By Manvi Pant
What is it like to be in the wild, to stand underneath a Magnolia tree, to cross a bridge without wondering which side to pick, to watch a tiny flower bloom into life through a crack in the concrete, to collect winter-crisp autumn leaves and hear them crackle, to listen to the trickling sound of a nearby stream, to learn from animals how they live together, to embrace the sunset with hopes of a new day?
I only know how I feel, but what is this feeling too deep for words? What is it in the wilderness that I yearn to preserve?
The term Shinrin-Yoku was coined in 1982 by Japan’s forestry minister Tomohide Akiyama. Shinrin in Japan means ‘forest’ and Yoku means ‘bath’. This Japanese therapy is all about immersing oneself in nature for increased well-being.
I first learnt about forest bathing by Dr Qing Li. In his book The Art & Science of Forest Bathing, he asks, “What is this secret power of trees that makes us so much healthier and happier?”
I bet if we stop staring at our screens incessantly, we would know the answer.
Nielson reports that on average, adults spend 11 hours per day interacting with media. Another report suggests that 90 percent of people spend close to 22 hours inside every day with minimal daylight. The number of hours we venture out to feel the fresh air, taste the earthy scent of wet soil, or just to connect with your environment and open up all our senses are only a few.
Widely appreciated and followed by the east for its contribution to body and soul, Shinrin-Yoku has now found its ardent followers in the west too. Li, now president of the Society for Forest Medicine in Japan, links forest bathing to biophilia hypothesis which means the biological affinity of human beings with nature.
He writes, “Contact with nature is as vital to well-being as regular exercise and a healthy diet.” To validate my understanding of this, I caught up with a dear friend and Australian forester, Scott Poynton.
Scott lives in Switzerland in a small village that rests at the foot of the Jura mountain range adorned with beautiful forests. He would walk amongst the village trees and those bordering the agricultural fields, greet them, touch their bark and check in.
When I asked him if that has some therapeutic effect, he said, “I feel a beautiful sense of deep connection like I’m not alone. Being a forester, I’ve been walking and dreaming in forests all my life, enjoying the deeply spiritual, calming exhilaration of the experience.” He got introduced to Shinrin-Yoku five years ago and instantly fell for it.
I could resonate with Scott because of a similar experience I had in Bhutan. Climbing my way up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro valley, I was gasping for breath in the beginning but in subsequent steps, it felt like the beauty of nature around me, the lush green trees, the silence has started to sink in.
Scott says nature doesn’t judge you so when you’re out there, all your defences can be lowered. I believe him. It took me a while to soak myself completely and trust what nature was offering me and the moment I did, my body relieved itself of all inhibitions. All I remember is I did not want to return from that wilderness.
Forest walks are incredibly meditative, and a lot of people across the globe participate in healing forest walk sessions. They move in small groups silently, observing their relationship with nature. Some groups keep a theme, some hold activities like yoga and meditation.
Scott too shared a similar experience: “Recently, I went for a big walk with a bunch of seven people most of whom didn’t know the other participants.We initially headed north-west along the crest of the Jura mountain range before it turned south-west toward Geneva in the far distance. The intent was to find a deep reconnection, a rhythm. We walked to slow down, unwind, reflect. As we walked together discovering each other, we found time for solitude. We covered 20-30 km over six to nine hours each day.”
Different people draw different conclusions from Shinrin-Yoku. Alban Mayne, former general manager at Logitech and now CMO and CCO at an e-health startup, who recently went on his first walk, has said that forest walks helped him disconnect from ‘assumed’ or own-defined limits. He learned to think deeper, use his heart more instead of SWOTs and articulate his thoughts or priorities, personal and professional. Apart from connecting with nature, his feelings and with amazing people, Shinrin-Yoku brought him “strength and patience”.
I cannot agree more. Hiking up 10,240 ft and covering 720 steps at 3˚C allowed my body to experience a range of emotions. The entire purpose of choosing Tiger’s Nest Monastery was to feel the magnificence of Mother Nature.
I wondered if selecting a location for forest walk plays a vital role in enhancing one’s engagement. Scott replied, “Find a place that can be described as a natural setting. We don’t have to be in forests the whole time; small traverses across fields, small villages and even towns are all part of the experience and actually serve to enhance the sense of connection and refuge when we do re-enter the forests. In addition, look for places that can provide a good sleep and a nice meal.”
Allow yourself to wander, it is in the woods you will hear nature whispering.
After a corporate career spanning eight years, Manvi Pant is now a consultant with Plan International (India Chapter). She also runs a story-telling platform Real Life Heroes – by Manvi.
Photos: Manvi Pant and Scott Poynton