June is the height of midsummer, and the Wheel of the Year turns inexorably onwards as the longest day comes and goes for us in the Northern hemisphere. Because the days are still long, with an early sunrise and a long twilight, we take the opportunity to move from urban landscapes to a more natural environment, such as hills, woods, or water. This mass exodus is not surprising as a natural environment has been man’s home for 99.9 per cent of humanity’s existence. It is only in the last 250 years that cities have ballooned into what they are today, vast jungles of concrete, steel and glass. They are indeed very different from our natural home, so it is not surprising we have this yearning to touch base with nature, our natural home.
Forest bathing is one way we can experience the healing power of nature. This can be practised in a town park or any natural environment. We owe the name ‘forest bathing,’ or to be more accurate, ‘Shinrin-Yoko’, to Tomohide Akiyama, the Director of Japanese Forestry in 1982. He created this term, ‘Shinrin-Yoko’, to describe the time spent among trees. Since 1982, the concept has developed considerably, not only in Japan but also in many parts of the world. This expansion is due to continuing research on its benefits, as it is now recognised as an effective form of preventative healthcare.
Modern life is stressful, not only because of badly designed urban areas, but also because of the rise of technology and its associated screen type and sedentary lifestyle. Forest bathing, or more accurately, “absorbing the forest atmosphere” is one way of healing oneself from these 21st century stressors. Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University, (‘Shinrin-yoku : The Simple and Intuitive Form of Preventative Care’), who is among the world’s foremost experts on shinrin-yoku, suggests turning off your phone and engaging in shikan shoyou, which translates to “nothing but wandering along.” “Pay attention to any areas of stiffness or pain the body and consciously relax them,” Miyazaki writes. “Become aware of your present mental and emotional states…Pay attention to the experience of walking and keep your awareness engaged in this experience. Be aware of the beginning, the middle, and the end of your stepping. Walk as silently as possible.”
This activity does not entail a long journey to the nearest forest. It can just as easily be practised in a park or a walk near your home. This is because what forest bathing is really about is being mindful of connecting with nature. It is opening our eyes to the bee in the flower, the little shrew hidden in the undergrowth, or the swallows flying low as the harbinger of rain. It is about developing awe at the different worlds in nature, the bird feeding her young, the tendrils of the clematis climbing over the trellis, the flower changing to fruit. We are oblivious to these worlds that are parallel to our own, and yet, if we can but open our eyes and live in the moment, we will perceive so many different modes of being that we will hold our breath in awe at the wonder of nature and the wonder of the world we live in.
In Ireland, forest bathing is more familiar to us as a pilgrimage, be it to a holy well, a lake, a forest or a mountain. All these destinations have the same characteristics as forest bathing. These are, a time alone, reflection, and observation. Likewise, the Irish pilgrimage gives us the opportunity to note the trees that are used in healing and how we have been enjoying their benefits for aeons. Some of the most notable trees are the hawthorn for heart disease, the oak for hardening the skin, the guelder rose for menstrual cramps and of course the elder which protects us from viral infections. Trees possess many rich compounds, so many in fact that they are to be found in 25 per cent of all our medicines. Additionally, there are the ‘phytoncides’ or antimicrobial volatile organic compounds (Wood essential oils) given off by trees to protect themselves from pests and which are very beneficial to us as well.
We know the benefits of mindful forest bathing include a drop in blood pressure, and hawthorn is one tree that helps this. One study reported that patients who were treated with 500 mg of hawthorn extract for ten weeks displayed a decrease by 13.1 mm Hg decrease in DBP. Time spent among trees includes a drop in stress levels, as well as an increase in the number of natural killer cells that protect against disease. Ganoderma, the mushroom, which is so beneficial in integrative cancer care is a product of the forest. It grows on dead wood or as a parasite on the live wood of hardwood trees, conifers, or palms.
Finally, the other healing aspect of forest bathing is that it allows us to connect with tradition. As we walk in nature and become aware of the natural cycle of life, we connect with our ancestors who walked these woods and trails, foraged for food among them and used them for shelter. Simple rituals such as the lighting of a bonfire on June 23, picking wild strawberries or going on a pilgrimage connect us with the activities of our forebears and the wheel of the year. Midsummer is then a time for joy and thanks for the healing power of nature, the beauty of the cyclical year, and the opportunity to connect with the traditions of those who have gone before us.