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Your Guide To Forest Bathing, The Wellness Practice We Should All Be Doing

Imagine getting therapeutic treatment from Mother Nature herself

Existential psychologist Rollo May argued that there's one major factor that makes up a healthy personality (and a healthy personality, in turn, has implications on just how well-adjusted we are in life). He called it "being-in-the-world," and to achieve this being, all people must be able to properly function within three domains: the umwelt (our physical and natural world), the mitwelt (our social world, which encompasses our interactions with others), and the eigenwelt (which is our inner world that's all about our relationship with ourselves).

If there's a serious and prolonged imbalance in our umwelt, mitwelt, and eigenwelt, we could experience a number of issues in our day-to-day activities, or in the very way we live life itself; you might find yourself more prone to bouts of anxiety, hot-temperedness, feelings of isolation, loneliness, depression, or you might even sense a general lack of sense of purpose and satisfaction with where you're currently at. Any of this sound familiar? 

But May's identification of where we can go wrong comes with its upsides, too. He says that there is more than one path to regaining balance within these worlds, and therefore, many opportunities for us to turn any negative emotions and experiences into positive and much more meaningful ones.

Image from Pexels

In focus today is our relationship with our umwelt, our physical surroundings, or more specifically, nature itself. Urban lifestyles have uprooted much of society from living in a much more organic, much greener environment, and it's not only psychologists who agree that there have been many unwanted consequences of this. 

Think about it for a minute.

Why do you think that wellness resorts, green retreats, and eco-friendly vacations have become so sought after these days (especially with quarantine restrictions keeping most of us indoors in our city homes). What about the fact that many a rest house are situated in locations that are as far from the city as can possibly be and closer to beaches, mountain ranges, and farmland? It's because human beings were ultimately programmed to be one with nature, not separated from it, and we feel naturally recharged, energized, and healed after a good old fashioned getaway to somewhere where countless forms of life are buzzing and teeming all around us. 

Now we know that not everyone has a mountainside lodge or beach house to go to when they need some serious umwelt time, however, there is an alternative that's available to all and that we'd love to try ourselves.

It's called shinrin yoku, roughly translated to forest bathing, and it's a research-backed wellness practice exported from Japan to all over the world for the benefit of millions of city folks in need of a generous dose of nature. 

Image from Unsplash

Forest bathing origins 

It's sometimes called forest therapy, and it's essentially a deep immersion in a forest (or in any lush, verdant space that's far away from the distractions of a highly urbanized area).

Forest bathing came about in the early '90s in Japan as local wellness researchers and mental health professionals observed that as society progressed and life modernized, a bigger part of the Japanese population began to exhibit comparable symptoms and experience similar illnesses. 

Fatigue was way up on their list, as well as physical complaints like general achiness/soreness and stiffness, blood pressure problems, migraines, inability to get quality rest (sleep), and digestive issues. Mental health issues weren't far behind. Anxiety, depression, feeling "on edge" (difficulty in reaching a relaxed, calm state), burnout, and feelings of frustration were all part of the mix, and guess what? 

Researchers, mental health professionals, and even mindfulness and meditation teachers all agreed that it could all be linked to a disproportionate time spend in the city versus in the great outdoors. And so, forest bathing was introduced to a handful of willing pilot test participants, and the results were promising. 


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Forest bathing 101

There are over 60 forests in Japan that are officially accredited as forest therapy bases, and since forest bathing's initial development 30 years ago, the practice has become much more robust and medically supported. 

If you go to any forest bathing/therapy location Japan, you'll likely be treated to a full day that includes an agenda of: 

  • An introduction to forest bathing by a trained guide (yup, a guide! They receive formal training before they can become "eco-excursion" guides)
  • A gentle trek (gentle, meaning you take things slow, breaks are allowed, and forest trails are extremely easy to traverse) 
  • An exercise of yogic breathing and/or a mindfulness activity (to help you enjoy what you're experiencing right there, in the moment, in the present, without your mind wandering off to all the thoughts and feelings you wanted to take a break from in the first place) 
  • A relaxing dip in a body of water (just a dip, probably up to your knees, and not a swim)  
  • Quiet sit down time (where you can lie down on a bed of crunchy leaves, rest your back against a big tree trunk, take a nap, write in a journal, draw a sketch, say a prayer, or do whatever me-time activity that you wish to do) 
  • A healthy meal or snack (often prepared by locals who know the foliage of the area well and can cook up a storm with what's readily available in the environment) 
  • And sometimes, a consultation with a physician (for any specific health concerns you wish to ask about) 

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What forest bathing is not

It's not done for high intensity exercise or recreation in their traditional sense. There's no vigorous movement involved, so don't expect to be doing any rappelling, hiking, or wall climbing. Neither is forest bathing camping, so no overnight trips and bonfire mallow roasting here. 

It's also discouraged to treat forest bathing as an outing, meaning, you'll probably on the receiving end of frowns and looks of disapproval if you're constantly taking selfies and Instagram Story-ing everything, and making noise with your companions.

The very point of forest bathing is to invite calmness and tranquility to penetrate your mind and body. The experience aims to be meditative, or even spiritual for some, so when if and when you do decide to try out forest bathing, research on what you're getting into and decide if it's something you really want to participate in.

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Forest bathing benefits 

We listed down the common illnesses and related issues that led Japanese researchers to establish forest bathing, so now, we share with you the many benefits afforded by the practice:

  • Reduction of your production of cortisol, a.k.a. the stress hormone, that's responsible for that tense "flight or fight" feeling that's so difficult to shake when you get when facing unpleasant situations
  • Mood-boosting effects, because you're generally away from all your stressful life activities for at least a few hours
  • Lowered heart rate and blood pressure 
  • Effective way to combat eye strain
  • Decreased symptoms of non-specific physical pain (like muscle and joint discomfort) especially with regular practice 
  • A chance for your immune system to recover and strengthen itself after fighting off effects of stress brought on by city life
  • Increased parasympathetic sympathetic nerve activity, or in plainer words, getting your body to digest more efficiently and encouraging it to learn how to return to a normal, relaxed state more quickly after encountering a stressful situation
  • An introduction to mindfulness, if you haven't already started your own mindfulness routine/practice

Some studies have also found that forest bathing can play a role in nudging our bodies to produce more anti-cancer proteins as well as natural killer cells (that protect us from the potential growth of tumors and infection from micro-bacteria).


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Where to go for a forest bath

You don't need to go all the way to Japan for a forest bath, but of course experiencing an original forest bath trail is still the gold standard.

If you want to do a forest bath right here in the Philippines, it's definitely possible! There are no strict rules for what comprises a forest bathing session, as long as the trip encompasses the essence of what it is originally: a quiet, purposely immersion in nature where you're there to experience the natural environment wholeheartedly. 

Some places within driving distance of Metro Manila that can mimic a genuine Japanese forest bathing experience (and that should be relatively free from crowds of tourists) are the Masungi Georeserve (this is a guided experience, too), Mt. Kulis (a beginner-friendly mountain trail), and Mt. Mapalad (people go for the fair weather and how there's a mix of water and land trails to explore).

These locations might not have all the activities a Japanese forest bathing has, but you can definitely still find ways to invite some R&R into your life with each step and deep breath you take. 

And with that, we hope you find balance in your umwelt!

Opening images from Unsplash