Like many people, I live in a fairly urban area. I’m not able to go out hiking up mountains or kayaking in the sea or in rivers on a daily basis. That being said, I do feel it’s important for my mental and physical health to get in touch with nature each day, however I can swing it. This led me to adopt a daily habit of going out for a forest walk.
While I may not live in North Vancouver or Coquitlam close to prime hiking trails, I do live next to a short trail that leads up a hill in a natural forested area next to my townhouse complex. Once a day, I’ll go out and hike up the trail then come through the back of my complex down the hill, giving me the chance to check our mail.
I use this to take the opportunity to appreciate the unbridled natural setting of the forest for what it is in its current state, no matter what the season, whether it’s sunny, rainy or snowy. I appreciate the fresh scent of rain water in the pine air, spring flowers in bloom, or snow crunching underfoot. I appreciate all the gradual changes as the seasons progress, as fresh greens shoot from the earth in spring or as coloured leaves gently flutter to the ground in fall. Occasionally, I’ll see wildlife. I’ve seen rabbits, woodpeckers, even a deer once. Sometimes, I’ll hear the sounds of coyotes howling in spring, along with the whelps of their pups.
Japanese "Forest Bathing"
The Japanese call the process of deeply appreciating nurture shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” It isn’t simply a matter of taking a walk in nature, but about acutely taking it in with all 5 senses. Seeing the sunlight filtering through the tree branches, listening to the birds twittering and the wind softly rustling leaves, feeling the bark of trees with your palms or dangling your feet in a stream, smelling the fresh air after a rainfall, savouring fruits that are in season (usually blackberries in BC summers). As you fully experience the nature that surrounds you, you surrender into a state of joy and calm so as to indulge your sixth sense, your state of mind. It is not the same as simply exercising outside by going for a run or even a hike. It's a meditative mindset. A recent article from Time goes into detail about the process of forest bathing and its benefits.
Intuitively, I’ve always known my forest-walking practice has been good for me, both mentally and physically. If I’ve been sitting and working at my desk for a while, it refreshes my my mind. It shakes off the cobwebs that form after long periods of indoor inactivity. If I’m having trouble coming up with an idea or a solution for something, it can help spark ideas. Getting my blood pumping as I climb up the hill also gives me a little hit of endorphins.
Giving Voluntary Attention a Break
A recent study to appear in the Journal of Affected Disorders suggests that taking a walk in nature gives our direct voluntary attention a break. According to lead author Marc Berman, a research fellow at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, voluntary attention, like what we use to do cognitive tasks like consciously learning a new skill or working out a resolution to a problem, is easily fatigued. Going for a walk in nature gives it a break, allowing your mind time to wander, thereby engaging your involuntary attention by being engaged, but gently with your surroundings. This may provide some insight as to why we often seemingly randomly come up with solutions to problems we were working on at our desks while on a walk.
More research may come with time, but for now I know my daily forest-walking practice is good for me. No matter where I live, I'll always try to make sure that I have at least some small measure of unmanicured nature a short walk from home. Sure, you can probably get similar benefits from any old park, but there's something about the nature that's untampered by human influence that helps me connect with life, the universe and everything.
Over to you now. Do you have a daily practice of walking in nature that extends beyond straight exercise? If so, what is your process for doing it? Please share in the comments. :)