Written by: Elizabeth Broomhall Apr 13, 2020
As wellness trends go, ‘forest bathing’ is among my favorites. Also known as shinrin yoku, the concept emerged in Japan in the 1980s, but today it’s becoming popular in the West too. Simply put, forest bathing is the practice of walking mindfully through the woods and taking it all in through our senses – and it’s believed to boost our mental and physical well-being. At its core, it’s about connecting with nature – something that deep down we all know is good for us.
Ironically, as we grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and are urged to stay at home, opportunities to spend time outdoors seem to be getting fewer. But, according to experts, there are still plenty of ways to engage in nature therapy – we just need to get creative.
Gardens, windows and secret routes
The garden is said to be an ideal place to connect with nature during the lockdown
“The best place to begin is, in fact, the land that we live upon,” says Ben Page, director of training at the California-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. He joins others in pointing to spaces like gardens and balconies as ideal alternatives to public areas and suggests “grounding experiences” to alleviate stress and anxiety.
For some, it may be as simple as walking barefoot through the grass or putting hands in the earth.
But even if you don’t have outdoor space at home, experts are adamant you can get your daily dose of nature simply by opening or looking out of a window.
“You can see the stars, follow the clouds, you can see the sunrise and sunset,” says Alex Gesse, one of the founders of Europe’s Forest Therapy Institute (FTI).
Most of us can listen to the sounds of the birds, he adds, stressing that even in cities we are surrounded by nature.
In some countries, residents are, of course, still permitted to leave their homes.
In the U.K. members of the public can go out for exercise once a day, while the U.S. Forest Service says citizens can visit national forests but are encouraged to follow health and safety guidelines.
“If you can get outdoors, make sure you take in some of the early morning light, as that is best for your circadian rhythms, promoting restful sleep,” adds Shirley Gleeson, cofounder of FTI.
“Sleep disturbance is a major side effect of the COVID-19 crisis and sleep disturbance is linked with a deterioration in both mental and physical health.”
Going off the beaten track and finding a spot away from others is another good idea, according to Stefan Batorijs, who founded Nature & Therapy UK in 2017 and who lectures at the University of Plymouth on the benefits of nature for mental health.
“The animal part of us has to be canny and has to go, ‘right, where can I go where there aren’t going to be other people?’”
He suggests taking the same route every day.
“When we go to somewhere familiar, it triggers a kind of endorphin-like effect,” he says.
“There are so many unknowns in our life at the moment… what we need to do is to create some sense of personal security.”
Bringing the outside in - Virtual forest bathing has the benefit of allowing participants to see new places.
Experiencing the sights and sounds of nature through digital media is also an option.
U.S. nonprofit Forest Bathing International has virtual walks on its website led by guides in different countries, so participants can explore their own locations or the place their guide is broadcasting from.
Executive director Pamela Wirth believes these walks can relieve that “cooped up” feeling, while allowing participants to share experiences and ‘visit’ new places.
Using apps, reading stories about nature or watching nature documentaries and films, are also thought to be helpful.
In 2017, the BBC published findings of research with University of California, Berkeley, showing that watching nature programs makes us happier while reducing feelings of stress and anxiety.
Nature filmmaker Nitin Das, who founded the Healing Forest project in India and whose YouTube channel has 1.3 million subscribers, says each person has to find a technique that works for them.
Having plants inside and using forest essential oils are ways to bring the outside in, say experts
We can also, quite literally, bring the outside in.
“Surrounding yourself with houseplants, forest essential oils, birdsong and different natural textures can uplift your mood and calm the nervous system,” says Gleeson.
Batorijs recommends tree essential oils such as hinoki, camphor and sugi, and plants such as the Easter Cactus.
“There’s been quite a lot of research done to show that there are particular plants which are extremely beneficial for creating negative ions in the house, which is obviously calming,” he says, adding that some plants can also “cleanse and purify the atmosphere.”
Ultimately, experts agree that during the current crisis it’s important to connect with nature in any way we can. It may even be an opportunity to notice things we normally miss during our hectic lives.
Gesse sums up: “Now is a nice moment to take a look from your window, because things are moving. No one stops the spring: not the coronavirus; not us.”