On his Instagram page, Milind Soman recently posted a tiny workout video, where he can be seen doing pull-ups in a verdant outdoor setting. The double-panelled Instagram post, which also has a picture of his clicking a selfie looking into a mirror, is captioned, “Glad to be able to get out of the city every week now, especially to this place. Trees are my favourite beings on the planet, and the Japanese concept of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing, is something I love. [….]”
Getting past the distractions of the magnificence of Milind Soman, shinrin yoku, which the former supermodel talks of in his post, is a Japanese practice and a form of nature therapy in which one soaks up the beauty of the forest through one’s senses—the sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air, etc.
Not surprisingly, nature therapy, which is believed to boost one’s physical and mental wellbeing by reducing stress and improving your health, has now taken the world by storm.
Back to the future with trees
But why do trees enchant us, and what is so captivating about them?
Xavier Augustin, an entrepreneur and travel enthusiast, believes that trees are the embodiment of all the elements that make us on the planet.
“Every time you see a tree, if you can see light, water, air and land, you are seeing it in its totality,” says Xavier, who has always had a great love for trees. “When you breathe in during meditation, you are breathing this sacred purifying air.”
Xavier, who feels indebted to those earlier generations, now long passed away, who planted trees so that the future generations can enjoy them, is clear that trees are something we should leave behind for and with our children, too. “All the land I have in property has neem trees growing along its borders,” adds Xavier.
“That’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to the previous generations and making my little contribution for the future generations and in averting climate change, which I think, if we take trees for granted and don’t preserve or take care of them, would come at us next like the pandemic did this time.”
Breathe in nature, breathe out stress
Observing nature around you while breathing in deeply can help both adults and children destress and boost health and wellbeing in a natural way.
Dr Bhagya Lakshmi, Senior Gynaecologist and Laparoscopic Surgeon, Yashoda Hospitals, shares with us a new meta-analysis in the journal Environmental Research, stating that people who spend more time in green spaces have significantly reduced risks for a number of chronic illnesses, including reduced levels of stress hormone cortisol, reduced risk of heart disease, low blood pressure, low cholesterol, reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes and mental illness.
“Shinrin yoku has become an increasingly popular activity in recent times, especially in countries such as Japan, which takes the practice pretty seriously, says Dr Bhagya, explaining.
The doctor also points out that the chemicals emitted by trees may affect our immune system in many ways. According to her, phytoncides, the volatile organic compounds with anti-bacterial properties, which are released by trees, may explain the salutogenic properties of shinrin yoku. “One of the most fascinating mechanisms has something to do with phytochemicals that trees emit and humans breathe in. But more ideal for shinrin yoku is for you to not carry a phone or camera when stepping into nature,” suggests Dr Bhagya. “Just walk aimlessly, breathing in the natural air and keeping the mind calm.”
The magical properties
Shalini Magdel Das, a travel journalist and a social media strategist, also believes that surrounding yourself with trees in a beautiful forest is the most natural way to calm one’s senses.
In fact, Shalini, who was born and brought up in a metropolitan city, tells us how forests or trees spelled no meaning or to her or mankind us or to me until she began travelling.
“The air I breathed and the green I saw, to me back then, they were just as simple as our primary source of oxygen,” she tells us of her initial perspectives towards forests and nature. “But soon, I was spending time in forests in Sariska, Simlipal, Sundarbans, Gir, Jim Corbett National Park and Bandipur National Park and in the hills of Coonoor and Sikkim. I sensed how fresh the air felt, and I saw how beautiful the insects, birds, animals are and how human beings co-exist with all of them,” articulates Shalini.
Shalini began noting how forests and trees have a life of their own, actually helping in bringing peace and sanity back into human lives.
“Now I know that nature is the best healer—and it has been proven even scientifically that being around trees reduces stress and that the different shades of green, yellow, red and other colours that nature surprises us with actually help in lowering our blood pressure and uplifting our mood,” she adds.
The powers of the forest
But could shinrin yoku be just another fad, we can’t help but enquire. Does it really have anything to improve or affect health?
Dr Narmada, who has travelled to 169 countries and is the author of four travelogues, is certain that ‘forest bathing’—when she takes out time, slows down and connects with nature—is her ‘medicine’ to maintain her health. “Till today, I have never used any tablets,” says Narmada, the pride in her voice evident. “Every weekend, I choose one location for cycling and walking. I love to walk around the trees savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest into my being.”
Actor Harshavardhan Rane believes that being surrounded by nature is hard-wired into human beings. “One can’t help but feel relaxed when surrounded by trees, the birds and a flowing river,” the actor explains.
“And I love how man leaves his beautiful village and to earn his living in a big city, and then when he is done with his working life, he buys a beautiful house in a country side. To me, the best part of spending time in the jungle is that it brings back my focus to the basics such as food, water, breeze and sunlight, and the fact that it is all prepared for us.”
Lessons of diversity and harmony
Jyothi Rongala, a mountaineer and wilderness explorer, makes it very clear that getting out into nature isn’t a big event for her. “For me, it’s as essential as breathing air, drinking water and eating food. Nature makes me feel glad to be alive. I love to hug these huge old trees and walk barefoot and lie on the wild grass and thank nature for detoxing my body and soul,” says Jyothi, adding, “You might be surprised at what a massive difference these silly little things can make to your well-being.”
Pointing out how communication with nature requires no words—just vision and hearing—she tells us that when she is in nature she gets pure relief from sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and all the other ways we oppress, stigmatize and belittle one another as humans. “Nature, on the contrary, displays incredible diversity in all her glory,” adds Jyothi. “Spending time in nature makes me feel younger, stronger, and mentally happier. The mental and emotional well-being associated with connecting with the earth can have a positive knock-on effect to other challenges in our lives, including physical, disease and illness.”
Then giving an idea about how she practices shinrin yoku, Jyothi talks of how she loves getting outdoors before sunrise. “I am usually paddling, hiking, bird-watching, breathing the crisp, cold air and feeling the damp fog against my skin,” she elaborates.
“I find something greater in the woods than in books. I become one with it.... There’s no place for greed or anger or any such negative feelings there. I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles. So I go into the forests to lose my mind and find my soul and rediscover myself.”