Not Just Another Walk in the Park
Forest bathing in urban Singapore? Yes you can! Here’s how to melt away stress and reconnect with your self-awareness, one mindful movement at a time
Most of us have spent time in a park or gone on a hike through the forest, and come away feeling lighter, happier, calmer, and generally more alive. It’s not your imagination; these effects on the mind and body are real.
Since 1982, the Japanese have taken the rejuvenating practice of spending time in green spaces one step further, to something they call shinrin-yoku. Shinrin means forest in Japanese, and yoku means bath. It has nothing to do with having an onsen in the middle of the woods. Shinrin-yoku is a meditative experience focused on encountering a forest (or any green space, such as an urban park), using all of the five senses.
How forest-bathing began
People in Japan, and all over the world, have been taking restorative walks through the countryside and forests for time immemorial. But it was only in 1982 that the term “forest bathing” was coined, by the director general of the Agency of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries at the time, Tomohide Akiyama. He believed that the people of Japan needed some deep restoration through nature. It might not be a coincidence that the 1980s was a decade characterised by ambition, consumption and excess. Akiyama’s idea also had another aim. He wanted to get people onboard to protect the forests, and if they began to enjoy the forests and reap health benefits, they would be more likely to be invested in protecting them.
It wasn’t till over 20 years later, in 2004, that Dr Qing Li, a doctor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, began conducting scientific investigations into the connection between these meditative walks in the forest, and an upsurge in health. His studies (and others after that), showed that forest bathing has the ability to reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, and sharpen concentration and memory. One incredible chemical in particular released by trees and plants – the aromatic volatile component called phytonicides, was found to bolster the immune system. Dr Li later became the author of Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing , which has enjoyed worldwide popularity.
As more research highlighted the benefits of shinrin-yoku, the Japanese government incorporated it into the country’s health programme. According to findings published by the International Journal of Immunopathology and Pharmacology (Oct–Dec 2009), “[the] forest environment enhanced human natural killer (NK) cell activity, the number of NK cells, and intracellular anti-cancer proteins in lymphocytes, and that the increased NK activity lasted for more than 7 days after trips to forests both in male and female subjects.”
How to do shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) in an urban park, inspired by instructions in Dr Qing Li’s Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing:
- First, get your mind in the right frame. This isn’t going to be a calorie-blasting power walk or any kind of exercise routine. You’ll be walking slowly, intentionally, with the aim of being aware of all of your five senses.
- Switch off your mobile phone and any other gadgets. Or better yet, leave them at home. (It may seem unthinkable, but you might find it surprisingly liberating.)
- Take off your watch too and keep it in your bag, out of sight. Better yet, it can join your mobile phone at home. It is your aim now to forget about time, and be in the now.
- As you take your first slow steps through the park, become aware of your breathing. Become aware of the air entering your nostrils, filling your lungs, and escaping through your nostrils again. Try to take deeper, and slower breaths as you continue walking.
- Try to become aware of the scents in the air, the sounds around you, the way the trees, plants, insects, look. Touch something to feel its texture, like a blade of grass, a flower petal, or the bark of a tree trunk.
- When you come upon a place that particularly appeals to you as a place to be still, do so. This could be anywhere, such as a spot of shade under a tree, on a sun-filled patch of grass, or a bench.
- Stay here and be present in the moment, again going over your senses so you become aware of what you see, hear, smell and can feel or touch (like the hardness or temperature of the bench you are sitting on) all around you.
- Stay in this spot for as long as you like. Two hours in the park will afford optimal benefits, but 20 minutes is enough to be able to feel the restorative calm of being among the trees and plants.