Forest bathing is no walk in the park. In fact, it’s more than that. A form of nature therapy, forest bathing originated as a Japanese practice in the 1980s. Known as shinrin-yoku it was conceived as a way to alleviate the stress levels of overwhelmed salarymen. The idea is very simple – just soaking up the atmosphere of a forest – but in recent years the practice has found an international audience.
Spending time with trees has a number of healing properties: trees release phytoncides, or ‘wood essential oils’ (organic compounds with antibacterial properties), which not only protect trees from germs but provide a wide range of health benefits for humans, too. The practice of forest bathing is considered a natural medicine and there’s been a real surge in scientific literature about the topic: it’s believed to boost the immune system, reduce stress levels and lower blood pressure. So, by temporarily disconnecting from our everyday routines and thoughts, we can apply this simple and effective way to still our minds, calm our breathing and focus on finding balance for our own mental wellbeing.
Despite the name, forest bathing doesn’t require a swimsuit! There’s no water involved (unless it’s raining) – the practice simply involves wandering through a wooded area and taking your time to notice the details. With people growing interested in holidaying in communications black holes or wifi-free zones, forest bathing makes a lot of sense. It's the perfect opportunity to switch off your phone, leave your worries behind and step into the childlike wonder of your own imagination. You don’t need to follow a set trail; simply let your mind wander and see which places you are naturally drawn to. Here's how to go about it:
Step 1: Leave your phone at home! This experience is about being present in the moment.
Step 2: Head to a woodland area and let your mind wander.
Step 3: You can meditate if you want but you don't have to – walk around, lie on the ground, wrap your arms around a tree or take off your shoes to feel your bare feet against the earth.
Step 4: Focus on your breathing and observe the details that you might usually skim over: the different shapes of the trees, the birds singing, the texture of tree bark or the scent of wildflowers.
Step 5: Return to your day feeling refreshed!
The great thing about forest bathing is that all you need is green space, an open mind and a sense of adventure. You can do it anywhere, from the forests of Sweden and Japan to woodland in England or simply your local park.
Midhurst, a small market town in West Sussex, literally means ‘the place that sits amongst the wooded hills’, so where better to try forest bathing? The Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa is just an hour away from London Waterloo and offers a range of forest bathing experiences. Dating back to 1430, it’s one of England’s oldest coaching inns, spanning a fascinating and important heritage in this part of the country.
Just a few miles from the much-loved South Downs National Park, the hotel itself instantly connects you with nature, complete with creaky wooden floorboards, thick timber beams and appropriately named rooms like ‘The Oak Room’. The carefully selected food and drinks spread is deliciously local too, serving the likes of forest mushrooms, local wines, organic sausages and wood pigeon.
Helena Skoog leads hotel guests on forest bathing experiences in the nearby woodlands. A qualified forest bathing guide, Skoog grew up in the forests of Sweden and now lives off-grid in Sussex. The experience begins with an introduction to the practice before guests are then asked to cross a ‘threshold’, which is when the forest bathing begins. There’s an emphasis on walking at your own pace, leaving space between other guests, staying quiet and focusing on your surroundings and thoughts. The tours run rain or shine, each weather type offering a different nature experience.
Skoog gives pointers and advice that you can apply both during and after the session, should you wish to try it again by yourself. Returning to the hotel is a warming way to end the experience: hotel staff are attentive and friendly, the building full of medieval character and charm, and there's enough space to enjoy your stay at your own pace.
Forest bathing is about embracing your surroundings. It produces a calmness of mind that can set you up for the day or help you wind down for the evening, allowing you to reflect on yourself and your surroundings in a way we don't often allow ourselves the time for anymore.
Forest Bathing overnight experience at the Spread Eagle Hotel & Spa starts from £275 based on two sharing a classic room for dinner, bed & breakfast. This includes a 2-hour forest bathing session and a 2-hour yoga session with Helena Skoog. This package is available on certain dates over the summer and autumn – check with the hotel for more details.
Top image: the Halnaker tree tunnel in the South Downs National Park © Matthew J Thomas/Shutterstock