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Forest bathing: taking a bath without water

A forest isn’t necessarily needed for Shinrin-yoku. A large stretch of mature trees, such as Buskett Gardens, has been shown to give similar benefits.

A forest isn’t necessarily needed for Shinrin-yoku. A large stretch of mature trees, such as Buskett Gardens, has been shown to give similar benefits.

The scent of pines mingles with that of moist grass and earth. Sunlight filters through the trees. And the only sound is a slight rustle of leaves, and my footsteps.

In traditional Japanese culture, what I’m doing is known as Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. It’s a bath without any water. Shinrin-yoku is all about being immersed in the sounds, scents and sensations of nature – connecting to the forest through all the senses.

The practice is widespread in Japan, and has been since the 1980s, when it was introduced as a national health programme to counteract the stressful effects of living in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. It’s not just about the feel-good factor. The benefits are many and have been backed up by a large body of scientific research, mainly arising out of Japan.

Forest bathing has been shown to temporarily reduce blood pressure and lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol. One such study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2011, compared forest bathing to ambling around a city. The same group of men first wandered around a city, and a week later wandered around a forest, at the same pace and for the same distance.

Walking in the forest significantly reduced blood pressure, but city walking did not, showing that the benefits aren’t a result of physical exercise but due to a forest-specific quality. This heart-healthy reduction has been shown in both sexes, in age groups ranging from youths to elderly.

Researchers think that volatile chemicals released by trees, called phytoncides, cause these effects. Phytoncides are responsible for the natural fragrances of trees, and include the chemicals limonene and α-pinene. Breathing these in whilst forest bathing seems to work similarly to a super-charged aromatherapy session. 

Additional studies have shown that inhaling these chemicals boosts the immune system, and that these effects typically remain for up to seven days after a forest bathing trip. This boost also includes increased levels of cancer-fighting proteins within the body, such as the proteins called perforin and granulysin.

It’s all about being immersed in the sounds, scents and sensations of nature – connecting to the forest through all the senses

Sixty-two forests have been identified as the best spots for forest bathing in Japan, and now come complete with forest therapy trails and guided therapy walks. But it’s no longer just the Japanese who are dipping into nature – the practice is slowly spreading to other countries, such as the US and Britain. Us Maltese would do well to follow suit. We are one of the most densely populated countries in the world and getting denser still.

A forest isn’t necessarily needed for Shinrin-yoku to be successful. A large stretch of mature trees has been shown to give similar benefits. Good news for Malta, as the closest we get to a forest is tiny Buskett woodland. We’re tree poor, and getting even poorer, but for now we can still forest bathe.

Malta’s oldest carob, which is over 1,000 years old, can be found in Xemxija.Malta’s oldest carob, which is over 1,000 years old, can be found in Xemxija.

So how do you do this? Visit your favourite tree dense spot and wander aimlessly through it. Actively observe your surroundings: the purple flower peeking out among the grass blades, the butterflies fluttering through the trees. Get your hands dirty – touch the knotty tree barks, feel the soil fall away beneath your feet. Take deep breaths through your nose and totally ignore your phone. This is not the time for a #forestbathing Instagram snap. You’ll need at least two hours to feel the benefits, after which both your mind and body will thank you.

Once your bath is over, think about what a tragedy it would be if you couldn’t do this. Forest bathing is just one of the innumerable benefits that trees offer us. Fresh oxygen to counteract air pollution, and cooling of our surroundings in the sweltering summer heat are two more obvious ones. Possibly less well known is that they’re also a pharmaceutical treasure trove.

If not for the Willow tree, we wouldn’t have Aspirin and even extracts from our national tree, the Sandarac Gum Tree (Għargħar), have been shown to have antibacterial properties.    With each loss of a mature tree in the depressingly ironic name of progress, our country actually regresses.

Tessa Fiorini Cohen, who blogs about science and travel at www.sciencewanders.com, holds an MSc in Science Communication and is a regulatory affairs consultant, university lecturer and science writer.

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