Japanese forest bathing: two kilometers of mindful walking in two hours

How to relax? This summer, Trouw (Dutch national newspaper) is touring spiritual and philosophical methods for stillness, reflection or relaxation. Today: Shinrin-yoku, a meditative Japanese forest bath.

English translation of the original article by Lodewijk Dros (2 August 2022, 16:44)

Relaxing with Japanese Forest Therapy
Article in the Dutch newspaper Trouw: central spread with three photos by Koen Verheijden (02-08-2022)

Ferns shoot up high in the dried up Sprengenbrook. Behind them rise the Oaks of Wodan, some of them dead and bare. Their lives are over after half a millennium, says Petra Hoff (47) from Arnhem. Today she accompanies a Japanese-style walk.


The forest south of Wolfheze is quiet. It's Hoff's favorite place. She walks there once a month, for a whole weekend. “Its effect lasts for a month.”


That walking is not a brisk workout, but Shinrin-yoku. “Shinrin is 'forest' in Japanese, yoku 'to immerse yourself in the atmosphere of',” explains Hoff, just past the Wodanseiken, where the trail ascends.

Hoff is an archaeologist, guest lecturer in nature experience at a university of applied sciences for forest and nature management and founder of Shinrin-yoku Netherlands. In Japan she trained herself in 'forest bathing'. It was developed there forty years ago to solve two problems. First, the Japanese production forests on steep slopes that were difficult to work with. The second problem was social and cultural. Japanese people work so hard, even if they destroy themselves. Sometimes until death follows. Hoff: “Japanese even have a word for 'death from overwork': karoshi.”


Forest without danger

Shinrin-yoku kills two birds with one stone: forests get a new destination, stressed people get a therapeutic environment. Hoff: “Walking through it improves your immune system thanks to phytoncides, substances with which trees, especially conifers, communicate with each other. This decreases your stress hormone. Let's pause first.”


This is the first phase of the walk: away from the hectic, the hustle and bustle on the highway towards the Veluwe. “Empty your head. Let go of what worries you”, as Hoff puts it. Cell phones must be turned off now.


Today there are few participants, due to covid. “We're going to walk for two hours. During that time, your entire lung capacity is refreshed. We start by walking in silence. Look around you. In the city you constantly scan your surroundings for danger, you become overstimulated. You also scan in nature, but the message to your subconscious is: there is no danger here. It calms you down.” Hoff has selected the forest for it: the Wolfhezerheide has no mountain bike trails.

The group moves. The heat of the sun is muffled by the foliage. We walk slowly over a narrow path, at a goose step, while Hoff gives suggestions in a calm tone at the back. “Pay attention to the soles of your feet, how does the ground feel? The twigs under your feet? Then go upwards to your calves. Your knees." And up. “Is there tension in your shoulders?”


Then Hoff encourages to experience with the nose, ears, eyes and skin what the forest is like, the smells, the slight breeze. “Touch the drops on the leaves. Close your eyes. Listen."


We hear the crackling leaves under the feet of passers-by. Fighter jets in the distance. “How are your hands and fingers?” We have a real need to be in the now and experience everything with full attention.” De Weertse Ria Soers (53) strokes a fern between her hands. She smells tree bark and gently pushes it.


Relaxing with Japanese Forest Therapy
Relaxing under a birch tree, encouraging the senses (photo: Petra Hoff)

Foreign influences

Shinrin-yoku is a young method, and one that is not averse to foreign influences. Hoff's instructions contain a good dose of Western mindfulness, "crossed with finding the child in yourself, which still knows how to enjoy yourself." She tells us that plateaus have been made in Japanese shinrin-yoku forests. “To do yoga exercises.” Yoga comes from India. For the Utrecht ICT specialist Barry Mildner (62) these are familiar terms. “I did a lot of Zen meditation. Although shinrin-yoku is modern, it has its roots in ancient traditions that I recognize from Japanese meditation.” Soers is not surprised either. She has experience as a Zen master and mindfulness coach. “And I have visited Japan, it interests me.”


We have passed the relaxation phase, now the attentive walking follows. Or rather: stroll. A man and a woman walk by with long sticks in their hands, their step is firm. Nordic walking is not very similar to Japanese walking.


