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Forest bathing in Singapore: Walk slowly, connect deeply

Toh Wen Li on 30 Mar 2021

The Straits Times


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SINGAPORE - I am walking very slowly. This might be the slowest I've walked in months. My task for the next few minutes is to explore a forest trail in silence, awakening my senses to the leafy environs of Dairy Farm Nature Park.


"Forest bathing", which is what I'm here to do, is a decades-old Japanese practice where people soak in the atmosphere of the forest - its sights, sounds, textures, smells and tastes.


Contrary to its name, it is not about showering in the forest.


"I like to use the analogy of sunbathing," my guide Youmin Yap tells me. "In nature, forest bathing is about absorbing nature's atmosphere and its concoctions."


The 38-year-old, who became a full-time forest therapy guide in 2017, says forest bathing is different from a hike or nature walk. "We are not trying to 'get there' in two hours... We are simply using our senses to connect with nature."


For two hours, she leads me to different parts of the park and invites me to become more aware of certain things - people and things in motion, the feeling of grass on my skin, and the natural and man-made sounds around us.


After each of these "invitations" - there are about four - we stop to share our observations.


The term forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was invented in Japan in 1982 as part of a national health programme. It was also part of a campaign to protect the forests, says forest medicine expert Qing Li in his book Shinrin-yoku: The Art And Science Of Forest-Bathing.


If people were encouraged to visit forests for their health, they would be more likely to want to protect them, he explains.


Fostering greater appreciation of nature chimes with the theme of this year's International Day of Forests, which fell on March 21 with a focus on "Forest restoration: a path to recovery and well-being".


Forest bathing has been making ripples in Singapore. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many travel-starved Singaporeans have sought refuge in nature.


Ms Yap, probably the most prominent forest therapy guide on the island, says her public group sessions - capped at eight people and down from 12 previously - tend to fill up more quickly these days. She believes this is due to the smaller group sizes and also people's desire to explore novel ways of connecting with nature and practising self-care.


"Nature is the therapist. The guide opens the door," she says.


Once you get past the slight awkwardness of a "sharing" circle and the Deepak Chopra-esque musings ("touch the earth and imagine the earth touching you back"), it is not too hard to see why some people find this helpful.


After all, being present in the moment is not always, well, a walk in the park.


As my feet wander, so do my thoughts. I think about all the e-mails piling up in my inbox and, as my legs swell with itchy mosquito bites, I start to wish I had brought some repellent with me.


After spending more time trying to be aware of my surroundings, I notice things I might not have noticed otherwise - a spider on its web, a trail of ants and several bamboo trees.


I marvel at the way the sunlight filters through the canopy and recall how the Japanese have a term for this: komorebi.


Forest-bathing, Ms Yap tells me, has made her more appreciative of the little things.


Before becoming a full-time forest therapy guide, she was "quite Type A", working as a biology teacher and an assistant director at the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore.


She took the leap in 2017, a year after going on a "really slow" guided hike in Kenya.


"It was the first time I walked that slowly out in nature. It was beautiful - the slowness allowed me to see things more clearly."


After returning to Singapore, she came across a video on shinrin-yoku by the World Economic Forum. It resonated, and in 2017, she became a certified forest therapy guide through the United States-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs.


Not long after, she founded Xiu Nature Connections, which runs forest bathing and yoga nidra sessions. Xiu, the Chinese word for "rest", is composed of the radicals for "person" and "wood", harking to the ancient - and commonsensical - wisdom that spending time in nature is good for one's well-being.


This notion has also been backed by science - with studies pointing to a link between spending time in nature and decreased stress levels. Some scientists even suggest that the chemicals emitted by plants, known as phytoncides, could boost the immune function.


After two hours of walking and mindfully observing the forest, we reach the end of our session.


Ms Yap lays a mat on the grass and takes out a teapot from her backpack, adding roselle tea leaves and hot water from a thermos flask.


I notice that she has prepared an extra cup of tea. It is to give thanks to the forest for hosting us, she says, and invites me to take the cup and show my gratitude in whatever way I see fit.


Sheepishly, I make my way to a tree and sprinkle the tea over its roots, careful to avoid dousing an army of ants with the liquid.


They say forest bathing is for everyone, but the prices feel prohibitive. Ms Yap charges $150 a person for private sessions and from $65 a person for group sessions.


Why do we need a guide?


She says they offer a more structured approach to forest bathing. "A lot of people know they need to slow down, but it is the act of slowing down that is very difficult to do."


A guide models that slowing down and holds a space for people to do so.


"Also, a lot of people become anxious when they don't know what to do. Forest bathing is almost like doing nothing, but the 'invitations' give people that sense of doing something."


She believes forest bathing will continue to gain traction here. In the meantime, she would like to see more local studies that look at the effects of forest-bathing on people in Singapore.


