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Discover the joys of forest bathing

PUBLISHED: 11:59 18 June 2018

Jane Dow, among the foxgloves and trees of Knettishall Heath. one of the places she leads mindful nature walks. 
Picture: Jane Dow

Jane Dow, among the foxgloves and trees of Knettishall Heath. one of the places she leads mindful nature walks. Picture: Jane Dow

Archant

It’s called forest bathing but thankfully, perhaps, neither water nor the necessity to take off any clothes is involved.

But Shinrin-Yoku, to use the Japanese name, does entail a kind of immersion.

The idea is that by leaving your everyday cares behind and allowing the sights and sounds of the natural world, particularly trees, to wash over you, something magical happens.

Jane Dow has been practising and teaching meditation and mindfulness for more than 15 years and more recently has begun leading mindful nature walks at Bradfield Woods, near Bury St Edmunds, and Knettishall Heath, near Thetford.

And she’s seen this magic happen. Regularly.

“So many people have amazing revelations about what they see,” she says. “They might notice a change in how they feel. It’s so nourishing and everyone can benefit from it.”

Forest bathing, or Shinrin-Yoku, means taking in the forest atmosphere during a leisurely walk. It was developed during the 1980s in Japan, where it has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing. According to researchers who have studied the health benefits of spending mindful time amongst the trees, forest bathing creates calming effects through changes in the nervous system, reducing the stress hormone cortisol.

Reductions in stress, anxiety, anger, depression and insomnia have been recorded along with improvements in concentration and mental clarity. There are now 44 accredited Shinrin-Yoku forests in Japan.

While a walk in the woods can, in itself, be rejuvenating, throwing a touch of mindfulness into the mix can take the experience to another level, says Jane. She does two of these 90-minute walks a month, one at each location, taking a maximum of 10 people a time.

“We start by meeting together as a group and getting to know one another,” she says. “We spend the first 10-15 minutes walking in silence so that people start to let go of their week, or day. Then we slow the pace right down, which can find quite challenging because it’s not what we’re often used to and can bring up some anxiety. When people have overcome that we start to do more mindful exercises, using all our senses.

“We might spent 5-10 minutes cloud watching or, if it’s a grey day, we might look at intricacies of pine tree bark. People can get quite engrossed just using the sense of vision. It’s complete absorption. The stillness you get with 100% focus is fascinating. We try out different exercises because people respond in different ways.

“There has to be a balance between silence and talking so after we’ve done the exercise, we might come back and share experiences, which can help people validate what they’ve experienced or show them what’s possible.

“There’s another layer to it as well. On top of the mindfulness you get the benefits of being outside and being in nature, which various studies have shown is so beneficial. Each moment in nature can return us to a place of child-like wonder and help to develop a real, lasting sense of wellbeing.”

Being with trees actually entails physical as well as mental and emotional benefits, says Jane, who lives near Banham.

“Trees release chemicals, called phytoncides, which boost the immune system and enhance wellbeing. There are countless reasons why it’s good for you. Being surrounded by greenery, the difference between light and shade - all these factors contribute to a sense of being alive and connecting us in to nature and rejuvenation.”

Groups so far have included a mix of people, from those who just like going for a walk to “super high-stressed” people who want to unwind. She’s also hoping to do some work with carers in the future and train up wildlife trust staff and volunteers to lead walks of their own.

“It’s so valuable,” she says. “As with all mindfulness as soon as you start to get that hormone change from adrenaline to endorphin release then people soften and allow this natural sense of wellbeing that we all have to emerge. By the end everyone is smiling.”

Jane’s Bradfield Woods walks take place on the first Tuesday of the month and at Knettishall Heath on the first Sunday of the month. For more information go to www.light-heart.co.uk or find Jane on Facebook at www.facebook.com/LightheartMeditationSchool.

Tips for taking a dip

If you want to try forest bathing out for yourself head to your local wood, nature reserve or even park, making sure you leave your phone, camera or any other distractions - along with any goals and expectations - behind so you can be fully present in the moment then:

Allow yourself to wander, slowly and aimlessly, wherever your body wants to take you.

Pause from time to time, looking more closely at a leaf or tree, for instance, or to notice the sensation of the path beneath your feet.

Find a comfortable spot to sit and listen to the sounds around you. Notice how the behaviour of the wildlife changes as it becomes used to your presence.

If you’re with others, agree not to talk until the end of the walk, when you could gather to share your experiences.

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