World Wide Wellness: Japanese Forest Bathing—Canadian-style
by Catherine Morris | November 21, 2020, updated about 2 months ago
Almost 40 years ago, Japan updated its public health guidelines to include trees. Yes, trees. The Japanese Health authorities started urging people to spend more time in forests, participating in what's now known as 'shinrin-yoku,' or forest bathing.
Of course, the Japanese didn't invent trees, and they aren't alone in enjoying the therapeutic effects of nature, but they were the first developed nation to make it an official part of their public health guidelines. Since then, it's gone viral worldwide, and forest bathing as a concept has spread to Europe, North America, and beyond.
It's not hard to see why so many have embraced the trend. Who doesn't like hanging out in forests? Especially at the moment, when the world seems chaotic and open nature is one of the few places left to us.
Spending time with trees supercharges your wellbeing in a variety of ways—promoting better mental clarity, kicking your immune system into high gear, protecting against disease, and even providing pain relief. Trees might just be the therapists we never knew we needed.
A Meditative Experience
The true Japanese shinrin-yoku experience involves doing very little. No hiking, no jogging, no cycling. Just relaxing with the trees, paying attention to your surroundings, and having a mindful, meditative experience.
Designed to calm over-stressed brains, and strengthen our connection with the environment, this type of restful forest strolling is about immersing yourself in the experience and clearing distractions. As the practice spreads though, it seems everyone has their own particular version of forest bathing.
In Canada, the third most forested country in the world, there are a lot of options. Some therapists have integrated forest walks into their usual counselling practice, some are official forest guides who take clients around the national parks. There are those who like to turn it into a nature walk, where people can learn about the ecosystem and its flora and fauna. Others make it more interactive with activities or exercises.
Nicki McKeon, from the Wild Yoga Collective, integrates nature into her practice by offering guided hikes—either half-day or up to five days long. This wilderness experience, some of which takes place in the BC forests, is a way to connect with the inner landscape as much as the outer. McKeon explains—
“People have a fully immersive experience in nature, connecting with their circadian rhythms. When you are out there you are so focused on the present, you don't have the opportunity to be stressed about anything that’s going on at home. It’s an incredible form of meditation for people who don’t necessarily know how to meditate. It resets your brain and you get that energetic release.”
McKeon recommends this kind of nature therapy for anyone, but says it can be particularly helpful for “Anyone with mental health issues, and anyone who feels particularly weighed down. Even if you are just someone who is super driven and has a million and one things in their mind constantly.”
She says props are sometimes a good idea, “Taking a journal into the forest can be really good. You can write down those feelings and get them out. Sometimes I have people sit down, close their eyes and listen to all the different noises they might not hear otherwise. I work in a little bit of navigation [skills] too, that gives you an incredible sense of presence, you have that subconscious awareness of where you are all the time.”
The Canadian Forest Bathing Experience
Tempted to see what all the forest fuss was about, I hitched a ride with a forest bathing group in Ontario. It was a sunny October morning, and the trees were in full Fall foliage. The glorious golds and fiery reds waved in the slight breeze as our small group wandered slowly through the leafy pathways.
It was idyllic. Both myself and my friend (dragged along as a kind of control group) felt calmer, happier, and more positive afterwards. It also helped me appreciate the time of year in a new way—not just as a precursor to winter, but a chance to really see and enjoy the autumnal display.
Just as forests change with the seasons, from the pure white of winter to summer's lush greens, so too do our bodies. McKeon says spending time in nature can help us more fully clue into our own rhythms—
“All four seasons are so distinct [in Canada]. You have to be present and be aware. It’s so dynamic. You need to be looking after your entire wellness—your diet, your routine—and not just changing your clothes to suit the season.”
I walked away from the forest feeling like I'd left something behind. Something heavy and burdensome. McKeon says this is a common reaction, and her clients often feel more connected afterwards—to themselves, to the people around them, and to their environment.
“People have a sense of presence and calmness where those little agitations and fluctuations in their minds have disappeared and they are able to just sit with themselves. There's a sense of lightness. Some people even say they are better listeners [because] they are able to be more present.
“We can't all go live in the forest, but it's so important to integrate nature into our everyday lives.”
If you'd like to give forest bathing a try, reach out to the Wild Yoga Collective to find out more, or connect with one of Which Doctor's therapists today to learn how to integrate more nature into your mental wellness routine.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.