Nature trails here, she adds, could also be designed with forest bathing in mind, for instance, with gathering spots at certain intervals for people to pause, reflect and share their thoughts.


As it turns out, you do not necessarily need a forest to go nature bathing. Ms Yap has conducted "forest bathing" sessions online, where participants do not venture far from their homes. Instead, they might try to connect with a tree outside their window or even an orange from their fridge.


"As long as you are building a relationship with nature through your senses, it is nature bathing."


Making ripples


A few weeks after meeting Ms Yap, I find myself on a kayak in the Marina Reservoir at 8am, trying out another approach to nature bathing.


This time, there is no forest and I'm slightly worried the bathing will take a literal turn. Fortunately, I am on a stable, sit-on-top kayak and my tandem partner happens to be a kayaking coach.


Mr Ding Kian Seng, 37, decided early in life that climbing the corporate ladder was not for him. After getting a degree in tourism management, he started a paddling company and also experimented with mindfulness-based kayaking.


Two years ago, after reading an article about Ms Yap in Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao, he enrolled in the same forest therapy course and became a certified guide as well.


Project Reconnections, an initiative he founded last year, organises free sessions for wheelchair users and people with special needs or mental-health issues.


These last for about 2½ hours in places such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.


He also conducts forest-bathing sessions for small groups on stand-up paddle boards and kayaks on a pay-as-you-wish basis, on top of any equipment rental costs.


"I haven't had constant revenue for two years because of Covid-19's impact on the outdoor industry. But I'd like to take this opportunity to learn and give what I can and trust that the universe will support me," says Mr Ding, who is also the co-founder of Outdoor Sports Kakis, a group that runs nature and sports events for people with special needs.


On the water, we run through a similar sequence of "invitations" and "sharing" sessions - at various points in our journey from the Waterways Watch Society towards Marina Barrage, Mr Ding invites me to pay attention to the sights and sounds around me.


The feeling of water droplets and rays of sun on my skin, for instance, and the colours of leaves, litter, shells and snail eggs near the shoreline.


Some of these "invitations" are quiet and done with our eyes closed. Others involve us playing with the water - scooping it up and splashing it with our hands, for instance - or picking up dead or man-made objects from the shore with tongs.


The session ends with us drinking tea on the kayak, as we partake of lemongrass tea, energy bars and easy conversation.


Mr Ding adds: "I'm not a very competitive person, I go with the flow. Forest bathing has amplified that importance of just being in the moment. As long as I can do something that contributes in the area of environmental education and conservation, I feel I would be quite contented and happy."


Contented and happy, too, is how I feel after three hours of paddling. My arms are sore, my yoga pants are soaked and I am famished. But it also feels incredible.


In a hectic work week, I've found some precious moments of peace.


To find out more about Ms Yap's forest-bathing sessions, go to this website. E-mail Mr Ding at sampankian@gmail.com


Mindfulness on a forest walk can boost one's health: Local study


Walking mindfully in the forest can improve one's mental, physical and social health, as some seniors in a recent study found.


The Nature and Mindful Awareness Study, a 10-week qualitative study led by prominent psychiatrist Kua Ee Heok, gathered 20 participants with a mean age of 65.5 for Saturday morning walks in green spaces such as the Singapore Botanic Gardens.


The study ended in 2019, but its members continue to walk together every week, often staying for chats over coffee afterwards.


Such group walks can make people more appreciative of nature, as well as foster social connectedness, which is "protective against anxiety and depression", says participant Vincent Chong, 67, who is a visiting consultant at the National University Hospital.


The study was supported by the National University Health System and NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's Mind Science Centre.


Housewife Wee Geok Hua, 67, who leads the group on the hour-long walks, says such sessions encourage people to focus on the here and now.


"Most of the time when we walk, we will either be plugged into our mobile phones or chatting with a friend. Sometimes when you've finished, you can't even remember the route you have taken.


"When you do mindful walking, you want to bring your focus to whatever is happening in the present," she says.


Mrs Wee, who compares mindfulness practice to a "mental gym", says: "You are simply being aware. We try not to validate whether an experience is good or bad. The sound coming from a car is neither good nor bad. You are just listening to what it is."


There is nothing religious about the way the group practises mindful walking, even though mindfulness has roots in Buddhist philosophy, she adds.


Studies have shown that mindfulness offers a host of benefits, not least helping people cope with conditions such as depression, anxiety and chronic pain.


Next year, Prof Kua and his colleagues will mount a 10-year longitudinal study of the impact of nature and mindful awareness on university students.


The Therapeutic Rainforest study, as it is called, is distinct from forest bathing and will take students on guided mindful walks in the rainforest around Kent Ridge Park for 10 weeks, before maintaining contact with them over the ensuing years. A pilot study will kick off later this year.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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