Forest Bathing Is the Newest (and Most Instagrammable) Way to Battle Stress and Anxiety

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Sometimes when you can’t see the forest for the trees, you literally have to hang out in the woods to find your way.

In our Winter issue, FASHION editors rounded up the 100 people, products and experiences we think will blow up in 2019. It’s our inaugural Hot 100 Fuse List. From the workouts you’ll be doing, to the new designers and artists you’ll see on your feed, this is your guide to being in the know this year. With campaign season on the horizon, this year is set to be even more stressful than the last. If the pressure is all becoming too much, retreat back to nature with forest bathing.

For the past two years, I’d spent most of my days feeling incredibly anxious. From the moment I woke up and checked my emails and social feeds, it felt like electricity was vibrating through my body—a sense of buzzing that prevented me from ever feeling calm. I’d be shaky on the subway on my way to work and quick to anger over inevitable delays. I sat for more than eight hours a day with a knot in the pit of my stomach and a voice in my head that told me to move faster, think quicker and work harder. I loved the type of work I was doing, but I had no balance.

Then, in June, I lost my job in a round of layoffs. I’d spent endless hours obsessively worrying over this event (I worked so hard to get here!)—and then it happened. In the immediate aftermath, I felt sadness and had a serious case of the “what nows?” But suddenly having time on my hands forced me to face a nagging truth I’d ignored: I was unhappy and totally burned out. I needed a change.

Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, originated in Japan in the 1980s and is simply spending meaningful time in nature practising mindfulness.

Cue a restorative getaway to beautiful British Columbia. Any time I travel to the West Coast, I find its laid-back attitude contagious. The ocean air and surrounding mountains can evoke a sense of calm in even the most wound up of people. But this time, while visiting Victoria, I want to try out a particularly calming activity: forest bathing. It’s a therapeutic nature experience that popped up on my Instagram thanks to its growing popularity in North America.

Forest bathing, or Shinrin-yoku, originated in Japan in the 1980s and is simply spending meaningful time in nature practising mindfulness. Using your senses, you wade through layers of green and gold, touching the sappy bark of trees, listening to the chatter of birds overhead and feeling the soft sun kiss your skin.

Japanese doctor and forest medicine expert Qing Li published a book called Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, which cites research showing that the practice helps lower blood pressure, boosts your immune system, improves mood and, most appealing to me, reduces anxiety and stress. I can’t wait to get lost in the trees and find my chill.

But as a newbie, I need some help, so I summon a friend to join me. We meet with forest bathing guide John Fraser, who runs the outdoor tour company Elemental Magick Holistic Adventures, on a sunny August afternoon. Fraser is a warm middle-aged man with a serious enthusiasm for nature. He started teaching forest bathing earlier this year, after a series of challenging events uprooted his life: He lost his job, and his long-term relationship ended.

“Everything that gave me a sense of identity, I lost,” he tells me. Fraser’s previous decades-long career as a counsellor meant he spent his days listening to people’s problems, but when it came time to process his own trauma, he needed a change of scenery and found healing in nature. He still helps people find peace, except now he’s not the sounding board; the forest is the therapist.

Research shows that the practice helps lower blood pressure, boosts your immune system, improves mood and, most appealing to me, reduces anxiety and stress.

“Most of us go through life not really using our senses,” says Fraser as we enter Francis/King Regional Park, a network of lush hiking trails just outside Victoria’s downtown. “I’ll be walking you through your five senses, doing different exercises so you get a sensory workout.”

The first exercise we do is a “walking meditation.” Fraser has us slow our pace to an uncomfortable crawl and asks us to pay attention to what’s going on in our bodies. “Be really aware of where your centre of gravity is,” he says. As we walk, inch by inch, in silence, all I can hear is a gentle breeze rustling leaves around me. It’s a change from the whizzing traffic and sirens I’m used to hearing. Even though I have a plane to catch in a couple of hours, the slothlike pace isn’t bothering me. In fact, I sort of like it.

Mindfulness—the act of being in the present moment—is at the core of forest bathing. Since the technique was a large part of Fraser’s counselling practice, it’s easy for him to bring it into nature. “One of the reasons why nature has such a therapeutic effect is that it tends to draw people into the present moment a lot more effortlessly than if you’re sitting in your room and trying to meditate,” he says. “You get drawn into its beauty—that sense of calm, that stillness.”

Throughout the two-hour walk, we use our senses to keep us present: We touch shrubs and berries; we taste shoot tips of a Douglas fir tree; we smell Western red cedar; we see wildlife and examine interesting trees we come across. I thoroughly enjoy the experience, even though it’s seemingly tedious. I’ve never taken the time to notice the beautiful patterns of bark up close before.

“The mental health benefits of forest bathing are pretty profound. It leaves you with this sense of knowing you’re not alone.”

As our walk comes to an end, Fraser stops and pulls out a Tibetan singing bowl—an instrument commonly used for meditation—and asks us to close our eyes. He circles a mallet around its shiny edges, and a ringing sound fills the air. I try to clear my mind and focus on the noise. My thoughts wander, but I do my best to bring them back.

Since returning to Toronto, I’ve tried to hold on to parts of what Fraser taught me: Slow down, move with purpose and engage my senses. I’ve incorporated mindfulness into my daily routine, too. While I don’t have British Columbia’s rainforests in my backyard, I do have local parks and nearby hiking trails. I also have the knowledge that getting outdoors—without my phone—helps my well-being. Plus, one thing in particular that Fraser said has stuck with me: “The mental health benefits of forest bathing are pretty profound. It leaves you with this sense of knowing you’re not alone.”

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