Blog by Alex
Sustainable Merton Community Champion
We all know that being surrounded by beautiful nature can make us feel good. We’ve heard a lot recently about how taking a walk in nature can be beneficial for your mental health, especially during lockdown when many of us are experiencing serious cabin fever. But did you know that in Japan it is a formal practice that has even been recommended by the government as a treatment for depression?
Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) which translates as ‘forest bathing’ is a practice developed in the 1980s in response to the increasingly urban nature of life in modern Japan. It involves small groups taking trips into rural forested areas and taking time to immerse themselves in the woodland environment. Proponents of the practice report a deep sense of physical and mental relaxation.
Dr Qing Li, who has been researching the practice for over two decades advises that the best way to practise Shinrin-yoku is to pick a spot in woodland, making sure not to bring any technological distractions with you such as a phone or camera. He then simply recommends engaging with the forest through your senses, walking without a goal or purpose but following the information coming to you through your senses. Whether that be the sight of dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy, the trickling sound of water from a forest stream or the smell of damp earth and foliage.
Whilst the psychological benefits of relaxing in a beautiful natural environment are fairly self-evident, there is a growing body of research suggesting that Shinrin-yoku may have measurable benefits to physiological health too. Preliminary studies have demonstrated that the practice may reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body and have a positive effect on heart rate variability(HRV)-related sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous activity, blood pressure, and pulse rate (Song, Ikei and Miyazaki, 2016). There is even some research that suggests that the aerosolized oils released by trees themselves may have an effect on our physiology (Qing Li, 2009).
Given the simplicity of the practice and its potential benefits for mental and physical health, forest bathing could be a great tool in battling the anxieties of lockdown and anxiety and depression more generally. Unfortunately, many urban areas, especially those with majority working class populations, often have far less access to green space. Given then that there is growing research confirming the benefits of time spent in nature for physiological and mental health, we should consider access to green space to be a priority issue of social justice and urban development.
Luckily, compared to many other London Boroughs, we are particularly blessed here in Merton to have a number of wonderful green spaces. Some favourite spots of mine include Cannizaro Park, Wimbledon Common and Morden Hall Park. So for those of us lucky enough to have the time and access to such spaces, why not try out a spot of forest bathing to help battle the blues?
If you’re interested in learning more about Forest Bathing, I recommend 'Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing' by Dr. Qing Li.