Standing with the trees

We spend an awful lot of time trying to create space for ourselves in our lives, working to create inner sanctuaries in our minds, or safe corners in our homes, an hour for yoga. And yet, better perhaps than all of these, is the biggest and most accessible space on the planet – Nature. It is a healing, soul-soaringly beautiful space that changes all the time, that reminds us of the circularity of life, that feeds our senses and welcomes our solitude. Luciana Bellini shares her love of forest bathing…

I’ll never forget one particularly cold, drizzly November day, when I was sitting on a bench under the trees in a patch of woodland in south-east London, armed with a flask of hot chocolate and my three-month-old baby snoozing in her pram beside me. An elderly couple walked past, looking at us with bemusement. ‘She must be mad to sit out here,’ I could almost hear them thinking, as they took in the scene. Little did they know that those daily immersions in nature were the only thing keeping me sane at the time.

I first came across the practice of forest bathing – or shinrin-yoku, as it’s known in Japan – in 2020, when I spent several months in hospital with my new-born daughter after she needed life-saving surgery. As I sat by her bedside in the intensive-care unit amid the beeping and whirring of life-support machines, I was struggling with all sorts of emotions I couldn’t even begin to process, oscillating between gut-wrenching waves of despair and an overwhelming feeling of numbness. After several days without leaving the hospital, a nurse took me aside and told me kindly but firmly to go and spend some time outdoors, before directing me towards a nearby forest. It was only once I was there, cocooned beneath the canopy of trees and listening to the birdsong, that I realised how much I had needed it.

Shinrin-yoku was first developed in the 1980s in Japan, when it was prescribed by the government for stressed-out workers, as new studies showed that time spent in nature could reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory. Forest bathing isn’t about simply going for a walk – a better way to frame it is as mindful time spent in nature. In his seminal book Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing, Dr Qing Li explains how to draw the most out of these woodland meditations. ‘Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind,’ he writes. ‘You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere.’

Away from the sterile atmosphere of the hospital, immersing myself in the natural world quickly acted as a soothing balm, as I admired the foliage and listened to the parakeets screeching overhead (they’re peculiarly rife in this part of London). For the first time since the surgery, I felt like I could actually breathe. The woods became my sanctuary, somewhere I could go and ground myself. And, as soon as she was well enough, it was the first place I took my daughter. As I watched the leaves turn from vibrant green to vermilion red and eventually fall, I realised for perhaps the first time the ethereal splendour of the natural world in winter. It is during those cold, dark months that our souls need the most nourishing. While you may not find the luscious buds of spring or the sun-dappled haze of summer, what you’ll discover is something quieter and more unassuming, but no less life-affirming.

While any amount of time spent in nature – no matter how short – will always be beneficial, to fully immerse yourself in the art of forest bathing, a session of two to three hours is recommended. While there, Li suggests we ‘smell the flowers, taste the fresh air, look at the changing colours of the trees, hear the birds singing and feel the breeze on our skin’. As for why spending time in nature is so good for our health, that’s largely due to the biophilia hypothesis: human beings evolved to live in nature and have an innate biological need to connect with it. Shades of green and blue – the colours of the forest and the sky – have been proven to have a relaxing effect, and looking at nature’s patterns can help to stop thoughts spinning in our heads. With statistics suggesting that, by 2030, 92.2 per cent of us in the UK will be living in cities, finding ways to reconnect with nature has never been more vital.

My daughter is now a happy, healthy two-year-old and I’m planning to spend this winter exploring our local forests together, teaching her to recognise the sights and sounds of the woods and understand their healing properties. It’s never too early to learn about the awe-inspiring power of Mother Nature.