I first heard of forest bathing from a Japanese friend of mine. With her soft, broken English she described the wash of peace that surrounds you as the stress of the body and the mind fall away gently. The space they held being opened up allowing you to breathe fully again, and ease beauty into the areas which previously held the discomfort. She was preaching to the converted, I love spending time in forests; enjoying their structure, the multitude of greens and welcoming the fresh feeling I felt around the forest trees, plus research has shown that as little as 15 minutes ‘forest time’ can reduce anxiety and boost the immune system . “Forest bathing’, she said “was a little different.” Giving me yet another reason to go and visit Japan.
Skip forward five months, and I’m sitting surprised whilst I plan a forthcoming trip to Norfolk; Forest Holidays have forest bathing listed under ‘Treats and Activities’ as a newly introduced experience. If there was ever a clear message from the Forest Gods, this was it. I was fated to go forest bathing!
As a busy working mum of three, and a loving wife, I dutifully hijacked my husband’s birthday break treat and signed myself up for the forest bathing experience, which requires three hours of your undistracted time. With a Golden Oak treehouse cabin as our home-away-from-home, set amidst the adventure-inspiring Thorpe forest, the hubby was thrilled he had such territory to keep the children content in... Did I mention the cabin came with its own private hot tub out on the deck? I expect it was put to good use whilst I took part in a completely different bathing experience!
At 9am on a Tuesday morning, I met with Charlie, the forest ranger who was to lead the forest bathing session. Our group was small, but held enough easy-going enthusiasm to excite us for the new experience. Charlie gently enquired on how much we knew about forest bathing, or ‘shinrin-yoku’ as it is known in its Japanese therapy name; we all admitted to knowing nothing. I had imagined lying on the forest floor, allowing myself to be gently covered by the autumn leaves as they fell from above. As it happened, the experience was far more intimate and healing, and so we began...
Charlie invited us to look down to the ground of our meeting point and pick up an object we were drawn to. A feather; a leaf; a stone, we each held something. “I invite you to place your worries, burdens, troubles into your items and leave them here during our session; if you choose, you may collect them as we finish.” We had already left our phones/cameras/devices in our cabins, leaving our troubles here seemed like a logical step, and we responded to Charlie’s opening invitation. We took a gentle stroll, further into the forest and talked amongst ourselves, becoming a little more familiar with each other, to unwittingly lose the strange in stranger, thus permitting ourselves to be more open, honest, and able to reap the maximum benefits of the healing nature of forest bathing.
In a wonderful series of gentle “invitations”, Charlie continued to introduce us to this marvellous and mindful journey through the forest bathing. Awakening our senses, allowing each one its own time to flourish and strengthen in the healing forest space, to then draw them together so that we felt our bodies as “one harmonious organ”. She used ‘talking pieces’, as each person took their turn to hold a forest item and share what they chose of their personal experience within each stage of the forest bathing.
I particularly enjoyed the slow, slow walk. I had thought of myself as quite a relaxed person, but I initially found it tricky to slow right down. Once I did, I experienced so much more of what the forest had to offer, I saw so much in each square foot of forest ground, so much life and colour in a landscape that was retreating into winter.
I also felt a little intimidated by our surroundings at one point. To think of trees as sentient beings, and in constant communication with each other in the forest environment... I felt I was intruding, I felt small, I felt humble, I then went on to feeling welcomed, to feeling known, to feeling forgiven for my not-so-bright-moments, to feeling embraced, to feeling a healing sensation. This, this was forest bathing. This was shirin-yoku. This is what the healing powers of trees can do.
The session came to its conclusion with a tea ceremony, made with foraged blackberries and bramble leaves, and the first cup of the steaming brew was offered to our gracious host, The Forest. Thank you.