Last week, a friend sent me a link to a scented candle which, in big bold letters, promised a feel of an ‘enchanted forest’, at least the illusion of it. Until you get that cabin in the woods, the message read. It often happens, a trip to a forest makes you weave a dream of living in it, often camouflaging the tiredness from the tech-boom burnout with a simple longing for a getaway. We have normalized clearing trees for the multiplying development project in urban and semi-urban spaces to an extent that a trend, ‘forest bathing’, is now guiding the search for nature.
Forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese practice of spending time in a forest which is considered therapeutic. It expands the digital detox idea, you leave your phone behind at the hotel, and head to the forest to sit with nature without indulging in any activity such as hiking or mountain climbing. You ‘bathe’ in the nature sounds such as the wind rustling the trees and birds talking. It’s a sensory experience, as the Japan National Tourism Organization describes it.
In 1982, Japan launched a national program to promote forest bathing, and in 2004, many studies began to investigate the link between forests and health. Forest bathing focuses on using the five senses to bridge the gap between nature and people.
Although it’s not a new concept in Japan, it seems to have found its way to India in the last two years. Last week, inspired by forest bathing, the Telangana government told people to visit the urban parks to combat the health issues triggered by sedentary and stressful lifestyles, as reported by The New Indian Express. “The idea is to leave all the screens behind, find a spot where you can’t hear the hustle and bustle of traffic, the constant ring of mobile phones and without a manmade structure in sight. Just sit on the earth and free your mind,” an official said.
A 2019 review published in the International Journal of Biometeorology that screened 971 articles concluded that in all but two studies, cortisol levels were significantly reduced for a short term after forest bathing. Forest bathing as a wellness trend seems to promote another way of indulging in self-care and getting away from the cities to rejuvenate. But looked at under a lens, it’s a simple idea: trees are important for mental and physical well-being.
A November 2022 study published in Environment International investigated the effects of the 30-year-old practice of planting trees by the non-profit organization Friends of Trees along the streets of Portland, Oregon revealed that each tree planted was associated with significant reductions in non-accidental and cardiovascular mortality. Along with the physical well-being benefits, living near trees enhances mental well-being as shown in a 2017 study by researchers at the University of Exeter that people living in neighbourhoods with more birds, shrubs and trees are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress.
Despite the many studies on the benefits of trees, they are continued to be destroyed to make space for the ever-increasing human greed for development and the increasing population, regardless of whether cities feel claustrophobic, almost as if there is less air to breathe. According to the United Nations Population Division, three-quarters of the world’s people will live in cities by 2050. From 2001 to 2021, India lost 2.07Mha of tree cover, equivalent to a 5.3% decrease in tree cover since 2000 and from 2013 to 2021, 96% of tree cover loss in India occurred within a natural forest, according to Global Forest Watch.
The loss of tree cover and rising infrastructure is accompanied by ‘technostress,’ a word coined in 1984 to describe unhealthy behaviour around technology. Technostress can be caused by daily dependence on technology such as checking your phone constantly and feeling a compulsive need to stay connected virtually. These factors add to the daily stress, leaving people craving a ‘breather’, which is often amid nature. A 2019 study published in Scientific Reports highlighted that even spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being.
Forest bathing, as therapeutic as it may be, calls for a crucial conversation on the environment people are living in. Fresh air and nature shouldn’t require one to take leave from work and go on a trip and if that’s what it has come down to then maybe we are doing it wrong.