Health

Reduce stress by forest bathing

Take in nature by switching on your five senses and experience calm

If you regularly spend time in the park, reservoir or a garden setting, you may be familiar with the calming effects of nature, whether it's from the therapeutic greenery, sound of birds or the smell of crisp, dewy air.

Now, there's an actual science to explain those benefits. There's even a term for immersing yourself in natural surroundings - forest bathing.

WHAT IS FOREST BATHING?

It is a metaphor for bathing yourself in the elements of a forest. There's no actual bathing involved, but you'll switch on your five senses - sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste - while taking in nature, one mindful movement at a time.

The concept started in Japan in the 1980s, when the Forestry Agency of Japan proposed a national health programme to reduce stress in workers.

Better known as shinrin-yoku (in Japanese, "shinrin" means forest and "yoku" means bath) in Japan, forest bathing has taken root and is being embraced all over the world, largely thanks to well documented and publicised research by Dr Qing Li of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, who's also the author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.

According to Dr Qing Li, here's how to do forest bathing: "First, find a spot. Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don't need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn't matter if you don't get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.

"The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy of phytoncides. Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavour of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind."

FOREST BATHING IS NOT HIKING

As forest bathing involves walking around aimlessly while mindfully, it's far from hiking, where you typically start with a route, destination and duration in mind. In fact, it demands the exact opposite - that you let go of projections, expectations and anything remotely goal-oriented, and just be.

All you need, really, is to show up - for at least two hours.

The best part? Forest bathing has proven health benefits. Dr Qing Li's research team documented these positive effects:

Improved immunity

Forest bathing increased the activity, as well as the number of disease-fighting cells, and this effect lasted for 30 days. Immune cells play an important role in defending against bacteria, viruses and tumours.

Lowered blood pressure and heart rate

Compared with walking in the city, forest bathing significantly reduced blood pressure as well as heart rate. And we all know that these two markers are closely linked to hypertension and heart diseases.

Reduced stress and stress hormones

Participants in Dr Qing Li's study reported lower scores in anxiety, depression, anger, fatigue and confusion. At the same time, they experienced lower levels of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol.

HOW TO DO FOREST BATHING IN SINGAPORE

Dr Qing Li said: "You can forest-bathe anywhere in the world - wherever there are trees; in hot weather or in cold; in rain, sunshine or snow. You don't even need a forest. Once you have learnt how to do it, you can do shinrin-yoku anywhere - in a nearby park or in your garden."

What this means is you can apply the principles of forest bathing in any nature spot.

Think Singapore Botanic Gardens, MacRitchie Reservoir, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and even your neighbourhood park.

Or consider joining forest bathing classes led by Xiu Nature Connections. These sessions are meant to ease you into forest bathing, by guiding you to awaken your senses and tune into your body.

This article was first published in Shape (www.shape.com.sg)

WELLNESS & BEAUTY