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Go wild, find mild

It’s not a naked dip in a waterhole but forest bathing is just as refreshing.

On first hearing, forest bathing conjures up visions of skinny-dipping, Highlands style, under cool bush waterfalls, and swimming in bottomless turquoise pools.

Not to knock that experience; I’d recommend it to anyone. However, forest bathing, another form of getting at one with nature, involves keeping your clothes on.

Devised by the Japanese, a people not widely recognised for getting nuddy in public, forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a therapy created in the 1980s by the Japanese government to help get an overly zealous workforce outdoors. To pause, take the air, smell the roses and literally stop working themselves to death. It was such a problem back then, there is even a word for death by overwork … karoji.

Hopefully, 40 years on, Japan’s workforce has more of a handle on the work/life balance. In forest bathing, where shinrin means forest and yoku bath, the health benefits of experiencing the great outdoors come to life.

Which is entirely the point, says Christie Little. Christie is a nature and forest therapy guide, the first to be internationally certified in NSW. She is also expert at running forest bathing and wellbeing walks. Like this one at Budderoo National Park, 10 kilometres from Robertson on a sunny Highlands morning. In this group, organised by Experience Nature Group, a local provider of outdoor days, feasts, and luxury stays, there are about 15 of us to forest bathe together. A mix of men and women of all ages; all, with the exception of me, are city out of towners, and have driven from Sydney and Wollongong for the two-hour experience.

“Back in the 1980s, the Japanese government discovered that time spent in nature naturally reduces all the biomarkers of stress and helps decrease blood pressure and has cardiac and pulmonary benefits,” Christie says.  

The main idea behind this morning’s nature therapy? To demonstrate a way to slow down, spend time in nature while engaging mind, body and senses in the present and sitting quietly with it, allowing for time and thought. Our indigenous peoples have appreciated the benefits of communing with nature for more than 40,000 years, and more recently the Australian Department of Defence published research on the positive effects of time outdoors for veterans suffering PTSD, says Christie.

“It’s interesting the Latin word for nature is solitudo. This morning is about finding your own nature in this place and thinking about how important it is to find some time solo. Please don’t forget to turn your mobile phones off.”

As a working mum and wife, I never need an excuse to go solo for a bit. Nor does Sam, a fellow participant who is expecting her third baby. Here with her mum and brothers, the family from Forestville in Sydney’s north discovered the bush just outside their backyard during COVID-19’s lockdown. Today, her husband stayed home with the kids.

“It’s my first-time forest bathing and my six- and nine-year-old were like ‘so, what are you doing mum? Are you going tree hugging?’,” Sam says

Well yes, there is some tree hugging; later we are asked to find a tree that speaks to us and sit with it. There is also a practice called What’s in Motion where we follow Christie slowly up a bush track, observing the life beneath our feet. Another, Pleasures of Presence, we do with our eyes closed as we turn our attention inwards, and outwards to the bush around us. Later we spend time alone before coming back to the communal space, where the morning concludes with the Way of Council, a sharing of observations and reflections. Everyone is free to share or not.

“Often being engaged with nature is about giving yourself the time, and space to listen and hear your own wisdom,” says Christie. “It’s a process of just waiting rather than searching. It’s about just being in the present.”

After hours in this bush setting, the mood is relaxed, introspective and friendly. A man comments on the background of birdsong, another on the gentle stillness and the quiet flowing of water of the nearby Carrington Falls. A woman is amazed at the armies of ants busy on the earth beneath our feet.

Connection is what Christie hopes we take away. Connection with nature, with our thoughts, with ourselves. I walk regularly in the bush. However, I thank my forest bathing therapy for helping me slow down and notice the tiny minutiae of life I usually stride past. Another thing Christie says will stay with me.

“A recent study showed when researchers put individuals in a room alone, 67 per cent of people chose to give themselves an electric shock within the first 15 minutes rather than spend time solo.”

Now, those people definitely need to get out, into nature more.

*Escape Southern Highlands was a guest of Experience Nature. To experience Forest Bathing on Saturday May 15 or to look at other great SH outdoor activities,

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