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Is forest bathing the new ‘ikigai?’

Being cooped up indoors during the pandemic has nudged many towards ‘shinrin yoku’ or seeking refuge in nature to de-stress

A sense of connectedness with the universe and the natural world is what shinrin yoku is all about
A sense of connectedness with the universe and the natural world is what shinrin yoku is all about (istock)

We have known for eons how good being in nature can make us feel. The sound of a freshwater stream, the chirping of birds at dawn, the clean air, all contribute to a calmer mind and more energized body. But now, a growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to the natural world has on health, reducing stress and promoting healing. The Japanese even have a name for it — ‘shinrin yoku’ or ‘forest bathing’ — and it has been shown to have a positive effect on heart rate, pulse, sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nerve activity of human beings, as determined by field experiments conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forest and Fisheries in the 1980s. If ikigai, or living a purposeful life, was the Japanese concept du jour the past few years, shinrin yoku could well become the next ikigai.

In India, the idea ties in to the way we lived for generations before urbanisation made our connections with nature more tenuous, and is having a resurgence via the idea of wilderness trails and exploring urban wildlife. Travel companies like Noida-based Forest Therapy India and the award-winning Pugdundee Safaris offer forest-bathing experiences in the Himalayas and forests like Bandhavgarh, Kanha, and Pench. Earlier this year, India’s first ‘forest healing centre’, operated by the research wing of the Uttarakhand forest department, opened doors in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand.

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Shinrin yoku, which shares commonalities with ecotherapy or nature therapy—an applied practice of the emerging field of ecopsychology, developed by American academic Theodore Roszak—is rooted in the belief that human beings are a part of the environment and the web of life, not isolated.

In the wake of the pandemic, a longing to reconnect with nature seems to be growing, says Pooja Rani, founder of Khoj-aao!, a Goa-based organisation that promotes the exploration of backyard biodiversity through curated outdoor experiences. Rani talks about the profound impact nature has on our relationship with attention and stress. “After a few minutes in nature, people’s attitudes shift. They get excited, curious. We point out smaller wildlife along the way —butterflies, millipedes, geckos and other incidents of animal activity like burrows, feathers, homes, so it’s like a puzzle to figure out. People re-learn how to observe, quiet themselves and become more in tune with nature. Older people, in their 40s and 60s, find a connection to the time they were a child,” says Rani.

This experience of feeling a sense of connectedness with the universe and the natural world is what shinrin yoku is all about. Out in the forest, children from urban areas, who are largely disconnected from nature in their daily lives and see the world through their screens, begin to open up, says Rani.

It’s true—never have we been more removed from the natural world. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population will live in cities, and we currently spend 87% of our time indoors. The pandemic has exacerbated this, and we’ve felt the pinch of not being able to step out of our homes. Along with this comes claustrophobia, anxiety, depression and various other modern psychological and physiological diseases.

Margot Borden, a psychotherapist based in Mumbai and the US, says being in nature can help us fight the inability to be present, one of the leading causes of anxiety. “Nature reminds you to stay connected. It teaches breathing techniques, embodied mindfulness, and simply being present in your felt experience. If we step into it and let that be our grounding, and bring that grounding into the doing world, we have a chance at living more mindful lives,” she says.

A defining aspect of forest bathing, which can be practised in any green, outdoor environment, is learning how to slow down and take in the sights, sounds, smells, feel and taste of the environment, without necessarily jogging, hiking, running, taking photos. Even small amounts of time spent outdoors mindfully can have a positive impact.

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Recent research reveals that while certain types of attentiveness may tire the brain and contribute to stress, activities that broaden and soften our attention—also called ‘soft fascination’—reinvigorate the brain and promote psychological and cognitive wellbeing.

Entrepreneurs, employers, and healthcare providers are increasingly considering the human need for nature in how they operate.

Gayatri Narain, 28, a landscape architect based in Bengaluru, says she got into this field because she wanted to change the physical environments we live in. “I love being in a city— there’s so much life and culture. But the pace and isolation of city life can impact mental health. I want to use the theory of shinrin yoku to enhance the spaces we inhabit most often—our homes, schools and workspaces,” she says. Narain wants to create spaces that will allow easier access to nature, even within built spaces like apartment or school buildings.

Akanksha Sonthalia, 32, a Bengaluru-based permaculturist, architect and model, has adapted her lifestyle to connect with nature on a daily basis. Through her company, The Earthlings, she has been curating eco-friendly nature trails for artists. “My travels through the country exposed me to the healing potential of nature. Simple activities like walking barefoot in mud, trekking on land trodden by elephants and bears, and showing love and respect to ancient trees can enhance mental wellbeing,” she says.

Akanksha Sonthalia, founder of The Earthlings, which curates experiences that allow travellers to immerse themselves in nature
Akanksha Sonthalia, founder of The Earthlings, which curates experiences that allow travellers to immerse themselves in nature

“While curating the trips, I always make sure we stop to listen to the river, meditate under a tree,” she adds. Although the pandemic has affected the business, she is hoping to get back to curating safe trips soon.

During the pandemic, the world has been experiencing a sort of collective grief. Psychologists say mindful engagement with the environment can play a role in the grieving process.

“We need to ask ourselves how we’re engaging with this disruptive, painful and scary transition. We can sit with it and be deeply present with it. There’s grief that chips at us and then there’s this way of being present with grief where we can allow ourselves to look at a beautiful tree and cry... it can be a soulful grieving rather than a distressing grieving,” says Borden.

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