Your Guide to Forest Bathing: experience the healing power of nature. Amos Clifford. (2018). Conari Press; ISBN: 9781573247382
By Ed Lord, July 2020
Ed Lord works for Coed Lleol / Small Woods on the Actif Woods Wales project in Neath Port Talbot. He is also a Lecturer in Mental Health at Swansea University, and RCBC Wales (Research Capacity Building Collaboration) PhD fellow in Ecotherapy.
What is forest bathing?
For the second in my series of reviews I introduce a small book that is very much focused on practical experiences within woodlands. I would be interested to know how many people, on seeing this book, find the title confusing. When I first heard the term ‘forest bathing’ a few years ago an image of some kind of hot tub surrounded by trees sprang into my mind. Since then I have read a fair bit about the concept, and even attended forest bathing sessions, and although I know it has nothing at all to do with hot tubs (despite many woodland holiday providers making a selling point of such features) I still cannot shake the image!
While I urge you to forget my image of hot tubs, Amos Clifford does not provide a concise dictionary-style definition of ‘forest bathing’ that I can quote here to clear up the issue for you. He instead spends the first 13 pages of the book slowly and carefully delineating what forest bathing as a practice has come to mean to him. There are some key aspects to this lengthy definition, not least the biography of the author: Amos Clifford is based in California, and he is the co-founder of a training and certification provider called Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs (ANFT). He states that forest bathing is related to ‘forest therapy’ and the East Asian practice and research field called ‘Shinrin-Yoku’, but while these are “focused on boosting wellness and preventing disease” his idea of forest bathing is a “more casual experience among the trees, unburdened by expectations, oriented to simple pleasure” (p. xix). The point of this “experience among the trees” is to feel more connected to nature and the ecosystems and processes within which we are embedded – improved personal well-being is almost just a side effect or an afterthought of this reconnection rather than a primary aim of forest bathing.
Practices in the woods
This is a very practical book and much of it is a guide to spending time in the forest, and developing a particular orientation to the environment. Forest bathing is not just wandering in the forest, nor is it ‘green exercise’, rather it is about developing a relationship through practices that build what Clifford calls “an optimal flow” (p. 42). This ‘optimal flow’ is found through a combination of structure, such as starting with a symbolic “threshold” crossing, and flexibility, by “playfully engaging in a non-directed flow of emerging events” (p. 61). Much of this practice – structured and flexible – is related to aspects of mindfulness, including slowing down, being present in the moment rather than ruminating on the past or the future, and exercises that utilise all five senses deliberately. Despite the surface similarities, however, he suggests that applying mindfulness concepts can “trick you into making efforts to experience anything other than what the forest offers” (p. 44). By this slightly cryptic assertion he seems to be saying that the elements of the forest setting – rustling branches, the earthy smell of leaf litter, trickling water in streams – are, and should be, enough in themselves.
Numerous specific activities are described in the book, most of which could be tried in a local woodland or park, and this makes it a useful resource to dip in and out of at leisure. These activities include a breathing exercise, a reflection on an element of the surroundings such as a stone or twig, following animal tracks, finding a familiar ‘sit spot’ to which one returns for 20 minute observations over a long period of time, a ‘tea ceremony’, and using zoom and time lapse videos on your phone. There are a lot to try, and these can be practiced flexibly, and joined together to make a ‘forest bathing experience’ that one can repeat alone or share with a group. This practical approach is something that sets this book apart from some of the more theoretically and research oriented books published in recent years about nature and human health.
Coed Lleol / Small Woods and ‘forest bathing’
For anyone who has engaged with Coed Lleol / Small Woods, including on our Actif Woods Wales project, there will be elements of Amos Clifford’s ‘forest bathing’ that sound familiar. For example one of our leaders, Lymarie, has led some popular ‘mindfulness in nature’ sessions in Neath Port Talbot and Swansea, which utilise breathing exercises and carefully noting how the woodland engages all five senses. At Coed Lleol / Small Woods we don’t, however, tend to use the terminology of ‘forest bathing’ (or forest therapy, or Shinrin-Yoku) to describe our activities. You will find that we talk about ‘Social Forestry’, which has some important differences to other models of wellbeing work in nature, such as Amos Clifford’s template.
Social forestry has a strong woodland skills emphasis, from a point of view of seeing conservation and woodland management as inseparable from the economic and social utility that these environments can have for their local communities. So, while Coed Lleol’s ‘social forestry’ can include recognisable elements of ‘forest bathing’ described in this book, to my mind it is more inclusive and socially engaged. For example Clifford’s model of forest bathing originates from a particular Californian context and assumes a certain level of ‘nature connection’ to be already present as a starting place. Social forestry of the type developed by Small Woods has an appeal to groups often excluded, disengaged or disconnected from green space, nature, and woodlands. This is something that is readily apparent in the range of Agored certified qualifications that are offered in our different locations in Wales.
I think there is much to learn from Amos Clifford’s North American model of ‘forest bathing’, and I have been fortunate to meet many practitioners carefully adapting some of these practices to be more relevant in a Welsh context. Inspired by this, I enjoyed piloting an indoor ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ taster with a group at Mind in Neath last year. It would be great to hear from others how they are making ‘forest bathing’ work in different contexts, and if anyone tells me they have put I hot tub in their woodland I will smile and shake my head!
To discover online woodland activities with Coed Lleol / Small Woods during lockdown visit: www.coedlleol.org.uk