Is it a walk in the woods – or a therapy session? In Tirol visitors can try forest bathing with a trained guide. The idea? Reducing stress.
I am standing silent in the forest, staring at trees. For minutes on end. That may sound a little strange, but it doesn’t feel unusual or uncomfortable. As I stand I look closely at all the details around me: dark green firs, tall pines, bright green beeches in the sunlight, all separated by a well-worn trail. Later in the day I will walk barefoot over soft moss, pine needles and ant trails, pass twigs with my toes. That may also sound a little strange, but I can tell you: it feels good.
„Verena Hiltpolt is my Yoda in the fight against the dark forces of daily stress.“
Of course, standing in the forest staring straight ahead, I know nothing yet of these pleasures to follow. I have come here to escape from the stress of daily life. Deadlines for texts I haven’t even started yet. Doing the dreary accounts dreaded by every freelancer. Replying to the WhatsApp messages friends sent me ages ago. Even things as simple as getting a good night’s sleep in the sticky heat of summer. When I can’t get off to sleep I lie there thinking about the texts I haven’t started, the impending bookkeeping deadlines, and the fact that soon I will find myself leading a life without friends. A vicious circle.
The solution? Forest bathing in Seefeld. My guide and mentor? Verena Hiltpolt. She will be my Yoda in the fight against the dark forces of daily stress. Verena is a qualified NaturCoach and has specialised in something called “forest bathing”. My first impression? She looks like nothing and nobody could ever fluster her. Exactly what I need.
„The different shades of green in the forest have a positive effect on our psyche.“
Forest bathing is actually called Shinrin Yoku and originally comes from Japan, where it was first used as an anti-stress therapy in the 1980s. Back then a worker and a senior manager became the first people to die in Japan from overworking and stress. Thankfully I am still a long way off that point. However, these deaths caused doctors in Japan to start recommending to workaholics that they should visit the forest regularly in order to prevent the build-up of stress. Scientific studies have proven that the forest environment has positive effects on our health. Researchers at universities in Japan and America were able to show that regular visits to the forest improve airways, cardiovascular system and immune defence. The main reason can be found in something called “terpenes”. These are aromatic organic compounds produced by a variety of plants and trees. On top of that, the different shades of green in the forest also have a positive effect on our psyche.
Despite the evidence, I remain sceptical. After all, like most people in Tirol I spend a lot of my free time out and about in nature. So what’s so special about forest bathing?
First and foremost it’s about learning to experience and appreciate the forest with all your senses. Instead of trying to hike as far or run as fast as possible, visitors are invited to simply be in the moment and enjoy the surroundings. That’s probably the reason why our group, led by Verena, barely makes it 20 metres into the forest before stopping. Our first task? Tracing the silhouette of the landscape, treetops and mountain peaks with our fingers. A little further on we are invited to shake our arms and legs, rub our eyes and take deep breaths in and out. This, explains Verena, is the warm-up, before adding with a smile: “Now it gets boring.”
This is the point where our story started: me, standing in the forest, staring at trees. Of course, “staring at trees” is not quite how Verena puts it. She asks us to see at the forest as if we were “looking at it through a window”, then choose a section we particularly like. All we then need to do is stay where we are and concentrate. It’s harder than it sounds, but after a while I notice things like how loud the wind is when it rustles the leaves.
The next exercise? Leaning against trees. We find ourselves some strong trees, lean back against the trunk and look up into the sky. For the first time I see how the tops of the trees bend and move in the wind. The trunk of the beech tree I have chosen feels much cooler than those of other trees. I guess we might look a little crazy, leaning against trees in the middle of the forest and staring up into the sky, but it feels good. “Some people tell me that after this course they started hugging trees again,” admits Verena.
„We were in the forest for almost two hours, but it felt like a short holiday.“
As we reach a clearing in the forest we take off our shoes and walk around barefoot. The ground beneath our feet changes as we go: sometimes it is cool and soft; on other occasions sharp pieces of wood spike the soles of our feet. It doesn’t take long to get used to the feeling. After a little time walking around barefoot we test our dexterity by balancing on top of pine cones and passing small pieces of wood from one person to another using only our toes. We are then guided barefoot along a narrow trail by Verena. Joining us on our march are hundreds of busy ants. Normally I would thunder along the path in my heavy walking boots, but here I pay much closer attention to where I tread. Despite my caution the ants still climb over my toes as I make my way along the trail.
The session concludes in a meadow on the edge of the forest, where we all sit down together. The grass is freshly cut, the hay has been rolled into bales by the farmer – the unmistakable smell of summer penetrates is all around. Verena tells us about other times when she has taken people into the forest in the pouring rain or in the middle of winter when the smell of the pine trees is particularly intense. I enjoy listening to her talk, but at the same time I can’t help but push the grass between my toes and rub the meadow herbs between my fingers. We were in the forest for almost two hours, but it felt like a short holiday. As we say our goodbyes, Verena gives me a green strap made of felt. Like a knot tied in a handkerchief, it is supposed to remind me of my time in the forest and the memories I have of staring silently at trees. I hang it up in my office the next day.ro