It’s a thing.
Enter the realm.
In my last post I talked about some of the tangible benefits to hiking and being in nature (or at least a green space of some kind) and I know it’s on trend these days, but the Japanese have been on to it for decades.
The practice of Shinrin-yoku has been part of wellness therapy in Japan since the 1980s. Translated it literally means forest bath.
In practice it just means taking in the forest atmosphere through as many senses as you can. It’s not exercise. No sweat necessary although it is optional. You don’t have to walk long distances or drive hundreds of miles from home. You just have to surround yourself with nature and be still.
Although I keep moving, my primary experience of nature is through vision. Duh. But I have stopped listening to audiobooks while hiking. In NH I did it a lot. Mostly because it was rare I could escape human sounds altogether and book narration provided a nice cover for lawnmowers, cars or planes. Here in Wisconsin it’s easier to do. Just the other day I was up on the edge of Lake Superior and heard nothing but the wind in the trees and the occasional bird.
That’s the idea with forest bathing. To commune and relax. Recommendations for maximum benefit include leaving electronics (even cameras!) behind. While I can’t do that because I’m a photographer and I am often in the middle of nowhere, I do take lots of breaks and pauses to just experience what surrounds me.
During those breaks and pauses I often find something small to marvel at. That’s another part of the practice of shinrin-yoku; taking the time to focus attention on details. Something I never do. Nope. Not me.
Another tenet is to let go of expectations and wander aimlessly; to allow your body to go where it wants. In Japan there are designated and accredited therapy forests that may not be big or empty, but here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin getting lost is easy. So while I would love to just trek in raw forest, I think I better stick to trails. I can let go of expectations though. Every time I go into the woods it’s slightly different and I never know what I’ll encounter.
Finding a place to sit or lie down is another part of the therapy. This is a piece of the puzzle I’m going to try to incorporate into my time in the woods. Mosquitoes and other biting hordes don’t seem to be a problem for the Japanese, but here they will be. I’ll see how it goes. My idea is to get off trail, preferably out of sight of the trail and spend time smelling the smells and hearing the sounds. As I get oriented and comfortable I’ll look for slices; details of the forest landscape that would ordinarily go unnoticed. Then I’ll get the camera involved.
If you don’t hike alone, you can still partake in shinrin-yoku if you get everyone else in on it. Being quiet and experiencing things separately is the key. We all perceive things in our own ways and our senses are attuned to different aspects of what is often the same environment. An interesting exercise might be to walk together silently, not stopping until you find an area where you can all fan out and find places to perch and absorb the natural goodness around you. When you’re done and back in the car, compare notes. Share what you liked best or found most surprising about your time.
In my experience, just being out by myself is enough. I don’t need to do every part of strict shinrin-yoku in order to benefit from it. I have noticed it’s better without a soundtrack and if I don’t necessarily have a goal for my photography. Unlike other focused trips like shooting waterfalls or wildflowers, a nature ramble is more relaxed and less stressful for the photographer in me. I don’t worry about missed shots or bad light.
And I think it can be done from a human-powered boat as well. Sure you have more mechanics involved (boat, paddles, life jackets etc.), but the more seat time you have the less intrusive and the more reflexive using them becomes. If you can get to lightly or undeveloped waters all the better. Or find some back channels where the big boats can’t go. Almost any time you get on the water in a small boat you distance yourself from people so I think that’s a benefit even if it isn’t the full-on shinrin-yoku program.
All the photos used in this post were taken less than 10 minutes from my house. Yes, I live in the sticks, but I think almost anyone can take nature breaks without driving a long way. Open Google maps and see what’s near you. That’s one of my favorite things to do. Nature preserves, lakes and, of course, forests are all there. In my shinrin-yoku Googling I even found official guide services all over; from England to Wisconsin if you prefer to be hard core. Either way I think it’s a great way to wind down and reconnect with nature. Ah the forest! Find one and go take a bath!