Uncovering the benefits of the Japanese forest bathing concept, shinrin-yoku, through an immersive experience at Mulu’s 60 million-year-old primeval rainforest
SINGAPORE (Sept 23): The term shinrin-yoku was coined in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama, the then director-general of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Agency, during the height of Japan’s economic boom. This concept of forest bathing — introduced about three decades after the buna massacre, in which a large number of Japanese beech trees were cut down in the name of development — comes from the principle of the healing effects of being in harmony with nature and is part of a forest protection campaign. Its objective is, arguably, two-pronged — if people were encouraged to visit the forest for the betterment of their health, perhaps they would be more likely to care for it.
The shinrin-yoku concept formed the crux of the forest immersion sessions under Mulu Marriott Resort & Spa’s recent Ayus Wellness retreat. The inaugural programme focused on “Clarity & Peace of Mind”, one of the resort’s three signature wellness journeys besides “Anti-Aging & Radiance” and “Energy & Strength”.
“Because we evolved with nature, we have a biological need to connect with it. We are genetically determined to love the natural world. It is in our DNA,” explains Harvard-trained public health specialist and wellness expert Prof Gerard Bodeker, who co-founded the wellness programme with resort owner Robert Geneid.
Numerous studies have been conducted on the positive impact of forest bathing, of which the advantages are aplenty. One is reduced stress levels — the relaxing nature of the exercise enhances the parasympathetic system of our bodies while lowering stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Research findings by Dr Qing Li of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo show that after two hours of forest bathing walks, participants’ average sleep time increased 15% (or 54 minutes), they felt less anxious and had better quality of sleep.
There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to how forest bathing should be done. One only has to be present in the moment and walk slowly with no particular goal in mind — the opposite of what one would do on a hike or while on a guided tour — while engaging the five senses. Mobile phones and cameras are discouraged on these walks.
The majestic setting of Mulu’s 60 million-year-old primeval rainforest proved to be the perfect place to embark on some shinrin-yoku. And since there was almost no phone service and internet connection in most parts of the resort, a digital detox was ensured.
As straightforward as shinrin-yoku may seem, I discovered on my first nature immersion session with Ayus Wellness — led by Bodeker — that it does take some getting used to. Among others, the pace of walking was slower than my usual speed. I made it a point to keep my mobile phone in my dry bag, freeing my hands and allowing me to focus my senses on the natural surroundings of the Mulu National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Though we were travelling in a group and accompanied by a park guide, we walked in silence. By quieting ourselves, we were able to concentrate on the sounds of the forest — flowing water, rustling leaves and the sounds made by the insects and animals that call it home. During parts of the walk, the need to communicate arose — for example, when a lizard crossed our path and when there was a snake coiled up in a fallen tree trunk. As much as possible, we did so with gestures and hushed voices but understood each other perfectly. At the end of our forest immersion session, our guide Ismail — who is a village elder and healer — pointed out that the way we had spoken to each other was similar to that of hunters and gatherers, who mimic animal noises to communicate so as not to draw attention to themselves.
Another form of forest bathing that I experienced during the retreat was nature-immersed yoga and meditation. After a 30-minute boat ride on the Melinau River, we turned right into a bay called Clearwater Pool — a most fitting name since the water was crystal clear — where we practised integrative yoga, led by Shilpa Ghatalia, amid the breathtaking backdrop of nature. A short walk from there was the Cliff Trail, where we immersed ourselves in more shinrin-yoku. In the opposite direction was the Clearwater Cave, the interconnected cave system through which pristine water flows before arriving at Clearwater Pool.
Food-wise, the Ayus Wellness Cuisine served during the retreat had ingredients that were indigenous to the area, allowing us to truly embrace the best that nature has to offer. The signature drink was a pegaga shot made from the long-stalked vegetable with rounded apices and combined with ginger, turmeric, black pepper (to enable the absorption of turmeric by the body), coconut milk and goji berry.
The Ayus Wellness programme comes under wellness tourism, a US$639 billion market last year that is projected to reach US$919 billion ($1.26 trillion) by 2022, according to the Global Wellness Institute. Its findings indicate that international wellness tourists spent an average of US$1,528 per trip, 53% more than the typical international tourist, making it a sector with immense potential for growth. With a rising number of people opting for wellness retreats, it is not difficult to see why.
Going back to the essence of forest bathing, it is clear that one does not necessarily have to go to a wellness retreat to receive the benefits of shinrin-yoku. All you need is a lush natural area to wander in and an open heart and mind. In Japan, for instance, the Forest Bathing Society has listed 62 forests that have been deemed to have the optimum environment for shinrin-yoku, with signposted therapy roads or trails for maximum impact.
So, if you are headed for the forest today, leave your smartphone behind and slowly journey through nature with no particular time limit or destination in mind — just revel in its goodness. Your mind, body and soul will thank you for it.
Shalini Yeap is a contributor to The Edge Malaysia