*Photograph sourced from Unsplash
*Photograph sourced from Unsplash
When our ancestors went into forests, whether to forage for food or hunt for medicinal plants, little did they know that the very act of being in the woods was healing them. Forests provide something for each of the senses. Entering a canopy of green, you are immersed in a peaceful silence that is, ironically, defined by sound—the crackle of a leaf as it crunches beneath your shoe on the forest floor, the strong buzz of a bee, the persistent knock of a woodpecker on a tree trunk, and your own miraculous breath. Sink into that silence, and you will slow down and find yourself even listening to your heartbeat. It is the sound of what keeps us alive, and yet we rarely take a moment to appreciate it.
The feel of grass on bare feet is a sensation we hardly experience in everyday living, and the forest goes a step further, offering varied sensations in the feel of velvety moss, tender buds, resilient bark, and hard rock. Taste a wild berry, fresher than any fruit in your refrigerator, and smell a wild flower, different from farmed flowers perched in vases.
All sensations are followed by the one that hits you first, sight; there is nothing more enchanting than sunlight that filters through a forest canopy and strokes the soil, refracting as if on water and creating varied shades of green. The Japanese even have a word for it: komorebi.
Little wonder, then, that the science behind this feeling was also researched in Japan, giving birth to the activity of shinrin-yoku in the ’80s. The term literally translates as “forest bathing”, or simply put, soaking in the atmosphere of a forest.
Tempting as it sounds, this isn’t quite the same as sunbathing in your swimsuit. This therapy—widely practiced in Japan and South Korea, where designated forests are “prescribed” for healing—entails walking around in dense forest cover that provides silence and calm to help connect individuals with their inner selves.
The practice is slowly gaining interest in other countries as well—while in India it is actually returning to its roots. After all, thousands of years ago it was Indian sages who pioneered the activity of going to the forests and jungles in search of answers, emerging with the key questions for all mankind: who are we, why do we exist, and where do we go from here? Despite being pioneers in holistic health, we lost touch with this true essence somewhere along the way and are now finding our way back
“Try going for a walk in the forest after a breakup, and you’ll know what we mean
It’s no secret that nature knows how to nurture; we know that forests have great healing properties for the human race. We are part of nature, one with it and also interdependent. Consciously or subconsciously, out in nature is where we feel most comfortable, and being there has a significant impact on our mental and emotional well-being.
According to scientific literature compiled by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, extensive studies have proved the health benefits of spending time in forests. Forests affect how we think and feel, which directly impacts our immunity and healing abilities.
Forests are believed to have a variety of natural elements, and many trees give off organic compounds, such as phytoncide, that support the “natural killer” cells that are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer. Shinrin-yoku is also believed to reduce blood pressure, speed recovery from surgeries, and improve sleep patterns, among others.
Along with physical well-being, the intangible benefits of forest healing include reduced stress levels, increased energy and concentration levels, and improved moods. The brain reacts differently when we are surrounded by nature because when we are in that environment “we do our overstressed brains a favor”, says writer Florence Williams in her 2017 National Geographic article “This Is Your Brain on Nature”. People who have experimented with forest bathing report feeling lighter, refreshed, at peace, and ready for the next dose of their 9-to-5 lives.
Adding an element of self-exploration, social entrepreneur Sunil Chauhan and filmmaker Nitin Das have started what they have termed “healing walks” that take people on weekend journeys to nearby forests. They claim not to be experts on the practice, but people find their walks rewarding. A lot of their know-how has been cultivated via research and thorough reading on shinrin-yoku, and using the science behind it, they have developed and led walks in a variety of natural surroundings.
They aim to spread the practice across India with the help of “volunteer instructors”. According to Chauhan, “This is our effort to help people reconnect with nature”.
Spending quiet moments in forests can help us find calm and balance, but those of us who have never experienced it might need a helping hand initially—and this is where the duo steps in. External silence and inner peace have a close correlation, and “In the woods we can find the space that allows both to interact for healing transformations to happen”, Chauhan says. Participants who have been on these healing forest walks discover new things about themselves through the expression of feeling, be it through interactive sessions or games designed for and woven into the walks.
Around the world, forest bathing is on the rise, from the increasing number of designating healing forests in South Korea to doctors recognizing the therapy as a valid treatment option. But ultimately, it is the way it makes people feel which is increasing its popularity. Sure, there is science behind the “feel-good” factor, but just like being in love, it’s almost impossible to pinpoint exactly why you feel the way you do. Some things simply feel magical.