When I first heard of forest bathing, I imagined adrenaline junkies packing swimming costumes and dipping in waters deep in the jungle.
It turns out, it has nothing to do with swimming.
Gitonga Wandai, the chief executive of Hikemaniak, a group that organises outdoor adventures in Kenya says forest bathing is walking into a jungle, breathing in the fresh air and stretching besides a waterfall.
It is a time out to get away from the noise, social media, phones, computers and life struggles.
Gitonga is introducing forest bathing to lovers of adventure and he says it is slowing picking up and replacing yoga as a trend.
The meandering through the long trees and grass with no particular destination in mind makes people tune in to the smells, textures, tastes and sights of the forest, helping them calm down, relieve stress and regain one’s self being.
“Forest bathing is one of the best ways to rid your body of stress and fatigue. It helps people to recollect themselves and reconnect with their spirits,” says Gitonga.
Last Saturday, he led a group of 30 people to Old Kamweti Forest station, referred to as Kamweti Camp, located on the slopes of Mt Kenya for a forest bathing adventure.
The team deliberately walked slowly for 21 kilometres through the rain forest which has a variety of trees and birds, running their fingers through branches and leaves, meditating and taking time to watch the trees dance to the wind. Others smelt the flowers and tree barks.
Wearing water-proof hiking gear, activity trackers, bags on their backs packed with snacks and water and surrounded by mountain greenery, one of the forest bathers termed the outdoor activity as therapeutic while another says it is calming.
‘‘You would have to be there to experience the calmness because I don’t have the words to describe the sounds and the feel of the forest. But it is so refreshing, my thoughts were centred and I got to talk to God as I walked through the jungle,’’ says Kerry Nkatha, one of the forest bathers.
Sit inside long grass
Forest bathing originated from Japan in 1982. The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku, which means talking in the forest atmosphere or the forest bathing.
“While walking in the forest slowly, one can close their eyes, walk without going to a specific direction and allowing oneself to forget about the busy schedules in our day-to-day life,” says Gitonga.
Forest bathing also involves hugging trees, sitting down on grass or a rock and silently listening to one’s inner self.
“The calming effect improves the memory and helps slow down a fatigued mind,” he says.
In Kenya, the Hikemaniak began the activity in January this year and it is picking up fast.
“Before, not many people signed up because they did not know what it entails. But afterwards, those who joined us during our first activity have invited more people. We now call it the new yoga as many people are booking every Saturday,” he says.
In Coast, popularity of forest bathing is unsurprising. The Kaya Kinondo Sacred Forest in Diani located near many luxurious hotels lures tourists practising tree hugging.
In the forest, tourists can hug a tree aged 400 years and transfer their stress and problems to it, leaving there rejuvenated and of good health.
Others unplug as they cycle or walk or jog in Karura Forest in Nairobi. Gitonga is planning another trip to Kereita Forest which shares the Aberdares Ranges ecosystem and has a cave colonised by bats and a waterfall.
Most of those who are going for forest walks are women, Gitonga says, adding that those above 40 like forest bathing because it is a mental-health boost and it is less strenuous compared to other fitness exercises.
In Japan, it has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing. The practice is recommended to people with depression and those whose stress levels is high.
“Those suffering from high blood pressure have also been recommended to engage in forest bathing practice as its helps to reduce stress hence contributing to stabilisation of blood levels,” Gitonga says.
When you sign for the outdoor trip, the rules for the forest are: meander, sit and meditate, reflect and try as much as possible to forget about family and work.
“The more one goes back to the forest, the more we get awakened as forest bathing awakens one’s sense to smell, sound and memory,” says Gitonga.