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The Gap Year Blog

Forest Bathing: Rise of the Tree Huggers

4 Jul 2019 11:30 AM
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Just a Girl, Standing in Front of a Tree

Glancing feverishly behind me, my heart beating an alarming tattoo in my chest, bullets of sweat forming in apprehension, I lurk in the corner of a city park in South London. No- I’m not undertaking a brazen open-air wee or indulging in a bit of cheeky municipal nudity- something far more emotionally vulnerable than that. I’m (whisper it) hugging a tree. All too literally. 

The term tree-hugger has long carried the derisive subtext of the sanctimonious, smearing an entire demographic of environmentalists as preachy and deluded, with all the subsequent social ostracization that affords. But no, I counsel myself reassuringly, here, as I stand, legs splayed sturdily, arms wrapped around the girthy trunk of my beech with a firm hold- I hug this tree with the backing of science. I am not eccentrically loitering in a semi-rural location; I am forest bathing.

Come Again?

Those as yet uninitiated- do not be fooled- this bathing requires no water; the term is a translation of 'shinrin-yoku' which describes a kind of metaphorical bath of the senses in nature. It was first developed in Japan in the 1980s as a public health initiative, and essentially just involves organised tree-time- the longer, the better. Qing Li, a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, measured the activity of human natural killer cells, associated with immune system health and cancer prevention, before and after exposure to the woods; the subsequent growth proves more significant than the standard correlations between exercise, fresh air, and increased longevity. Since then, it’s proved to be no fad, with the Japanese government spending about $4million dollars from 2004 to 2012 studying the physiological and psychological effects of forest bathing.

We could simply look at the trees, but where is the fun in that? The majority of us are affection starved city-dwellers, after all, desperate for a good cradling. Anyway, making a physical connection has a more profound effect, according to a report commissioned by the glamping company Canopy & Stars. “Hug a tree, touch the bark, smell the pine trees and listen to the wind through the leaves,” it advises. “Wrap your limbs around one of our arboreal friends and feel at one with nature and the world.”

Here are 5 reasons why you should try it:

1. Health: Two hours of mindful exploration in a forest could reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol and improve concentration and memory. Nice. Trees release chemicals called phytoncides, which have an anti-microbial effect on human bodies, boosting the immune system.

2. Digital Detox: This is the perfect opportunity to jettison those electronic devices

3. Glow up: Beauty is pain? The trees won’t stand for that toxic dialectic. In fact, those with eczema and psoriasis see measurable benefits after forest bathing due to the anti-inflammatory terpenes expressed by trees into the forest air

4. An excuse to do nothing. Mindful idleness is the raison d’etre of the seasoned tree-bather. That means no sneaky hiking, or checking whether you’ve hit your 10,000 steps

5. Get introspective: Why passively gaze at trees when you can get all Freudian about it? Dr Qing Li himself has suggested that we should map a psychological landscape onto the physical one around us to help with the meditative experience: - ‘maybe you have a place in the countryside that reminds you of your childhood or of happy times in the past. These places will be special to you and your connection with them will be strong’

Whilst the logic that spending time in green spaces is good for us seems painfully obvious, it doesn’t mean we actually do it. According to a study sponsored by the Environment Protection Agency, by 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities, meaning we need to get creative with our tree time. By committing to the concept of forest bathing, it’s more likely we’ll get out there.

By Laura Smith - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservationcommunityteaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!