Sensing the forest through shinrin-yoku (or forest bathing)

Whether in a walk in the park, a hike through the bush, or a countryside stroll, people have always taken to the outdoors to breathe, think and feel. We enjoy the warmth of the sun, the shade of a tree, a cool breeze, because it is instinctual: our bodies have always known the benefits of nature.

After centuries of modernity, however, instinctual knowledge becomes either a heresy or a break-through. Earth is alive, animals are sentient, plants are conscious, nature heals: these statements, though obvious, must fight for their legitimacy through the scientific method. Ideas that were once lambasted, such as Gaia – the living Earth – are now widely accepted, albeit rebranded to ‘earth systems science’.

The practice of forest bathing takes an idea our bones and lore have long known – that nature heals – and turns it into a practice. Because in a world of skyscrapers, motorways and screens, discipline is required simply to connect with nature. It is no surprise that forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, has its roots in modern Japan, where workers can regularly clock up 50 hours of work per week or more, thereby causing karoshi, or ‘sudden death by overwork.’

Above: life on the forest floor at the Morton National Park.

Forest bathing, we now know, soothes the maladies of the modern world – anxiety, stress, distraction – by reducing blood pressure and lowering cortisol levels. Through exercise, meditation, disconnection, and exposure to antibacterial and antifungal phytoncides, a walk amongst the trees can boost our immune system and improve our mood. 

If forest bathing can reconnect urban individuals to the natural world, then perhaps it may help pave the way to an alternate future. 

During a nature therapy session at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, guides from In My Nature draw our attention to the sounds, textures, odours and colours of the gardens, and offer advice on increasing our awareness of our surrounds: silence, slowness, and curiosity are your tools for plantlife appreciation. 

Amid the cycads and the palms, we stop in the rainforest garden to ‘meet a tree’, an exercise wherein the forest bather takes a moment to observe a particular specimen; I stop by a gigantic black bean tree (castanospermum australe) with its seed pods hanging from its canopy, and underneath, its seeds from last season sprouting in the leaf litter. Feel its bark, see how its colour changes, marvel at its fruits and flowers – these are the simple recommendations for meeting a tree.

The forest bather is different from the bush-walker, who, charging ahead through the scrub determined to cover a set number of kilometres, hardly takes notice of the mosses, insects, fungi and lichens that cover the forest floor; instead, the forest bather ambles along, stopping here and there to smell the humus, prod a mushroom, collect a seed.

For millennia, the fruits of the forest have sustained human societies. Before plantations and land enclosures, before forestry and industrial agriculture, communities foraged the forest for its mushrooms, fished from its rivers, harvested its wood and cork, hunted its animals: “the communal forest was the base of life for people”, as one naturalist told me. We were but one of the many creatures which lived off the forest, and though we have always left a footprint, our global impact was sustainable.

Above: ants meet their doom in a pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla) at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens.

Now, human kind has cleared entire countries of their forests, replaced native trees with fast-growing commercial forests, and caused continental mega-fires through climate change. The forest is in danger, yet we continue to log old-growth trees and clear land. If we are to reverse the trend, we need radical solutions which might save what remains; the granting of legal rights for nature, declaring biosphere reserves over entire ecosystems; the promotion of sustainable forest economies over extractive forestry. If forest bathing can reconnect urban individuals to the natural world, then perhaps it may help pave the way to this alternate future. 

  • This article has been republished on the Royal Sydney Botanic Gardens blog.

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