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The wonders of the woodland

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A rising global trend, forest bathing can boost the immune system, calm the mind, and even help us heal from Covid-19. Alix Norman speaks to three local forest bathers about their habit

 

In 1984, environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich published a study into factors affecting post-op recovery. His team diligently considered medication, mental state, family connections. And determined there was one particularly significant restorative that – for years – had been completely overlooked: a room with a view. Patients, they concluded, who could look out onto leafy trees healed a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication, and had fewer postsurgical complications.

At the time, the study was considered ground-breaking. But really, it just built on what we’ve known for centuries: nature (even glimpsed from a window) is hugely healing. So how much better must it be to actually get out into the fresh air, feel the ground, smell the air, and walk among the trees? Exponentially, say advocates of forest bathing, a practice that originated in Japan and involves spending time consciously reconnecting with nature.

“The key word is ‘consciously’,” says Marilena Shyama Shakti, who has long been an advocate of forest bathing. “You’re using the outer world, your senses, in a mindful way to harmonise your inner world, your mind, your psychology.”

A yoga teacher, mindfulness expert and founder of the Silentruth Institute, Marilena has been involved in a number of forest bathing retreats. “What you concentrate on will resonate with your mind, body and spirit,” she explains. “So if you’re stuck in the city, constantly plugged into screens and filled with tension, then that stress is what you’ll begin to embody. But head out into the forest, bathe in the energy of the air, the ground, the sun, and the trees, and you’ll begin to resonate with the peace of nature and cleanse your spirit.”

Here in Cyprus, with its huge swathes of tree-covered mountains, forest bathing is a natural fit for those trying to heal the mental, emotional and physical ills of everyday stresses and an ongoing pandemic. Aphrodite Vassiliou, who organises similar activities through Coheali Eco Experience, is another devotee of the practice. “By immersing yourself in the forest, connecting both to yourself and your surroundings, you’re helping heal your hurts, reduce body tension, and boost your mood,” she reveals. “There’s better air quality out among the trees; you’re boosting your immune system and quieting the brain.”

Both exponents suggest that conscious breathing and mindfulness are crucial to experiencing the full benefits of forest bathing. “When I teach meditation, mindfulness, and yoga,” says Marilena, “students often tell me they can’t stop their minds. But a wandering mind is perfectly normal,” she adds. “If you realise you’re overthinking, stressing, planning, just notice the fact. And gently, kindly bring yourself back to the present.”

Doing this while in nature, both advise, is exponentially healing. “The importance of nature in human health is uncountable,” Marilena continues. “We ourselves are nature – we are natural. So being out among the trees, walking and sitting mindfully, breathing consciously, and being in the moment are incredibly healing – both for stress and for general wellbeing. Stress creates a lot of problems in the nervous system that can lead to health issues,” she acknowledges. “But when we ground ourselves in the moment, in nature, it’s much easier to receive the healing energies of the earth and trees.”

Herbalist and founder of CyHerbia Botanical Park Miranda Tringis also reaps the benefits of forest bathing. “It’s a realignment with the world around us,” she reveals. “We are of the earth. And it’s vital to our health that we spend time in nature, away from the screens and the stress.”

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Even critics of the practice can benefit, she suggests. “Perhaps you don’t believe forest bathing can help. Go out into the forest: just touch a tree, put your back on the trunk, look up at the crown and the passing clouds, and you’ll feel grounded. The negative energy in your body will be neutralised by the earth; it’s the same principle as immersing yourself in the sea,” she adds. “But in the forest, there’s a very unique magic.”

Though each exponent has their own favourite forest (Marilena prefers Machairas, Aphrodite Akamas, and Miranda Caledonia Falls) all acknowledge that any arboreal area will do. “It’s great to get into the deeper forest, but a local park such as Athalassa is fine if you can’t get away from the city, or even your own garden if you have one,” says Marilena. “The key is to go there consciously with a view to forest bathing; put it in your schedule, leave your mobile – or anything that connects you with work – in your car, and spend just 30 minutes or so among the trees.

“Start with a mindful walk,” she continues. “Stop for a while and breathe consciously – sit under a tree, close your eyes, and feel the ground; envisage the energies that flow from the earth and the sun, through the tree and into your body. Walk, sit – whatever feels right,” she adds. “There are as many different ways of forest bathing as there are people, and you’ll find the way that suits you best.”

Miranda emphasises visualisation as part of her practice. “As I sit, barefoot, back against the trunk, I visualise myself becoming an extension of the tree: I put out my ‘roots’ into the earth,” she reveals. “I picture the sunlight hitting the crown of the tree, flowing through the leaves and branches and trunk into my body. And at the same time, I envision the energy coming up from the earth through my spine.”

Miranda, who has forest bathed alongside world-renowned shamans, suggests that the practice is “an immensely powerful antidote to spiritual malady. And these benefits cost nothing,” she adds. “Have an open mind, recognise trees as beings with real wisdom to impart, and you’ll find a whole new world opens up. You’ll come home happier, and with peace in your heart.”

As for physical healing, a recent study on Pub Med suggesting that the fewer deaths in southern and insular Italy could be explained by the increased density of trees in the region. The authors noted that reduced pandemic severity could not be explained solely by population density, but that other forces were at work, and postulated that the abundance of non-deciduous Mediterranean plants emit immunomodulatory and antiviral compounds. “Potential implications,” they add, “include designing nasal sprays containing plant volatile organic compounds, increasing forest coverage, and forest bathing as a therapeutic practice…”

Aphrodite certainly ascribes her quick and complete recovery from a recent bout of Covid-19 to “experiencing nature daily around Pomos, where I live. I’m sure that being out in nature speeded my healing process,” she asserts.

Lastly, years later, Ulrich and colleagues followed up on their initial ground-breaking hospital study. This time, patients were assigned wall art rather than a window. And subjects whose rooms contained a photograph of a tree-lined stream reported less anxiety and requested fewer doses of pain meds than those who viewed an abstract painting, a white panel, or a blank wall. So powerful are the forests of this world, they concluded, that even a picture can help us heal…

Upcoming forest bathing retreat:

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