Forest bathing in Singapore isn’t a new wellness trend. It dates back to the 80s in Japan. But does it really work? I ventured deep into nature to find out...
When I first heard the term ‘forest bathing’, what came to mind was a bunch of people circling around in their birthday suit under a full moon. Yeah, I know I’ve got a very wild imagination. After a little digging online, I was pleased to find out it doesn’t involve removing your clothes or taking an actual bath in the forest.
Originating from Japan in the 80s and known as ‘shinrin-yoku’ in Japanese, which translates to ‘forest’ and ‘bath’, forest bathing is the practice of immersing yourself in nature and taking in its atmosphere through all your senses.
Sounds like pseudoscience, right? Well, think again. There are numerous studies citing the benefits of this nature therapy, such as reduced blood pressure and stress, increased body immunity and improved sleep.
Just like the next millennial, I prioritise my mental health — yes, I own healing crystals. So, putting aside my aversion to nature (‘cos bugs, ewww) and sun (‘cos skin health, duh!), I decided to venture out into the great wilderness. All in the name of mindfulness.
A rundown of forest bathing in Singapore
On my quest to reconnect with nature, I reached out to Youmin Yap. She’s one of the pioneer nature and forest therapy guides in Singapore and the founder of Xiu Nature Connections, a nature-led wellbeing service and consultancy. She offers private and group sessions, as well as themed offerings such as moonwalk (forest bathing at night) and a high tea edition that includes light bites after reconnecting with nature. After a few back-and-forth emails, I met her on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon at Dairy Farm Nature Park.
Before we headed into the forest, she gave me a quick history lesson of the land. Fun fact: this quiet forested park actually got its name from a dairy farm owned by Cold Storage, the first tropical dairy farm in the world. She also offered a quick introduction to forest bathing and what it entails.
Having been trained under the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs in the US, she mentioned that forest bathing and forest therapy are pretty much the same at the core, with the terms used interchangeably by the industry.
Forest bathing is mostly about how it helps to improve our physical and mental wellbeing. Whereas forest therapy is all that plus “looking into our relationship with the environment, space and nature”, Youmin explains. It’s about learning to appreciate and protect Mother Nature better — we’re all interconnected, after all.
My forest bathing experience
There is a total of four ‘invitations’ — think of them as exercises to help you reconnect with nature. And like any invitation, you can decline them. That’s to say, there are no hard rules and you can simply go wherever the wind takes you. To get the most out of the experience, I was encouraged not to use my phone. At first, the neurotic part of me freaked out. How would I take notes or pictures? But I told myself, I came here to experience something new and I should make the most of it. You know, just me and nature living in the moment.
The first invitation: “Pleasures of Presence”. I began my forest journey experience with Youmin presenting me a series of prompts that encouraged me to open up my senses to the space. I found a comfortable spot (by that I mean shady and dry) and closed my eyes.
I used my senses to smell and listen to my surroundings. Initially, all I heard were the clicking sounds from cicadas. But past the forest’s cacophony, I heard faint sounds of cars in the distance. I thought I was hallucinating for a moment. Then Youmin mentioned there’s a highway nearby.
As for smell, all I got was wet mulch (I think it rained the day before). After a while, I opened my eyes to take in the scenery. The first thing I noticed from the corner of my eye was some kind of animal trotting away. At first, I was spooked because Youmin referred to wild boars in the area but she was nearby to keep an eye out for me and the coast was clear. I chalked it up to the light playing tricks on my eyes.
After every exercise, a sharing session ensued. Youmin used a stick to represent a mic which I held onto when sharing my thoughts. It’s funny how I didn’t notice all these minute things before the invitation. Granted, my attention was stolen by the bugs as I was busy swatting them away (despite the insect repellent), but even in my day-to-day life, I never would’ve noticed how the leaves dance as the wind brushes against it. It’s the little things, you know?
The path to nature nirvana continues
The experience continued with the second invitation: “What’s in motion?” It’s essentially a slow walk deeper into the forest, giving you an opportunity to step back and unplug from the daily stresses of life. During the introspective walk, I actively started letting go of the worries in my head. But halfway through, I forgot what I was thinking about when I came across a huge tree with gargantuan roots spreading out on the ground. I stopped and stared at it, thinking to myself, “how long has this tree been here?”. By the end of the walk, I felt my problems and worries were much smaller than I made them out to be. I’m just a mere speck compared to the ecosystem of this vast forest.
The third invitation involved exploring the colours of the forest. As we made our way through a somewhat steep rugged trail, I wondered what colours I’d see except for green…lots of green. But I actually spotted colours like reddish brown from the soil, black from the trail of ants, blue from the sky and yellow from the withering leaves. What really caught my eye was the tiny trickle of water flowing down — reminding me how this too plays an integral part in the ecosystem.
I was mesmerised by the forest. I knew I was still in Singapore, but it felt like I was in a magical place. The silent exploration of colours was eerily comforting.
Last but not least, the final invitation involved finding a comfortable spot to sit and let “nature unfold to me”. So I did what I was told, sat cross-legged and closed my eyes. Unlike earlier, I wasn’t too bothered about the insects. I realised I’m the one invading their space. I’m essentially a guest in their home. Instead, I focused on what the forest had to offer. As minutes passed, my body slowly relaxed and I embraced the forest through my senses. At the risk of sounding dramatic, it was like I was enveloped by the forest to get a deeper understanding of it.
The forest bathing journey came to a close with a sharing session accompanied by a tea ceremony. I told Youmin how I’ve never felt so peaceful in a long time – the forest found a way to calm me. Just as we sipped on lemongrass tea, we were greeted by a drizzle. I couldn’t help but think the forest was bidding me goodbye.
What did I learn? Nature is the best teacher…
Forest bathing, in theory, is a simple act of walking into nature. But I highly suggest you try the surreal experience. Although you can do it on your own, having a forest guide helps to bridge the gap between you and nature.
Will I do it again? Yes, for sure. The tranquillity of the forest made me feel some kind of way. I can’t really place a finger on it but I think it’s true that nature definitely has a healing effect on the mind.
For me, unwinding means escaping from reality in the form of binge-watching a series on Netflix or reading a good book. But this experience opened my eyes to the simple yet beautiful in-between moments of life, proving that you can relax and be present in the moment. While I’m still an urban dweller at heart, I now have a newfound appreciation for nature.