There is a small woodland near my house, which I walk through most days to get to the station. But recently, I have been trying to be more mindful of the trees, rather than simply marching past them.
It all started this summer. I was booked to perform at a festival in the grounds of a stately home. When I arrived, I saw a board listing all the workshops, including “Forest Bathing”. I didn’t know what that was, but I had a few hours to kill before my show and it was the closest I’d get to a wash all weekend!
I joined the small group and we were led away from the pounding beats of the music to a gate at the entrance to the woods. Then we had to stop and announce our arrival to the forest, rather than rudely marching in.
Our pace instinctively slowed as we walked silently into the glade, like crossing over a threshold from one world to the next. Our first exercise was to get into pairs. One person closed their eyes, whilst the other lead them around, warning about potential pitfalls, such as uneven ground, and encouraging them to explore the forest through touch.
When I was guided, I found this exercise surprisingly moving. It was very strange to touch the leaves and stroke the bark without looking too. We live in such a visual culture, it is unusual to be deprived of the sense of sight. The part of the mind that needs to be in control has to surrender and trust.
Unfortunately, when it was my turn to guide, I accidentally lead my partner into a patch of nettles. She was wearing Thai fisherman style trousers, which fell open and exposed her legs, which were stung.
Next, we were told to take off our shoes and walk deeper into the woods. I looked down at the mud and hesitated. I didn’t want to get my feet dirty for the show. But I told myself to get a grip; this was a festival, not “Live at the Apollo.”
This simple practise of walking barefoot on grass has fancy names now, and there are several books about “earthing” which list its almost instant physiological benefits, including improving sleep, strengthening the immune system, and lowering stress.
Next, we were told to find a tree that called to us and communicate with it. I looked around. One tree seemed more prominent than the others, so I thought that must be mine. I went over to it and closed my eyes. As I leant my forehead against the bark, I asked for any messages I needed to hear.
Forest Bathing walks like this, or Shinrin Yoku, originated in Japan in the 1980s, in response to a huge health crisis due to people moving to the cities. The term doesn’t quite translate into English, but it means is being completely immersed in a natural environment.
Our guide was Stefan Batorijs, who founded Nature and Therapy UK in 2017. Stefan has been exploring the wild places for 50 years. He grew up in the grounds of one of Henry the Eight’s wives’ palaces, which had become a Quaker hotel, where his father worked. There weren’t any other children around, so from the age of three, he wandered off on his own and explored the whole estate.
It was paradise. But, in the mid 1970s, the family moved back to Surrey, where everything was being built on as London expanded.
Stefan trained in an agricultural college and worked as a countryside warden. But then, in his 30s, he became depressed. He found that going into the woods was his sanctuary, his salve. He started to wonder if other people would gain relief from suffering through being in nature too.
He went on to retrain as a psychotherapist and outdoors activity instructor, then set up an eco-therapy project with the NHS, working with patients with severe mental health issues. He experienced for himself how, when even heavily medicated people came out onto the land to build shelters or build fires, they began to come alive.
“Keep off the grass” is a common warning in public gardens, but Stefan feels it is crucial that we get in amongst the greenery and have an intimate connection with plants.
“We’ve become spectators of the space rather than participants,” he says. “As we enter a forest, we’re perceiving the plants and animals, but we have to remember that they are also perceiving us. There is a reciprocity going on.”
Stefan says we can learn to understand our sensitive relationship with the natural world because after all, we came from it.
“For seven million years, we were forest dwellers, which shaped our physical and psychological processes,” he explains. “The forest made us. People have this perception that we are not nature, we are separate from it and observing it. But that’s just an illusion.”
A typical Shinrin Yoku walk takes place over about two hours but hardly covers any distance at all. By walking slowly, we relax our physiology and start to notice so much more.
I sat down under my tree now and turned my focus inside. I listened to the sound of the forest and felt its atmosphere on my face. I don’t think I received any messages, but I did notice that my usual pre-show nerves had disappeared.
It was time to leave and return to the maddening crowd, pausing to thank the forest as we left. I performed my show, then afterwards went to the bar to celebrate. There, I saw my partner from the walk, who showed me the nettle stings on her knees. I felt embarrassed and apologised, but she just laughed. She was elated. Not because of any chemicals, but due to the Forest Bathing. She was so inspired that she had signed up to study Shinrin Yoku there and then.
To contact Stefan and find out more about Shinrin Yoku, go to www.natureandtherapy.co.uk