After 45 minutes we approach the edge of the forest. An old pink haze passes over the moors, the summer heat is overwhelming. “Choose a tree that appeals to you and sit down against it”, says Hoff, “close your eyes. Hold up your hand, I'll let you taste something. Feel and smell first, then put in your mouth.”


Barry Mildner picks a birch. “The support of such a tree in your back, that is very special,” he says later. If you can't see, "your sensations are already getting sharper." Soers also experiences that when she gets a strawberry in her hand. “With your eyes closed and in mindfulness, a strawberry tastes better and more intense.”


Ralaxing with Japanese Forest Therapy
Barefoot walk with a crystal clear brook at the end (photo: Petra Hoff)

Barefoot

The forest walk is now a walk on the moors. It starts with a Qigong exercise with the five Chinese elements – Hoff shows how you portray earth, iron, water, wood and fire. The participants follow her slow motion movements: with the arms up, gracefully down and, exhaling, slightly bending the knees. “It's intimate to do this with others,” says Soers. “Vulnerable,” Mildner adds. “When I look through the eyes of people walking by, it's a bit crazy. Embarrassed? No, I don't have that anymore.”


The walking part continues, barefoot, according to the ideas of tai chi – from China. Move your non-standing leg forward, feel the floor, then transfer the body weight to the exploratory foot. It first goes step-by-step, over moss and forest floor and sand, then the pace picks up a bit. This barefoot sensation, says Ria Soers, is the 'nicest' of the entire walk. “Warm and cold, soft and sharp.”


Hoff pulls out some plants she just picked. Oak leaf. Smell, rub. “This is not a safari, but a sniffari.” Smell again. Flowering heath, the cause of the pink glow on the moors. Pine tree. “That's a pine tree, it contains a lot of phytoncides. I have a highly dynamic life, with work and three children,” says Hoff. “When it's really busy, I smell this.”


At the end of the moors the path descends to a small bridge. Clear water flows below, the shower of the day before has fed the Heelsumse Brook for a while. The walkers walk through it in silence. Stoop. To sit. To look.


Relaxing with Japanese Forest Therapy
Hammocks for the final stage of Forest Therapy: immersing yourself in and connecting yourself with nature (photo: Petra Hoff)

At home in nature

Hoff now binds synthetic hammocks between birch and oak. The final phase has been reached. “People take very good care of their smartphones. When it's empty, it's charged immediately," says Hoff. “We should take care of ourselves as well, so here we plug our soul back into nature. You are not just in nature, you are nature. This is where we belong.”


While the stream is bubbling and the highway A50 murmurs in the distance, Mildner is experiencing the highlight of the day in his hammock. “It's a process you get into. If I just walk through a forest, it forms a backdrop. Not now. In the hammock I experienced that I was in it, that I was part of it.”


The announced closing, the Japanese tea ceremony, brings Hoff back to its core: she takes tea in paper cups from a bag, fruit and energy bars in foil.


The walk took more than two hours – no more than two kilometers. Ria Soers – she is a spiritual caretaker – will take two things home. “The color green is healing for sick people I work with. And I realize again the importance of delay in conversations with patients. That contributes to their reflection, it makes them calmer.” Like Soers, Mildner is going to do it more often, walk so slowly. Alone. Domo arigato, Hoff says, "thank you very much" in Japanese.


Relaxing with Japanese Forest Therapy
Bare feet in the brook: it's a wonderful experience (photo Petra Hoff)

Want to create your own shinrin-yoku experience?

Take at least two hours and follow these tips:


Slow down

Allow at least two hours for shinrin-yoku. First, clear your head by walking slowly. Look around you, at the ground, the sky. Walk even slower.


Feel your body

Scan your body. Name your body parts, starting at the feet, one by one and feel what they are experiencing as you walk in the woods.


Activate your senses and your body

Give your senses free rein. Look through your hands-as-binoculars. Feel the wind play on your skin. Breathe and smell the forest scents. Listen to the birds, whooshing leaves. Follow the contours of a leaf with your fingers. You can now start doing simple movements, such as stretching exercises that you know from gym class, but you can also think about yoga poses.


Experience

Take off your shoes. You explore the underground barefoot. Do it gently at first, then find a pace that moves toward a normal walking speed. If there's some water nearby, and mud, it enhances the sensation.


Connect

Find a quiet place, sit by a tree that appeals to you or lie in the grass. A hammock works even better for quietly immersing yourself in nature.

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