For a lot of my friends, the sea calls to them, they long for walks on beaches and briny breezes. Many of my friends live by the coast, such is their love of all things seaside. For me, and for as long as I can remember, woodlands and forests have been my favourite kind of outdoor space. I remember being little and loving fairytales which took place in woodlands. Even though often scary places, they also seemed magical, places where fairies lived and adventures unfolded. My favourite guided meditation is a woodland walk where you end up entering a cabin in a clearing and settling down in front of a real fire whilst the rain comes down outside – perfect!
I often seek out the trees, especially when I am feeling a little overwhelmed and in need of calm. Last weekend I suffered a couple of quite debilitating headaches brought on by the stormy weather and the low pressure. Even once the headaches were over I felt washed out and my head felt heavy and my brain stale.
So when Dom suggested a family wander in nearby woodlands I of course jumped at the chance. Well I didn’t jump because I felt quite lethargic still but I got together some drinks (lapsang in my thermos mug for me!) and snacks and we set off for a spot of Shinrin Yoku.
Shinrin Yoku is the Japanese terms for ‘forest bathing’ and rather than being some ancient Japanese pastime (though I am sure Japanese people have been enjoying time in woodland for millennia) Shinrin Yoku was a phrase coined by the Japanese government in the early 1980s. It was based on research that showed that short, leisurely walks amongst trees have significant health benefits, mainly around lowering stress and boosting the immune system.
The main focus of shinrin yoku seems to be that trees themselves give off natural chemicals which work their magic on us. You can find out a bit more here but basically, a regular walk amongst the trees seems to lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduce the amount of the stress hormone cortisol we produce.
As I wandered around the woods that we visited, sipping tea, taking photographs (and admittedly trying to walk slightly behind my family so it was as peaceful as it could be!) I thought about shinrin yoku and the research I had read around it, but also started to make my own observations about why I find woodland walking so relaxing.
I think the biggest thing for me is the sheer… greenness of it all. There are SO many greens in a woodland, especially at this time of the year, from leaf buds and leaves to fluffy, furry mosses, wild garlic carpets, flower stems, grasses… and the way that the light comes through the young leaves and falls on mossy logs and lichen encrusted branches, just drinking in that light and colour is supremely relaxing to me. I felt like you do in savasna in yoga, when you relax your face and your eyes sink back into your head, except that my eyes were wide open. I don’t think most of us have any idea how much stress we hold in our faces and eyes until we try to relax them. Green has been shown to be the most relaxing colour and just the opportunity to gaze at a lot of green – well, you can see why shinrin yoku translates to forest bathing. Eyes swimming in green.
Secondly, the smell – you can keep your briny breezes, I love the mulchy, woodsy smell that you get amongst trees, the dampness and the coolness. It’s up there with garden sheds and tomatoes in greenhouses as one of my favourite smells.
Another huge benefit of woodlands for me is that in warmer weather they offer shade and coolness (especially when there is a stream to stick your feet in) and for me, a grassy glade makes the perfect spot for a picnic and perhaps a little snooze in the shade. In colder, wetter weather they offer shelter and an opportunity to dodge the rain drops. There was a shower during our walk but due to the depth of foliage we heard it, but barely felt it.
We wandered around happily for a couple of hours and as we walked back over farmland to the car, I realised that my head which had felt tight and heavy felt lighter and my eyes which had felt quite hot and strained felt brighter and clearer.
So perhaps when you are feeling stressed out, tired out or just a little under par, you should head for the trees. This little quote below (translated from the Japanese) sums it all up for me, it’s not about pace, or achievement. And it is about much more than the trees, it’s about the chance to engage all of your senses with them and the very special atmosphere which is created, when you take time to be with the trees.
In an unhurried way, allow your feet to wander.
Shinrin-yoku is not about excercise.
It is not about hurry.
It is about being alive in all your senses
and trusting that the forest
and other landscapes upon which you wander
hold something good for you.