Jean o’Connor takes a walk through the woods to explore the ancient art of Shinrin Yoku.
In every forest there is a clearing, in every life a moment when we look outside of ourselves for answers to our wellbeing. Shinrin Yoku aims to reconnect us, not just to nature, but to ourselves, and is believed to generate a myriad of benefits from both an emotional and a physical perspective. More than just a walk in the woods, it is a practice that invites us to connect to the forest with all of our senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.
Shinrin Yoku, literally ‘forest bathing’ in Japanese, is an integral part of Japanese culture. Despite being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, two thirds of Japan is covered by forests, while both of the country’s official religions, Shinto and Buddhism, consider forests to be divine places. In 1984, the Japanese government introduced the National Health Programme for Forest Bathing.
The first step to Shinrin Yoku practice is to find a spot in a wooded area and begin walking in whatever direction your intuition leads you to. Your pace should be slow and purposeful and without the diktat of ‘arriving’ anywhere. In fact, an entire Shinrin Yoku session can be carried out walking around a single tree or within a perimeter of just a few meters.
The next step is to fully immerse yourself into Nature, using all of your senses and being present in the moment. You will feel yourself slipping into a meditative state as you observe the feel of the air on your skin, the sound of birds, the breeze, rustling through the leaves, floating silence, the slow smells of autumn or the rejuvenating aroma of spring, the feel of bark or moss or twigs under your fingers…
A standard Shinrin Yoku session lasts about two hours, but the effects can be felt after as little as 15 to 20 minutes. Although traditionally led by a forest bathing guide, Shinrin Yoku is so accessible that anyone can do it anywhere and at any time, even in the local park on your lunch break.
The practice of Shinrin Yoku has been proven to lower blood pressure, banish depression, improve energy, bolster the immune system, lower stress, and can even have an effect in the protection against cancer through increasing natural killer cell activity, amongst others. The reasons behind these findings are multiple, ranging from the purely physical, through to the body-mind connection, to the emotional benefits of meditative walking.
Apart from containing higher levels of oxygen, forest air also contains high levels of phytoncides, which are the natural oils released from trees and plants to protect against insects, fungi and bacteria. Exposure to phytoncides have been shown to stimulate mood, bring the nervous system into balance, decrease anxiety and improve quality of sleep.