because it’s been a regular filming location for Game of Thrones.
- Glen Finglas, Stirling: Home to some of Scotland’s oldest trees, Glen Finglas also boasts stunning waterfalls, lochs and heathland. Best of all, many of the routes are accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs, so everyone gets to explore.
- Coed Felenryhd and Llennyrch, Maentwrog: Run by the Woodland Trust, this rare, Atlantic oak woodland is fringed by the dramatic waterfalls of the Afon Prysor gorge, Famed for its autumn colours, now is the time to go.
I hope you enjoyed my guide to forest bathing meditation and will give it a try next time you are outdoors. If you have any comments, questions or suggestions, please leave them below, and I will get back to you as soon as possible.