How to walk mindfully in woodlands and green spaces

Walking in the woods is great for your physical and mental wellbeing – but walking mindfully, or ‘forest bathing’ takes a nature stroll to a whole new level.
Mindfulness has really taken off in the past few years and now there’s growing interest in the benefits of being mindful in natural environments, or ‘forest bathing’ as it’s sometimes called.

Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was developed in Japan in the 1980s, and there are now over sixty forest therapy sites in Japan. It’s about immersing yourself in a natural environment, focusing on the sensory experience.

Why?

Most of us recognise we feel good after spending time in the natural world – but there’s plenty of research from around the world that backs that up. Studies have found that spending time in the woods can boost immune function, reduce stress hormones, and cause you to physically relax. Combine that with the other benefits of mindfulness and it’s a powerful tool for physical and especially mental wellbeing.

Where?

Find somewhere locally that’s as close to nature as possible. A patch of ancient woodland might be ideal, but even urban parks often have secluded, more natural areas. The most important thing is that it’s somewhere away from the business of modern life, with plenty of trees. These websites allow you to search for woods and forests

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/map/

https://www.forestry.gov.uk/visit

How it’s done

The most important thing to remember is that it isn’t a hike. It’s not about getting from A to B, raising the heart rate or following a map. Walking mindfully means slowing everything right dow, being in the moment.

Turn off your phone

The smartphone is the enemy of mindfulness. Switch it off, or better still, leave it at home just for once.

Walk aimlessly

Rather than following a particular route, wander aimlessly, allowing your body to take you around the woodland or green space without guidance from your brain. Let go of goals, of nagging thoughts and impulses, and focus on what is around you. Pause from time to time, and engage one of your senses, as described in the next four steps.

Look around you

Stop and focus on what you can see. Look upwards at the tree canopy, see the pattern of light and the swaying of branches. If in a clearing, see the clouds in the sky. Notice what is beneath you on the forest floor.

Use your ears

Close your eyes and focus on your hearing. What can you hear close to you, and what can you hear far away? How many different sounds – wind, birds, human noises – can you distinguish?

Use your sense of touch

Touch the trunks of trees and see how different each species feels. Touch leaves and rocks on the ground. If there is water, allow it to flow over your hands. If it’s good weather, try removing your shoes and treading barefoot on the earth, exploring the sensations. Be careful not to touch any poisonous or unpleasant plants such as stinging nettles!

Use your nose

What can you smell? Are there different smells closer to the ground than the sky? Are there flowers nearby, or scents on the breeze?

Sit still

Somewhere on your walk find somewhere to sit and be still. On the floor, feeling the sensation of the earth beneath you is ideal. Try to manage at least ten minutes just sitting. Focus on something around you – the movement of water, or a tree – or on your breathing.

Reflect

In Japan, shirin-yoku sessions usually end with a tea ceremony and time to discuss and think about the experience. We’re not big on ceremonies with our tea over here, but think about bringing a flask or something to eat and taking some time to sit at the end of your mindful walk and reflect.

Watch the expert
Dr Qi Ling is one of Japan’s foremost researchers into the science of forest bathing, and he shared his advice in this short BBC video:

 

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