How To Boost The Health Benefits Of Your Next Nature Walk (From A Forest-Bathing Researcher)
The practice of shinrin-yoku is based on walking through the forest at a gentle pace for two hours or more. Keeping your phone switched off allows time to soak up the environment around you and come into the here and now. The phrase shikan-shouyou means "nothing but wandering along," something we rarely get a chance to do but that is very beneficial.
How to make your next nature walk even healthier for the body and mind:
Focus on your feet as they come into contact with the ground.
Sense how every muscle in your body works together as you take one step followed by another. Become an observer of your thoughts. Acknowledge them and allow them to move on as you settle into the rhythm of walking. Take note of:
- Which muscles engage as you lift up one foot from the ground in order to take another step?
- Which part of your feet touches the ground first?
- How do your arms synchronize with your legs?
- How do you feel as you walk? Are there any aches and pains or sore areas? Imagine yourself breathing into these areas, and imagine the pain easing away.
- How do you feel emotionally? Are you feeling happy, or do you have anxious thoughts going around your busy mind?
See how quietly you can walk so that you can notice as many of the details around you as possible.
Use the five senses.
Switch off your phone and let nature calm your body and mind through all five senses:
- See all the colors and shapes and movement in the trees. Look closely at the details of the leaves and bark. Look up through the canopy to the sky.
- Take in all the aromas of nature around you, the earth waking up in spring, or leaves returning to the soil in autumn. The smell of a crisp winter's day, or a warm afternoon in late summer laden with the smell of ripening berries.
- Listen to the sounds of nature: the birds, the breeze through the trees, the rustle of leaves trodden underfoot.
- Touch the trees with all their textures, feel the cool water of a stream. Hugging a tree will give you an immediate sense of connection to nature.
- Food eaten outdoors really does taste better, so take a picnic and a flask of tea. Enjoy the opportunity to sit and just be with nature for a while.
Meditating in nature is another way to amplify the positive effects of the environment around you.
Meditation and mindfulness are excellent for calming the mind by bringing awareness and attention to the present moment. You don't need to empty your mind to enjoy the benefits of meditation; it is simply a case of observing the mind and bringing it back into awareness when you find it wandering off:
- Find a comfortable place to sit.
- Either close your eyes or lower them to rest gently on a spot about a meter in front of you on the ground.
- Spend a few minutes bringing your full attention to your breath, breathing naturally in and out through your nose. Just notice the breath—in and out.
- Now bring your attention to the soles of your feet and just imagine them fully relaxed. Gradually bring your relaxed attention through your feet up into your ankles and calves. Take time to simply check in with every part of your body, breathing a feeling of relaxation into every muscle and place of tension.
- When you reach the very top of your head, just bring your attention fully back to the breath, gently in and gently out. Imagine inhaling nature, then as you breathe out, let go of any remaining tension.
- Remain in meditation on the breath for as long as you wish. When you are ready, take a count of five to bring your attention back to your surroundings. If your eyes were closed, gently open them.
Many of us live a more sedentary life than our bodies were designed for. Stretching is an excellent, gentle way to get the body moving. Being in nature is a body-mind activity, and by stretching mindfully you bring your awareness back into your body rather than concentrating on the thoughts in your mind, thereby encouraging your body back to its natural state:
- Chest opener: Clasp your hands together behind your head. Inhale and feel your chest rise, pulling your elbows back and pressing your head into your hands. Exhale and release, then repeat as often as you like, using smooth, controlled movements and breathing slowly and deeply.
- Standing hip stretch: Cross your left ankle over your right thigh and, if you can, bend your right leg to increase the stretch in your hip and bottom. Extend your arms in front of you to help you balance, or use a nearby tree for support. Fix your gaze on a spot in front of you and breathe smoothly and deeply. Hold the position for 30 to 60 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
- Quad stretch: Grasp your right foot or ankle with your right hand, and gently pull your heel toward your bottom. Press to increase the stretch in your right hip, trying to keep your knees together. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
- Hamstring stretch: Extend your right leg out in front of you with your foot flexed, balancing on your left leg. Keeping your back straight and chest lifted, slowly lean forward, hinging at the hips, to increase the stretch. Breathe deeply for 30 to 60 seconds, then release and repeat on the other side.
- Side bend: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and place your palms together over your head. Inhale and reach up to elongate your spine. As you exhale, reach over to your right, keeping your chest open and allowing your hips to move to the left a little. As you inhale, release the stretch, then deepen the stretch again as you exhale. Repeat four or five times, slowly moving with your breath. Repeat the exercise on the other side.
If you are able to walk safely in a forest at night, a whole host of different experiences will greet your senses, and stargazing is one of the most remarkable of them.
As it waxes and wanes through the month, the moon reminds us of the rhythms of nature, while the stars give us a sense of perspective.
According to researchers from the University of California–Irvine, feeling a sense of awe takes our minds off our personal problems1 and promotes an increase in cooperation and connection with others.
Lie down on a mat or in a hammock, and scan the sky for shooting stars. If it is a cold night, take a cozy blanket to keep you feeling comfortable and relaxed.
Walking in the Woods: Go Back to Nature With the Japanese Way of Shinrin-Yoku by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, Ph.D., is published by Aster, £19.99, www.octopusbooks.co.uk, illustrator: Grace Helmer.
Yoshifumi Miyazaki is a retired university professor, researcher and the deputy director of Chiba University's Centre for Environment, Health and Field Sciences. He has published several books on the effects and benefits of forest therapy, and the concept is spreading with dozens of forest therapy centers now in existence and growing in Japan. In 2000, Professor Miyazaki received the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries Minister Award for clarifying the health benefits of wood and shinrin-yoku, and later an award from the Japan Society of Physiological Anthropology in 2007.