What is forest bathing actually?

“Forest bath” entered the new words list in the Swedish language year 2017. It is defined as “a form of therapy that involves staying in the forest as a method of reducing stress”. A clear, but a bit limited description of what forest bathing really is in my opinion.
In 2018, I decided to train as a Nature and Forest Therapy guide with the international organization ANFT (Association of Nature of Forest Therapy). Today, forest bathing is a big part of my job. In a series of articles, I would like to explain what forest bathing means to me and what I actually do when I guide people on a forest bath.

Let’s start with some background…
Forest bathing is the approximate translation of the Japanese word “Shinrin Yoku”. Dr. Qing Li, a pioneer in the field, describes Shinrin Yoku as “bathing in the atmosphere of the forest” or “taking in the forest with the help of the senses.”

About 70% of Japan is covered by forest (app. like Sweden’s). In the 1980s, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries wondered how they could protect and at the same time benefit from these large forest areas. During this period, more and more people moved from the countryside to large cities and a real increase in health problems related to intensive work and city life was observed. By promoting Shinrin Yoku, the authorities thought they had an opportunity to hit two birds with one stone: economic and environmental problems, and public health: the forest is preserved and public health is improved.

However, in the 1990s, the authorities wanted to have strong evidence that Shinrin Yoku had positive health effects on people, and several research programs were conducted by Dr. Li and Pr Miyazaki. The studies proved positive effects of Shinrin Yoku on the immune system, cardiovascular system and on psychological health. In the early 00’s, the authorities became convinced that Shinrin Yoku was an effective solution. The regions were given the opportunity to organize therapeutic trails and stations for Shinrin Yoku. In 2006, Akasawa Natural Recreation Park became the first certified Forest therapy base with 8 different Shinrin Yoku trails. Today, Japan has 64 certified Forest therapy bases that are visited by millions of people every year.
The last years, Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing, has really taken off in several European countries and many organisations offer different type of services related to it. So what does a forest bath mean? What is hidden behind the word?

The basics that define forest bathing (for me)
I start by telling you what forest bathing is NOT.
It is not a hike with the purpose of having a physical activity. It is not an excursion to learn about an area, flowers, birds… It is not a photo excursion.
Despite this, there is the opportunity to move, to learn about nature (in a different way) and also to take pictures.
What is forest bathing then?
Forest bathing is a sensory walk, alone or in a group, with or without a guide, in the forest (or another type of natural environment) at a very calm pace for several hours, even several days sometimes, with breaks and contact with nature.

A forest bath invites to be in the present (in time and space) and to have an experience with the living from the outside and within yourself. This happens when we focus on the senses. When I hear the birds singing or the water flowing, when I let the sounds surrounding me entering, then that’s what’s happening right here and now. I can not be in the past or the future. I’m present. This provides an opportunity for connection to nature, to oneself and to other people (in groups). I’m not entirely happy with the latter sentence, because it distinguishes between nature and humans. An important part of forest bathing for me is to recreate the unity that nature and people constitute. Actually, it might be enough to say that forest bathing provides an opportunity for connection to nature.

An important aspect of forest bathing is reciprocity. What do I mean by this? Forest bathing is not yet another activity where nature is a tool to feel good, something that is only used. I am a living being with the same value as all the other one and I interact with them through my senses. At the same time, they interact with me through their own “senses” (however, this is a topic for another article). There is a flow in both directions: the flow of life. I am aware that this part may sound “fuzzy” to some, but after guiding many people, I can safely say that it happens and this is the core of forest bathing when I guide. This does not mean that I offer spiritual experiences in the forest, although some participants may get that kind of feeling. Reciprocity can be as simple as thanking for the visit! Does that sound weird? When we have visited someone, we usually say thank you, why should we not do it when we have been in the forest where millions of beings live? But reciprocity can express itself in a completely different way, it can be a thought, a gesture, a feeling… It can also be that you do not feel for this and it is actually okay!

Here we come to the last point that defines forest bathing: one can not be wrong and not right either (because there is no wrong). Everything is. There are no requirements or performance during a forest bath. This is often the most difficult thing for many. No expectations! You are allowed to be your “natural” self, no matter what it means, to let the body find its way to be in the moment and to trust it. You’re free.

As I told you in the introduction, this is my way of looking at forest bathing. It is of course based on my training and my experiences as a guide and person. I strongly believe that it is a good way to relate to what in my education was described as “the more than human world”. I sometimes say “den mer än männikors världen” when I guide in swedish, which my dear colleague and friend Helena Johard (www.embracedbytheforest.com) jokes about and says that I can say so because I am French and that it fits with my accent. But I actually like the concept: I feel that this world is really “more” and that we humans are a small part (as important as the other parts) of the whole.

Summary of the ingredients that makes forest bathing for me:

  • slowness and even immobility and silence
  • connection to nature through the senses
  • presence – to be
  • freedom – trust the body
  • reciprocity – life flow
  • unity – wholeness

And the guide then?
You can forest bath on your own, but based on what I have described in this article, it can be good to follow a guide. What does the guide do then? What is the role of the guide during a forest bath? I will discuss this in the next article.