Nature Therapy: Forest Bathing

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Many of us intrinsically recognise the nourishing benefits of being in nature. Time spent in the great outdoors can have a positive effect on our wellbeing and creativity, and can contribute to an overall sense of joy, relaxation and balance. While Indigenous and ancient populations have been connecting with nature for more than 50,000 years, there is an ever-growing interest in Mother Nature as a healer.

Forests have long been recognised as ‘natural pharmacies’, offering a rich source of plant and microbial material with known medicinal and nutritional properties. A healthy forest ecosystem is believed to help regulate infectious diseases and there is mounting evidence to suggest that exposure to urban green spaces, plants and natural wooden materials can have a health-promoting effect.

Much of the research into nature (or ecotherapy) has been done in Japan, where the practice of Shinrin Yoku, defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing,” has been nationally recognised and prescribed by the Japanese health system for over 30 years. The preventative practice has been shown to lower cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate, improve mood, lower anxiety and have a positive impact on the immune system by increasing white blood cells.

Photo by: Tealily Photography (Barefoot Wellbeing)

Photo by: Tealily Photography (Barefoot Wellbeing)

In recognition of the benefits, Shinrin Yoku is now increasingly being practiced outside of Japan. In Europe, the United States and Australia, guides trained in Nature and Forest Therapy are sharing the practice of Shinrin Yoku, and the Art of Connecting with Nature in guided group walks.

Kara Spence is the founder of Nature. Be in It, a social enterprise which offers forest bathing walk and dine experiences for adults in Tasmania. Kara is an experienced Park Ranger, an environmental educator, has 15 years training in mindfulness and was recently certified as a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide. “I offer a nature connection experience, which is a deep human need,” says Kara. “We open the door and nature is the therapist. Many clients express feelings of rejuvenation afterward, commenting that the experience is similar to having a massage.” Kara is quick to point out that she is not a therapist. “If any troubling thoughts and feelings arise we encourage people to seek a medical professional,” she says.

More than just a ‘walk in the park’ and different to spending time in nature by yourself, the guided group practice of forest bathing usually lasts around 2–4 hours, covers a few kilometres of trail and includes a series of ‘invitations’ or mindfulness activities. Forest therapy guides encourage participants to dramatically slow down, lead them through meditations and specific sensory experiences, and facilitate the sharing and witnessing of what occurs between those in the group.

Louise Kiddell, creator of Barefoot Wellbeing is a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide. She guides forest bathing and nature connection walks at Centennial Park and other locations in and around Sydney, New South Wales. She has noticed an increase in interest for guided walks in the last year. “Most people come because they have heard about forest bathing and are curious,” Louise says. “It’s too new to be mainstream popular like yoga, but I’ve heard it’s colloquially been called ‘the new yoga’.”

While suitable for a broad range of people, Louise acknowledges forest bathing is particularly favoured by women. “Many already practice some form of meditation or have a strong love of nature. They understand that Shinrin Yoku involves mindfulness and nature connection, so they come to see what it’s all about.”

Photo by: Andrew Wilson (Nature. Be in it)

Photo by: Andrew Wilson (Nature. Be in it)

One thing it isn’t, Louise warns, is a replacement for conventional therapy for mental or physical health conditions, for example drugs or psychotherapy with a psychologist, if those things have been prescribed. “Ecotherapy can be a beneficial complement to other therapies, but if someone has a clinical diagnosis and treatment program, then they should stick to it, and discuss the possible addition of nature therapy walks as a complement to their existing treatment,” Louise advises.

Many of the guides Louise trained with are also psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists, and she is studying to be a counsellor herself.

“Often people come with grief. Some come to consciously sit with that grief, whilst for others they haven’t slowed down enough to realise they are carrying it until they are on the walk, and then it bubbles up much to their surprise.” Occasionally, Louise says, people experience strong sensations and profound realisations about themselves or their families. For example, a mother might have a strong and visceral memory of her rural childhood and express grief about how disconnected her urban children are from nature.

