A woodland walk has long been a popular pastime but is it possible that that it might also have significant medical benefits?
Joana Formosinho, who has just joined the Holistic Science faculty at Schumacher College, Dartington, has been exploring the practice of shinrin-yoku or forest bathing.
She says that research in Japan, where the practice originates, has found some astonishing results, which can’t simply be attributed to getting a little extra exercise.
It seems the very act of allowing yourself to become immersed in nature, by walking a forest, has multiple health benefits.
“There is still work being done to examine it more closely,” says Joana, “But my suspicion is these benefits can’t be attributed to just one thing.
“I suppose you could say it’s like an outward form of meditation, making space to connect and contemplate, which we know is good for health.
“But there’s also been some research which suggests there is a certain compound in trees which appears to have direct beneficial effects.”
Apparently the health outcomes have been so good that in parts of Japan it is now prescribed for stress management and has been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels, boost the immune system and improve overall wellbeing.
One piece of research found there were health benefits for up to a month afterwards.
Yet Joana insists there is no great mystery to the practice of forest bathing; its beauty lies in its simplicity.
She leads a group into a forested area in silence and invites them to use all their senses to explore their environment. At the end of the session they are invited to share their experiences, a vital component of forest bathing.
“Pay attention to the feel of your feet finding the ground, notice close sounds, like your breath, as well as sounds further away. What is the smell of the air?” she says.
“By doing this you can understand the natural world is full of a sensual richness, which is very soothing on the mind and the senses. The reflection afterwards is also key; how much richness and diversity there can be in a green space.”
Joana trained as a zoologist and spent time tracking wild baboons in Namibia. She has also developed science training courses for corporate businesses and is involved with Random Acts of Wildfulness – a ten day challenge to spend five minutes every day looking at something from the natural world.
She says looking at nature is not the same as participating and recalled leading a session with a group in Vienna where a young women became captivated by a flower – even though she had grown up on a farm.
“She was totally immersed in the world of that flower and she said to me ‘I never would have thought to stop and look!’ She realised she’d never properly considered the environment she lived in.”
Joana is also keen to stress that the experience is a world away from a guided nature walk, which is more focussed on seeing, categorising and recording.
“Forest bathing is about getting that sense of wonder from a common plant as much as a kingfisher. Mundane things can be really beautiful,” she adds
“We go out in all weathers. I find the rain can bring out the environment in a different way. Sometimes you find that weather conditions really amplify the experience.”
Joana Formosinho will be teaching on MSc Holistic Science which begins in September 2018. More information on short courses and master programmes is available at www.schumachercollege.org.uk.