9 July 2021 · Mazda Stories

Inspire: Nature's Clinic: Forest Bathing

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Words Lucille Howe / Images Rama Knight

If you do want to get away from it all, there is no better place than a forest. In Japan, the calming, restorative effect of nature has been given a name: shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. It’s an antidote to the high-tech, always-on culture of today. Like many people around the world, I have spent a large part of the past year at home, keeping my distance from others; my days occupied by technology, through Zoom calls, watching back-to-back TV serials and glued to social media. So when I am eventually able to go beyond the city limits, my first thought is to go to the woods.

It’s early morning when I arrive. As the light mist lifts, revealing a colourful, dense playground of stately redwoods, delicate ferns and leaf-strewn brooks, I feel small – and so do my worries.

With nothing to distract me, I notice raindrops caught in a spider’s web, the satisfying snap of a twig underfoot and – taking a deep breath – the revitalising scent of sun-kissed pines. Forests in fairy tales are about transformation and I’m ready to shake off the stress of last year and bring back a sense of wellbeing.

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According to the book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr Qing Li, the first thing I must do is leave my phone at home, which I have. The second is to use my breath to ground myself. I exhale through my mouth until I have emptied my lungs (including all the stale air at the end) then inhale through my nose, expanding my ribs and breathing into my lower back and abdomen.

As well as having a higher concentration of oxygen, the air in the forest is also full of immunity-boosting phytoncides. They are the natural oils within a plant and are part of the tree’s defence system,” explains Dr Li. “There is also a harmless bacteria in the soil that we breathe in called Mycobacterium vaccae. It also stimulates the immune system, and our emotions.

- Dr Li
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“THE FOREST SEEMS TO BE PULSING WITH ITS OWN GENTLE RHYTHM.”

I hear the soothing sound of birdsong. The forest seems to be pulsing with its own gentle rhythm, from the cooing of a wood pigeon to a ‘whoosh’ as the breeze lifts up the leaves in its path. It’s a luxury to listen to the nuance of these sounds instead of the drone of modern life. Dr Li says: “People are most sensitive to sounds between the frequencies of 2,500 and 3,500 hertz. This is also the range that birds sing in, which might explain why birdsong sounds like music to us.”

“FOREST BATHING IS AN OFFICIAL PART OF JAPAN’S PREVENTATIVE HEALTHCARE PROGRAM.”

The practice of meditation and centring oneself was around in Japan long before white noise entered modern life. So perhaps it is no surprise that shinrin-yoku began there and that official bodies recognise its benefits. In 1982, the government declared it a therapeutic act and it became an official part of its preventative healthcare program. There are now 44 forests accredited for bathing across the country.

You could say that it is ingrained in Mazda, as a Japanese company, to value the human desire and need for space and calm. Its vehicles are designed with the comfort and wellbeing of their intended occupants always at the forefront. Mazda’s cars are thoughtfully considered, sensory spaces. Uncluttered dashboards allow the mind to focus without unnecessary distractions; materials chosen are inspired by nature through look or feel; and noise-deadening components keep the outside drone at bay.

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THE SCIENCE:

The rigours of daily life can take their toll on a person physically and mentally. Reconnecting with nature can alleviate some serious issues. Research shows that two hours of shinrin-yoku can: 

  • reduce stress and anxiety 
  • lower heart rate 
  • lower cortisol levels 
  • strengthen the immune system
  • reduce depression 
  • enhance wellbeing 
  • increase empathy 
  • stimulate creative thinking

Engaging all of my five senses, I spend the day reconnecting with nature. The touch of damp moss on a felled log takes me away from any busy thoughts. The flashes of sunlight between pine needles help me stay in the moment instead of raking over the past or worrying about the future, and seeing my shadow dance across the jigsaw-like bark on an oak’s trunk makes me smile at my form.

After just two hours, my mind is clear and my body is relaxed. Because the planet has a natural low-level electrical charge, I feel earthed and in harmony with its frequency. That night I journal the experience before the best night’s sleep in months and dream… of the forest.