Forest Bathing: Immersing You With Nature
By Teh Chin Liang
In a beautifully landscaped garden behind the magnificent Prague Castle, a guided tour was taking a group of people through the lush surroundings that embody the essence of the medieval era.
The guide, Veronika, gives participants a heads-up about the walk, what is in store for them, and the benefits they can expect to gain upon completion of the walk.
Shinrin-Yoku in Japanese
This is not an ordinary stroll in the park, but rather, a transcendent experience, known as “Forest Bathing” or “Shinrin-Yoku” in Japanese – a traditional practice of mindfully immersing oneself in nature and using all senses to observe natural surroundings.
Veronika and Joanie, Forest and Nature Therapy guides from Shinrin-Yoku United, shared with me tips on how to practice forest bathing in daily routines, even while traveling, to reconnect with nature.
How did the practice of forest bathing come about?
Veronika: Shinrin means ‘forest’ and ‘Yoku’ means ‘bath’. Shinrin-Yoku started gaining popularity in Japan in the ’80s as the country geared towards a fast-paced economy.
As people spent more time indoors, the government saw a rise in cancer and autoimmune diseases. At the same time, research showed that Forest Bathing significantly improves human health and wellbeing.
What inspired you to become a forest bathing guide?
Veronika: I was inspired by the simplicity and accessibility of this practice. This practice goes hand in hand with my other interests, such as meditation, mindfulness, and sensory experiences like perfume-making, aromatherapy, and being in nature.
Joanie: It was my love for animals, wildlife and nature that inspired me to become a forest bathing guide. I find forest bathing complements everything in my quest for balance in life.
What are the benefits associated with the forest bathing?
Joanie: Early studies of Shinrin-Yoku showed that trees and plants release phytoncides – airborne chemicals with antibacterial and antifungal properties to fight off disease and insects. Inhaling phytoncides can boost the activity of natural killer cells in humans, which help prevent disease.
This practice reduces stress and blood pressure, enhances creativity, focus, mental clarity and prevents burnout.
Explain the process of Shinrin-Yoku walks, both in-person and virtual, and what participants can expect during the walks?
Joanie: My session involves regular pauses for sitting and engaging in sensory activities that are known as “invitations.”
“Invitations” refer to guided activities or prompts designed to help participants connect with nature and engage their senses in a mindful way. Examples of “Invitations” are mindfully observing nature, listening to the chirps of the birds, feeling the textures of tree barks etc.
Veronika: My session includes several short “invitations” that vary in length, from a few minutes to half an hour. A sharing session follows where participants are encouraged to share their experiences, or simply sit and listen to the sounds of the forest.
The sequence of ‘invitations’ is designed to help people slow down, cultivate a deeper sense of calm, and enhance their perception of the world around them.
It is a great way to awaken your senses, heighten your awareness, and fully absorb your surroundings, particularly while traveling, when we are able to see the world with more clarity.
A session of Shinrin-Yoku can last anywhere between 1 and 4 hours
Joanie: Even in remotely guided sessions, Shinrin-Yoku benefits still apply. Participants join from virtually anywhere — a garden, in the woods, or inside their home.
I will propose “invitations” for them to engage. They are encouraged to immerse themselves in these “invitations” for 5-20 minutes before reconvening for a sharing session.
Veronika: The online sessions are like a visual meditation guided from a distant location. Participants can join me on virtual tours through their electronic devices.
It’s exciting to hear them share their experiences of observing a flower in a forest in Costa Rica, listening to waves in France, or feeling the winds in Italian vineyards.
It is fascinating to see how these sensory experiences influence their thoughts and emotions despite being in different locations.
How does Shinrin-Yoku enhance the travel experience?
Veronika: Shinrin-Yoku can be a great addition to tourism, whether it is eco-tourism, wellness tourism, or adventure travel. When traveling, we often have jam-packed itineraries and may feel the need to take a break and relax.
Travelers can take advantage of Shinrin-Yoku to experience the restorative effects of nature.
Indulging in the timeless practice of Shinrin-Yoku can be an unforgettable aspect of the journey. It could elevate your overall travel experience.
When we slow down in a forest, animals might get curious and come closer to examine us. It is like we are acting weird to them!
