Forest bathing is set to be one of the hottest wellness trends for 2020, and West Cork has a team of newly-trained guides to offer the experience which is designed to help escape the hassles of modern day life.
By Niamh Hayes
MEDITATION, mindfulness and yoga are just some of the ways people escape the stresses of modern living and reconnect with the self, but a new phenomenon is set to take over West Cork, and that is forest bathing.
And while it certainly sounds a little intriguing, and maybe even a little bit suggestive, all participants remain fully clothed for this practice!
Although new to these shores, forest bathing is not a new concept. It is a direct translation of the Japanese term Shinrin-Yoku, a phrase which was coined in the 1980s by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, due to the growing popularity of people taking in the atmosphere of the forest for health reasons.
It is essentially the practice of connecting with nature through a contemplative, guided walk, immersing yourself in a woodland environment and restoring the self through mindful contact with trees.
Shirley Gleeson, a nature and wellbeing consultant from Wicklow, trained in the practice of forest bathing and Forest Therapy in the USA five years ago. She has since brought the concept to Ireland, and as well offering the experience itself she also trains others to be able to provide the service.
‘Forest bathing is where mindfulness meets nature. It is a slow practice where you bathe your senses in a forest environment,’ says Shirley.
Although a walk or hike in nature can provide great health benefits, this practice is very different. It does not involve reaching a destination.
‘This is a much slower pace. You get in touch with your body and senses, to get out of everyday life. We are constantly surrounded by pollution, noise and technology, but the forest lets you escape this, it provides a natural sound scape,’ she adds.
The sole purpose of forest bathing is to engage all five senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.
Shirley’s background is in mental health social work and she has always found that people become more relaxed and at ease when they are in nature.
‘A huge amount of research has been done about the link between wellness and nature. Being in nature has been found to reduce blood pressure and stress levels, as well as promoting a sense of calmness,’ says Shirley.
While Shirley did find it hard to introduce the practice to Ireland initially, the awareness of it is now growing as people learn about its benefits.
Of course, there are beautiful forests in West Cork and recently, Shirley was invited to share her knowledge with 11 eager trainees who all wanted to be able to provide a forest bathing service in their local area.
Avril Allshire-Howe of Rosscarbery Recipes had the idea of inviting Shirley to West Cork to facilitate the training after realising the connection between spending time in the forest and the positive effects it had.
‘I’ve been thinking and talking about this for 12 months. We have a 58-acre farm, 50 of which are under trees. I am involved in West Cork Farm Tours and I was noticing that people would come to the farm, check their phones before we headed off, wondering what time they’d be finished, and by the time the tour would be complete, they would be so chilled out, not wanting to leave,’ says Avril.
She knew that trees had a positive effect on herself and so she started to research online the link between wellness and trees. Her husband bought her books on the topic and she began to realise the huge number of benefits.
‘I got in contact with Shirley and she came to the farm in Rosscarbery to carry out a site assessment. I wanted to have credibility and to make sure the woods we had on the land were suitable for forest bathing,’ she adds.
Shirley spent four days teaching the walk structure to the 11 participants, which involves a two to three-hour walk, getting people to slow down, meditate and get creative. She also taught them the safety aspects of guiding, such as hazardous plants to look out for in forests, as well as the health benefits of the practice.
These 11 people can now guide others in the art of forest bathing and it is hoped that it is something which will take off in West Cork, not only to bring wellness into people’s lives, but to get people to think about the wellness of the environment too.
Shirley, whose father came from Bere Island, feels that West Cork is the perfect spot for the practice of forest bathing: ‘West Cork is huddled away, there is a different pace of life here with an amazing landscape, food and huge amounts of creativity.’
West Cork’s new Forest Bathing guides for wellness tourism are:
Anna Healy, Life Coach & Practical Wellness Facilitator
Michelle Ryan, BWELLHIVE
Valerie Cullinane, Forest School Practitioner
Grainne Bagnall, Digital STEAM Career Coach
Pat Joe Connolly, Architect and Artist
Jane O'Donovan, Nurse
Michael O'Neill, Fernhill House Hotel
Anna Murray, Gardener & Music Facilitator
Fergal O'Connor, Youghal
Avril Allshire, West Cork Farm Tours
Susan O'Regan, Mindfulness Trainer
The group have formed a committee to launch Forest Bathing at various locations in 2020. More details to follow.