It’s a beautiful day in the forest around Monchique. My senses are awakened by a cool breeze lightly brushing my face and the sound of birds in full song and bees gently humming. I am walking slowly, observing the trees and savouring the moment. This is not just a stroll in the woods, I am practising the Japanese art of Shinrin-Yoku which means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or forest bathing, and it’s a practice that appears to be growing in popularity across Europe.
Shinrin-Yoku was introduced in Japan in the 1980s as part of a national health programme to help people de-stress and spend less time in the office. I came across the term when I presented a health show on Dubai radio. A news headline caught my attention highlighting concerns about people’s increased screen time, and a growing dissociation with nature. According to scientists, it’s impacting our health and not in a good way. This stayed with me as I located to the Algarve and trained as a Forest Bathing Guide with the European Forest Therapy Institute (EFTI) and Nature & Therapy UK.
You don’t have to hug a tree, but it helps. According to research, as little as 20 minutes a day spent amongst trees can benefit us but a minimum of 10 hours a month is recommended. Whether walking or sitting, activities such as these can boost our immune system, reduce blood pressure, improve sleep, and help alleviate anxiety, and lift depression. Trees release anti-microbial essential oils known as phytoncides and they have an amazing physiological effect on our bodies when we breathe them in. Cork oak, eucalyptus and pine are considered to be the ‘Big 3’ in tree medicine and they are in abundance in the Serra De Monchique region but most trees are good for us.
A forest bathing walk typically takes around 2-3 hours and includes a series of ‘invitations’ to help us slow down, and immerse ourselves in nature. There isn’t any pressure to think, feel or do anything, just being open to exploring the forest. There are public walks where the group size is from 4 upwards or people can opt for a private group booking and even 1:1 walks.
The walks have a social aspect and are an enjoyable way to spend time with friends or family, or if you simply want to take time out for yourself or address a specific health issue, even the NHS in certain places around the UK are allocating ‘green prescriptions’. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was so inspired by Shinrin-Yoku she co-designed her garden for the Chelsea Flower Show this year with the practice in mind.
My role as a guide is to share my knowledge of the local trails and pathways and to help people get the best experience in the forest. Yesterday, I was mapping a trail and I was amazed at what I noticed. The fractals of the trees when I looked up, the smell of the eucalyptus after the rain and the sound of a waterfall. This awareness contributes to what I call the three Cs: calm, contentment and clarity. My job is to help participants experience these and all the forest has to offer in a safe and gentle way.
Inspiration “When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily.” Mary Oliver, When I am Among Trees
Click here for information on public walks and private bookings:
This was an article written for Tomorrow Algarve magazine Sept 2019
Photography by Michael Mardon