An interview with forest health therapist Manuela Goerlich about forest bathing
Ms Goerlich, do I get wet when forest bathing?
I am often asked this question. No, bathing suits are not necessary. Basically, you don't get wet unless it rains.
So, we don't go swimming, what do we do?
Forest bathing is a kind of walking meditation, a conscious immersion in the forest atmosphere with all the senses: We walk very consciously and slowly through the forest. The Japanese, the inventors of forest bathing, so to speak, recommend walking no more than one kilometre per hour. Only then does it really feel good. Breathing exercises also play a role, that is: conscious, deep breathing.
And I encourage the forest bathers to perceive their surroundings with all their senses: smelling the good forest air, for example. It is filled with essential oils, the terpenes.
In the forest, we also look into the distance, which helps us to relax the optic nerve, which is increasingly trimmed to close-up vision because we sit at our PCs a lot these days. In addition, it is soothing to look into the treetops through which the sunlight falls. In Japanese, there is a word for this special light refracted by the leaves: komorebi.
Listening is also important: birds, leaves, a stream...or just silence. In no case traffic noise!
Then there is touch: feeling tree bark, leaves... But it is not only the hands that are needed, but also the feet: walking barefoot over moss or the unevenness of roots is an extraordinary feeling and also therapeutic, but more about that in a moment.
Why does the forest have such a beneficial effect?
In short, spending time in the forest strengthens the immune system, the psyche and thus our resilience. This means that it makes us more resistant to everyday stress.
But first things first: Firstly, the green tones have a relaxing effect on the eyes. Our sense of sight uses 80 percent of our brain energy. When the optic nerve picks up pleasant colour tones, it sends these impressions on to the nerve centre and this relaxes.
It has been proven that patients recover faster and need fewer painkillers when a clinic is located in a green area.
The essential oils in the forest, in turn, act on the central nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, via the nose. This strengthens our immune system.
And then there is the foot effect. As already mentioned above, it is recommended to walk barefoot in the forest: This works like a reflex zone massage and stimulates the sense of balance, the metabolism and the blood circulation. After such a walk, the soles of the feet tingle.
It is also crucial that forests are low in stimuli. Traffic noise or billboards are far away and I ask the participants in my courses to switch off their mobile phones. In this way, they concentrate on themselves and their perception.
Fordust allergy sufferers, the forest offers the advantage of being able to breathe deeply - in the truest sense of the word. There are hardly any dust particles in the forest, leaves and needles filter the air thoroughly.
And who invented it?
The Japanese made forest bathing socially acceptable in the 1980s. In Japanese it is called Shinrin Yoku, which means conscious immersion in the forest atmosphere.
Is the positive effect proven?
A study on the positive effects of forest bathing will soon be published by the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. But there are also numerous international studies - many come from Japan, of course. Scientists there discovered 30 years ago that people who live in the countryside and near forests are particularly healthy and live to a very old age. This finding later gave rise to the so-called green prescription: doctors prescribe their patients a forest bath, which means not simply going for a walk in the forest, but spending time in the forest consciously and mindfully, under guidance.
Our health insurance companies do not yet pay for forest therapy, but in future this form of therapy is to be taught at medical faculties in this country. In my region, there are already doctors who send me patients.
And if they were with you... can you see that?
Oh yes, already after about two hours, that's how long a session usually lasts. If you want, I can take your pulse before and after the session. It's usually more even the second time. I should also take before and after pictures. You can see it: the faces are more relaxed, the whole person is at peace, smiles, has shining eyes, makes a more satisfied impression. When my patients walk into the forest, they always do so very briskly and briskly. When they come out, they move more relaxed, are calmer, have obviously slowed down.
I would like to emphasise once again that forest bathing should not only be used when it is too late and someone is already ill. Forest bathing serves above all to prevent health problems, especially in stressful times. I understand that it is particularly difficult to find the time for it. I recommend going into the forest more often and for shorter periods of time, but consciously.
Is every forest suitable for forest bathing?
I myself travel with my groups in very beautiful forests and certainly not in monocultures. By the way, more and more so-called healing forests are being designated in Germany, which are expressly intended for Shinrin Yoku.
Healing forests are never monocultures, but always mixed forests with biodiversity. Only they bring the desired effect. They are selected with the spa association, often in cooperation with clinics, according to certain criteria. For example, these forests must not be too dark, but also not so small that you can look through them with one glance. Shinrin Yoku paths ideally lead along bodies of water, there are quiet islands and barefoot paths, it is quiet, you don't hear any traffic noise.
Incidentally, Germany's first Shinrin Yoku trail was opened on Usedom in 2016.
Who should do forest bathing and who should not?
Basically, anyone can and should do it. There is no age limit.
Nevertheless, I recommend that parents, for example, come without their young children so that they can concentrate fully on themselves. There are special nature experience programmes for kindergarten and primary school children. Here, the children can learn how to access nature in a playful way and are guided in an age-appropriate way. My youngest participants have so far been in their late teens.
People with disabilities can also participate in forest bathing.
Do I need professional guidance for forest bathing?
I would say yes. Without guidance, people walk through the forest differently: they hardly come to rest, continue to hang on to their everyday thoughts and cannot escape their everyday stress. They do not walk mindfully and consciously, breathe too shallowly and neglect their sensory perception. With the help of specially trained forest health therapists, this vicious circle can be broken. We pick up the forest bathers where they are and guide them to where they want to go. We can help them to relax and slow down, guide them to sustainable health prevention and to balance body, mind and soul.
If you don't have the opportunity to go into the forest with a guide, you should at least try to immerse yourself in the forest atmosphere, perceive it with all your senses and let it have a positive effect on you. The following applies: Walk slowly if you are in a hurry.
Manuela Goerlich is a certified forest health therapist, relaxation therapist and herbalist . She completed her training at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, among other places.
She is mainly on the road in the forests of her district Bad Tölz / Wolfratshausen as well as in the districts of Miesbach, Weilheim-Schongau and south of Munich. On request, she comes to her clients in other parts of Germany to initiate them into the secrets of forest bathing. You can find her website here and her Instagram channel here.