By Vikki Mill, Leader for Actif Woods Wales in Gwynedd
Illness and long-term unemployment affects thousands of people every year and can have negative effects on their mental health. By taking people outside and exposing them to nature, letting nature be their healer, Coed Lleol (Small Woods Wales) is taking steps to improve their wellbeing.
Through our Actif Woods Wales programme we are reaching those in society who wouldn’t usually get the opportunity to experience how beneficial the woodland environment can be to their health and wellbeing.
Activities such as woodland walks, conservation and woodland management, creative activities such as basket weaving, bushcraft, fire making, foraging and cooking over a fire are just some of the ways we, as woodland leaders, help reconnect people to their more practical and primitive instincts.
Forest Bathing in Gwynedd
Some of the Actif Woods Wales sessions in Gwynedd in Wales are run in collaboration with Tan Y Maen, an organisation that offers support and resources. One of its basic aims is to encourage self-help and mutual support, to encourage people to grow in confidence and to develop new skills or regain old ones.
As a Woodland Leader in Gwynedd, I like to incorporate a simple, 20-minute mindfulness relaxation technique called forest bathing (or Shinrin-yoku in Japanese) at the beginning of every session. It’s accessible to a wide variety of people, making it easy to integrate into the sessions.
It’s easy to see why forest bathing has become popular for improving wellness. Scientists in Japan have proven its effects which help to boost the immune system, to fight off infections and diseases. Blood pressure becomes reduced and the stress hormone cortisol decreases, reducing anxiety and depression, improving mood. Within minutes of entering a woodland, breathing becomes slower and the body sweats less. After 20 minutes attention span improves and complicated cognitive tests and puzzles become much easier. It is scientifically proven to help increase energy levels and help to improve sleep patterns. So what does it involve?
How to Forest Bathe
Firstly, before we begin our woodland activities, I invite participants to sit comfortably and quietly in a space where they can look out into the woodland. It is vital to create a supportive and comfortable space in which to sit; forest bathing aims to reintroduce our instincts to nature by slowly absorbing the forest through all the senses, bathing in the full experience of nature. We take the time to simply sit, allowing the mind to relax naturally, noticing and acknowledging the surroundings and breathing deeply. Being guided helps to slow the mind down and focus on the experience. It helps to develop a childlike curiosity in surroundings and opens up potential for learning and exploring an area further.
We begin our 20-minute guided forest bathing session by drawing our attention to the breath, taking deep breaths, calmly absorbing the natural environment, noticing all the aromas given off by the surrounding plants and trees. Absorbing these essential oils has proved to be the most beneficial way to boost the immune system. We then move our attention to movement in the woods, noticing how the wind affects each branch and leaf, observing movement in the animals or insects that might be crawling, flying or buzzing nearby. We focus on what we can hear, listening to the sounds of the natural environment, noticing the rustle of the undergrowth and bird song in the canopy. Feeling the wind, sun or rain on the skin, breathing in the fresh clean air, touching a nearby object, such as a tree, plant, or stone, feeling its texture. We are developing a sense of this place, taking the forest into ourselves, mindfully connecting with the natural world using all the senses.
Afterwards we then approach the woodland environment in a more educational and practical way. With a clear head and a calm mind, participants can be fully engaged with the planned activities. For example, identifying trees can be an overwhelming task for some, but I have found people to be much more receptive after including this simple relaxation practice.
Find out more about our health and wellbeing programme in Wales at www.coedlleol.org.uk
The full article can be found in the January Issue of the Small Woods Magazine.