But that’s not all – when we take our time, we get to appreciate all the little things around us, like tiny critters that we would totally miss if we were rushing through the woods.
Joanie: We partner with hotels and travel agencies to provide forest bathing experiences for tourists visiting places like New York, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, France, Italy, and New Zealand.
Participants can connect with nature and mingle with people through forest bathing, enriching their cultural and environmental experience.
Forest bathing walks allow you to experience the place with all your senses, uncovering new perceptions and discoveries about the place.
It’s a perfect way to delve deeper and establish a meaningful connection with a place.
Describe the Shinrin-Yoku walks offered by Shinrin-Yoku United in New York City, Czech Republic, and France, and what makes each walk unique?
Joanie: Each of our walks offers a unique experience, from a community garden in New York City to a bird sanctuary in Central Park.
Our walks are tailored to the specific environment and culture of each location, with different “invitations” depending on the landscape’s features and weather.
For example, in New York City, each green space has its own unique character.
You might stumble upon a tiny community garden tucked away in the East Village; Discover a quiet bird sanctuary hidden within the bustling expanse of Central Park.
In another neighborhood, the sounds of the city harmonize with the songs of birds or the flow of water.
There are parts of New York City that make you feel as if you are deep in the wild.
For example, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, New York. It spans over 32 square miles, making it the largest natural open space in New York City.
This refuge is a haven for migratory birds, with more than 330 species of migratory birds, including water, land, and shore birds.
Every forest bathing destination where I guide has its unique characteristics, including diverse flora, fauna, historical significance, and cultural influences that cater to the individual preferences.
We also offer local snacks and teas at the closing circle, as a way for participants to experience the true essence of the area’s heritage.
For example, in our Central America walks, we treat participants to unique local fruits and teas.
Veronika: In Prague, my Shinrin-Yoku session takes place in a picturesque castle garden that is protected by UNESCO.
It is a beautiful garden with ponds, meadows, and an overall peaceful atmosphere that is perfect for forest bathing therapy.
I especially like the sunset walks, where we get to see the slow darkening of the sky, while we are still able to safely navigate our way out of the park.
I am lucky to have access to a beautiful arboretum filled with trees from all over the world. It is a great spot to visit year-round with different groups of people, as every season has its own charm.
In spring, you can smell the sweet fragrance of the Japanese magnolia. In summer, the fresh moss and grass feel so soft and ticklish on your feet.
When fall arrives, the leaves turn a spectrum of colors. In winter, we feel the warmth of the sequoia barks as the snow covers the whole forest. Walking barefoot there is especially intimate.
I would love to guide walks in Asia one day, especially in Bali. I have an affinity for that spiritual land.
I am also interested in meeting with a local guide in Japan to learn how our perceptions of nature vary and converge.
What are some of the most memorable experiences you have had while leading Shinrin-Yoku walks?
Joanie: Last autumn, I guided a mother and daughter on a walk at Snug Botanical Garden in Staten Island.
While we were doing an “invitation” about “Making friends with a tree”, the mother – who was originally from Ukraine – spotted a type of chestnut that she had used to gather as a child.
It was really touching to see her share her memories with her daughter who had grown up in the US.
In another session, I was with a group of ten 3-4 years old children, observing an inchworm and an earthworm slowly passing each other.
To my surprise, the children remained silent for a long 10 minutes, as they were completely absorbed by the awe-inspiring display of nature.
What recommendations do you have for readers to better connect with nature during their travels?
Joanie: My recommendation is to find a spot in nature, or by a window where you can take a few minutes each day to simply be present.
If you’re traveling, take a pause and appreciate your surroundings using all your senses. Ask yourself: “What am I noticing right now?” and take in the sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds around you.
Check if there are any guided Shinrin-Yoku walks or tours available in the destinations you plan to visit. You can reach out to us at Shinrin-Yoku United and see if we have a session for you to sign up in your destinations.
Forest bathing can transform your relationship with nature and the way you experience it. By touching the softness of moss, feeling the grass beneath our feet, inhaling the salty freshness of the ocean or the sharp scent of pine needles, listening to the rustling and movement of leaves, feeling the warmth of the sun or the sprinkle of rain on our faces, or tasting the snow on our tongues, you can tap into the restorative power of the natural world.