“In my experience I haven’t seen people consciously coming for therapeutic purposes in place of other therapies. However, participants generally understand that there is some kind of wellness benefit to doing a slow, mindful, quiet walk in nature, and I suppose they come to see what that feels like,” says Louise. “Often by the end of a guided group walk, there is a warm sense of connection. People have opened up and shared something meaningful and there is a sense they’ve been heard. The witnessing of each others’ experiences by the group is very powerful.”

In addition to improved mental and physical wellbeing, both Kara and Louise remark that the people who have completed a walk often view the nature around them in a different, more intimate way, paving the way for a more connected and caring relationship with the environment. “There is a lot of evidence to show that feelings of love and connection to nature translate into positive environmental behaviours and so [forest bathing] could have broad-reaching implications,” Louise says.

Forest therapy guides rely on permission from Councils and National Parks to use their land, and so a cooperative arrangement and a positive perception of the practice is crucial. Some guides are also working hard to build positive relationships with local Indigenous elders, recognising the deep connection traditional custodians have with their land and seeking their permission to conduct guided walks.

“It would be great to see authorities recognise the healing benefits of being in nature and designate trails for that purpose here in Australia,” says Louise. “In Japan there are 48 Nationally recognised Healing Forest Trails and, through the advocacy of the Forest Therapy Guide community, it’s also happening in the United States and Europe.”

Photo by: Andrew Wilson (Nature. Be in it)

Photo by: Andrew Wilson (Nature. Be in it)

While not everyone has access to a local forest therapy expert or trail, making time to bring more nature into your life offers a simple, accessible, and cost-effective way to improve your health and wellbeing. To acquire adequate ‘vitamin N(ature)’ Louise suggests following the regime of the ‘Nature Pyramid’:

  • Daily interactions with nearby nature to de-stress, find focus and lighten mental fatigue.  

  • Weekly outings to bigger parks and waterways for longer walks.

  • Monthly excursions to forests or other more wildish natural areas for an extended weekend getaway.

  • Annual or biannual multi-day wilderness immersions or holidays to completely unplug and fill us with awe, human connection and help us remember our place in the universe.

Go ahead, take time out to luxuriate in your own nature bath. It’s good for you.


Louise Kiddell, Barefoot Wellbeing

Louise Kiddell, Barefoot Wellbeing

  • Think less, feel more. Drop out of your thinking mind and into your feeling body. Don’t judge yourself or worry about what other people think, let your inner child come out to play and explore.

  • Be curious. Notice. Inquire. Let yourself become fascinated and completely absorbed in the textures, smells and sounds of the natural place you’re in.

  • Slow down. We spend our lives rushing, always trying to get somewhere or get something done. This is a time to enjoy the pleasures of being exactly where you are right now.

  • Use all your senses. Keep expanding your awareness. Notice what you feel, what you smell, what you taste, what you hear, the sounds in the different directions, and notice how you feel inside. 

  • Allow whatever arises without judging or trying to rationalise anything. Let yourself play if you feel like playing, embody animal movements and sounds. Let yourself be still if you feel like being still. Tune into what your body needs right now. Listen deeply.

  • Keep a journal. Draw, paint or otherwise create out in nature to express your experiences.

Kara Spence, Nature. Be in it.

Kara Spence, Nature. Be in it.

  • Listen. As you step out of the house, listen for the first birdcall, it will be there rain or shine. 

  • Look. No matter how urban the setting, the sky is always there, with clouds and colours to marvel at. Look up and watch how it changes throughout the day. Notice what you can see out the window. Step outside during your lunch break or look outside at trees.

  • Breathe. Smell the air after a rain. Take a deep breath as you walk to the car.

  • Move. Park further away or get off a stop early for some outside time.

  • Embrace. Bring some flowers or green clippings into your home. 

  • Touch. When you walk past a tree brush it gently with your fingers.

  • Feel. Sit outside for at least 10 minutes a day. Feel the wind or sun on your face or hands.  

  • Watch. Try a nature connection film such as The Power of One, The Mission, Baraka, Winged Migration, Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants, The Tree of Life, or Into the Wild.

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