Japanese tradition devotes an entire philosophy to time spent in contemplation under cherry trees, but a comparatively recent cultural or holistic practice has taken this philosophy and run with it into the woods. Shinrin Yoku – translated as ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or, more metaphorically, as ‘forest bathing’ – has its roots in the 1980s and was devised as an antidote to modern city living. A walk in the forest was believed to be a source of natural rejuvenation for the mind and the body, offering easefulness of mind and a restoration of health through organic compounds released from the trees. Unsurprisingly, this combination of meditation and immersion in the tranquillity of nature was an attractive proposition for a generation raised in bludgeoning cities and subject to increasing technological dependence.
Shinrin Yoku has become popular worldwide and there are now numerous organisations promoting this revitalising pursuit. It has travelled – of course – across the Pacific to California and British Columbia, where towering fir trees evoke serenity and awe for regular groups of guided participants. A host of positive effects – a boost to the immune system, decreased anxiety, an overall sense of wellbeing, lower blood pressure – are claimed for such mindful strolls through the ancient forest. Shinrin Yoku brings to mind John Stewart Collis – the excellent mid-century writer and ecological pioneer – who would take quiet, contemplative breaks from his forestry employment, propped against an oak tree in a Dorset wood. Collis described this spot as his ‘headquarters for meditation’, where he might become ‘all spirit or soul’. Although his biographical book, The Wood, predated the concept of ‘forest bathing’ by 30 odd years, while poetically enthusing over the merits of arboreal relaxation Collis unwittingly penned the near-perfect handbook to the art of Shinrin Yoku. ‘Seeing nothing but trees’, he wrote, ‘and having behind me and at each side nothing but trees I was in a highly favourable position...in which not only happy hours but inspired and fruitful hours might be spent’.
I myself am spending a great many hours in forests this year, many of them indeed inspired and some hopefully fruitful. However, sidling up to specific trees, field-book in hand, does not a participant of Shinrin Yoku make. It is the forest itself, not its individual components, that the practice is concerned with. To receive the therapeutic benefits of forest bathing one must be tuned to the living, breathing entity of many trees as a whole, to the ‘spirit’ of the forest. This is perhaps one of Shinrin Yoku’s most attractive attributes: that the practice is for everybody, irrespective of any pre-existing appreciation of trees. Simply ‘enter the woods’, as Collis proclaims, ‘and happiness may yet be yours’.
Words by Matt Collins.