Breathe Our Rainforests In Like a Child

Article from the series: Staying Safe and Healthy in Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

Not many will argue with the fact that spending time outdoors is good for your mental health and wellbeing. There are those who are acutely aware that it clears the mind by having a calming effect, allowing them to relax and reset. But there are also some who maintain that it has a beneficial physical effect on our bodies too, to the extent that, in some places, it may be prescribed by a doctor as a treatment for a broad range of ailments.

When I first heard of ‘forest bathing’ I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in one of Nyungwe National Park’s icy cold streams, which sounds more like a form of torture than therapy. Thankfully, that is not required in order to forest-bathe!

Forest bathing is simply being in the forest. Leaving behind any technology, being guided by your body and paying attention to your senses; breathing in the rich, earthy smell of damp soil, watching the dappled sunlight flickering through the leaves, the sounds of bird songs and insect calls and the cool, grounded feeling of an old, moss-covered tree. Forest bathing is being consciously present in nature.

In Japan the art of ‘forest bathing’ is called shinrin-yoku. The term emerged in the 1980s to both encourage people to embrace the outdoors in an arising digital era, and promote the preservation of nature. The concept gained a lot of popular and scientific interest and a quick search brings up many studies and information on the wide-reaching benefits of shinrin-yoku. As well as the psychological advantages of reducing anxiety and helping with concentration, there are demonstrated physical bonuses too; boosting the immune system, improved cardiovascular function, reducing blood pressure and heart rate, improved metabolic function and more. It is even claimed to have anti-aging effects. Research suggests that the positive benefits can last for some time after ‘exposure’, and frequent top-ups, even just 15-20 minutes a day, can have long-term positive effects.

The science behind the power of nature to improve our health is still being investigated and likely involves a combination of mechanisms. There are the obvious benefits associated with spending time in nature; reduced pollution levels, increased exposure to sunlight and encouraging physical activity. Consciously connecting with nature and being immersed in the sensory experience allows us to think outwardly and interrupts the internalisation that can lead to anxiety. The holistic view of the mind-body connection could be used to explain the physical changes in the same way positive thinking can help in the recovery of a physical disorder or, in the reverse, stress and anxiety can have a physical manifestation. Another interesting theory is that we breathe in microbes present in the soil and chemicals released by plants, called phytoncides. These phytoncides are understood to improve immune function by enhancing human natural killer cell activity which play a role in controlling viral-infected cells.

We now live in a time where we have never been more disconnected from nature and this shift away from the natural environment has occurred in a very short period in our evolutionary history. According to U.N. more people globally now live in urban than in rural areas, a trend which is set to continue. And, although a complex issue with many factors involved, there has been a link drawn between global environmental changes, including urbanisation and biodiversity loss, and the increase in incidences of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

To properly practice shinrinyoku, and gain the health advantages, you cannot just be exercising and happen to be in a forest or park while doing so. You must be aware of your surroundings and consciously experience your senses while in a natural environment. However, the good news is you need not be in the middle of pristine ancient mountain rainforest, like Nyungwe, to practice shinrinyoku; any green space will provide the benefits of nature.

Armed with this new knowledge, our daily walks in and around Nyungwe have taken on new meaning. It occurred to me, on our stroll today, that the key to forest-bathing could be in imitating my two-year old. She wanders (wonders) slowly and aimlessly without a destination and totally unaware of the constraints of time, acknowledges every sound, walks through every muddy puddle, stops to watch a falling leaf or to inspect every pebble, seed, flower and bug she comes across, and while crouched down observing something that has caught her eye, has been known to taste a bit of soil too … perhaps children have some innate understanding of nature’s healing powers.

Next time you visit the forest, remember to bathe in it, breathe in the phytoncides and microbes for a free vitamin kick and appreciate the far-reaching benefits of nature!

photo by Marcus Westberg