Mindfulness has really taken off in the past few years and now there's growing interest in the benefits of being mindful in natural environments, or 'forest bathing' as it's sometimes called.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was developed in Japan in the 1980s, and there are now over sixty forest therapy sites in Japan. It's about immersing yourself in a natural environment, focusing on the sensory experience.
Most of us recognise we feel good after spending time in the natural world – but there's plenty of research from around the world that backs that up. Studies have found that spending time in the woods can boost immune function, reduce stress hormones, and cause you to physically relax. Combine that with the other benefits of mindfulness and it's a powerful tool for physical and especially mental wellbeing.
We have been running Mindfulness in Nature
courses as part of Nature4Health and Cheshire's Natural Health Service
. Comments have included:
The course has helped me a lot and I can feel a big difference in my daily life. I have learnt to relax more and take a moment to reflect on the world around me, the beauty in nature and in people. I am able to concentrate more on what I am doing, outing the past aside to live in the moment.
I certainly feel more relaxed and able to cope with everyday stresses since the course. I also find I am far more patient especially when driving. I appreciate my surroundings and walk a lot more than I used to.
It has given me an inner sense of peace and the ability to stop and enjoy things around me. Also, it has helped me with sleep. I quite often stop when I am out and take the opportunity to take in my surroundings.
Find somewhere locally that's as close to nature as possible. A patch of ancient woodland might be ideal, but even urban parks often have secluded, more natural areas. The most important thing is that it's somewhere away from the business of modern life, with plenty of trees. Try our guide to woodlands in the Mersey Forest
How it's done
The most important thing to remember is that it isn't a hike. It's not about getting from A to B, raising the heart rate or following a map. Walking mindfully means slowing everything right dow, being in the moment.
Turn off your phone
The smartphone is the enemy of mindfulness. Switch it off, or better still, leave it at home just for once.
Rather than following a particular route, wander aimlessly, allowing your body to take you around the woodland or green space without guidance from your brain. Let go of goals, of nagging thoughts and impulses, and focus on what is around you. Pause from time to time, and engage one of your senses, as described in the next four steps.
Look around you
Stop and focus on what you can see. Look upwards at the tree canopy, see the pattern of light and the swaying of branches. If in a clearing, see the clouds in the sky. Notice what is beneath you on the forest floor.
Use your ears
Close your eyes and focus on your hearing. What can you hear close to you, and what can you hear far away? How many different sounds – wind, birds, human noises – can you distinguish?
Use your sense of touch
Touch the trunks of trees and see how different each species feels. Touch leaves and rocks on the ground. If there is water, allow it to flow over your hands. If it's good weather, try removing your shoes and treading barefoot on the earth, exploring the sensations. Be careful not to touch any poisonous or unpleasant plants such as stinging nettles!
Use your nose
What can you smell? Are there different smells closer to the ground than the sky? Are there flowers nearby, or scents on the breeze?
Somewhere on your walk find somewhere to sit and be still. On the floor, feeling the sensation of the earth beneath you is ideal. Try to manage at least ten minutes just sitting. Focus on something around you – the movement of water, or a tree – or on your breathing.
In Japan, shirin-yoku sessions usually end with a tea ceremony and time to discuss and think about the experience. We're not big on ceremonies with our tea over here, but think about bringing a flask or something to eat and taking some time to sit at the end of your mindful walk and reflect.
Watch the expert
Dr Qi Ling is one of Japan's foremost researchers into the science of forest bathing, and he shared his advice in this short BBC video:
Need a guide?
If you live in Cheshire West & Chester, you could take part in one of our Mindfulness in Nature courses
as part of Cheshire's Natural Health Service