Why forest bathing is transformative

The healing powers of nature

At a glance

  • Immersing in nature ‘boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, slows the pulse, and even reduces stress hormones.’

MEDICINE OF LIFE Author jumps off a rock into the river

I had heard about the healing powers of walking in nature but didn’t realize it had a name—forest bathing. Used in Japan in the 1980s, meant “forest bathing, forest therapy, or taking in the forest atmosphere.” 

Immersing in nature involved the physical and psychological healing of individuals weary in mind and body. The demand to “reinvigorate the body and mind” via nature also saw locals begin to share their knowledge of the forest and the belief, long held yet often discarded, of its benefits to humanity.

I started to read more about forest bathing, its origins, and how it had become such a transformative sensory experience and began to understand and better articulate why I kept going back to the Sierra Madre Mountains and booking myself on yearly treks to the Himalayas, the Scottish Highlands, and even the Alps for days-long treks. 

THE BEAUTY OF SCOTLAND These photos were taken during the author's eight-day hike in the Scottish Highlands

I would often describe how I feel after as “power charge,” which I found ironic, since walking even at some point up to 32 kilometers a day could get grueling. I won’t deny that trekking for days is hard. In all my years of walking, running, and climbing mountains, I have learned to control one thing, my breathing. 

This was even pointed out to me by our local guide in the mountains of Montalban, Rizal during my last climb, “Ma’m kahit paano, kahit anong klaseng terrain, parating even at regular ’yun breathing ninyo (no matter what, regardless of the terrain, your breathing is always even and regular).” So, this is mindfulness. 

On every ascent and descent, I automatically focus on my breathing, realizing that the chant-like cadence of the sound of my breath propels me on my journey. This I learned I can control.  To realize that you can control and can learn to control, with practice and some measure of discomfort, other aspects in your life is powerful.

BE ONE WITH NATURE Hikers are encouraged to cherish nature by engaging with the outdoors

Geosciences professors Dr. Hayden Lorimer and Dr. Katrin Lund described forest therapy as “taking people on a journey that leads at least part way toward greater personal security, reviving lapsed aspirations and life ambitions.” 
Indeed, the mind and heart are healed but forest bathing heals the body as well. A 2008 study by Akemi Nakamura, spanning 30 years of data, showed immersing in nature “boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, slows the pulse, and even reduces stress hormones.” 

In one paper I also read about healing vibrations in the forest. If you stay long enough, you can activate the parasympathetic nervous system that helps with bodily functions and generally relaxes the body.

I must add though that forest therapy does not require trekking for days or involve an arduous hike. In fact, it is described merely as “an intense visual encounter with nature that is not destination-oriented but punctuated merely by a beginning and end.” 

RISE AND SHINE Flexing muscles on an actual mountain with gym buddies from Rise Nation

With this in mind, I decided to invite some friends from my gym for a short day hike. I’ve written about my gym Rise Nation that specializes in the versa climber—a climbing machine that helps tone the body and gives one an intense cardio workout in just 30 minutes. The trek was to apply all those muscles toned during our workouts on a real mountain.

Our hike took us up to view a portion of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range basking in the radiant morning light and then down trails, almost non-existent and overgrown with forest flora, to walk by streams and rivers that end in torrents over waterfalls cascading into the Marikina River. At one point I slipped on a stony slope, stopping short by the stream’s edge.

HEALING OF THE HEART Yoga teacher and mental health advocate Jennifer Non strikes a pose

From experience, I did not resist and just naturally followed gravity. As I lay there, I looked up at the sky overhead that was obscured only slightly by the over-reaching tree branches. Later, I closed my eyes and luxuriated in such a pristine natural environment. I let the various sounds and sensations take over me—the wind on my face, the sound it makes in the trees, the polyphonic pitches from the cascading stream at my feet and, as my senses grew more acute, I could even detect a bird call. Nature creates such beautiful music! 

At school, I learned that music, particularly indigenous music, is an imitation or recreation of nature. Listening to the melodies around me, I was reminded of the T’boli’s klutang, a wooden percussion beam played with mallets. The T’boli’s musical repertoire is said to mimic the sounds of nature, interlocking with the calls of a pair of crimson-breasted barbet or “fu.” The fu has a metronomic call, “large pitch for the male” and “small pitch” for the female. 

The fu bird plays highly in T’boli cosmology that is inextricably linked to Lake Sebu, around which lies the cultural and ancestral land of the T’boli. 
In her paper “The Sounding Pantheon of Nature. T’boli Instrumental music in the Making of an Ancestral Symbol,” Manolete Mora enumerates: the two-string lute, the sludoy or bamboo polychordal zither, kumbing (jew’s harp), d’wegey (single stringed spike fiddle), and the Ketimbow (an extinct instrument).  These are what she calls the “courting instruments.” 

You see, they were created by a celestial deity called Lemugot Mangay who was sent down to earth by Di’wata, the supreme celestial deity, to bring the T’boli’s ancestral female figure Boi Henwu back to heaven. 

GOING NUTS FOR BETEK NUTS Members of the Manobo tribe in the mountains of Agusan del Sur give out Betek nuts

To make Boi Henwu fall in love with him, he created musical instruments to woo her with. Boi Henwu did fall in love with Lemugot Mangay but before allowing herself to be brought to heaven, she said she would play the klutang for the last time. When she was done, she threw the mallets down to the ground, which then turned into a pair (male and female) of crimson-breasted barbets. There is another man involved, Kludan, who was with Boi Henwu for 16 years before Lemugot Mangay entered the picture. Through the years, Kludan grew to love Boi Henwu but tragically it was one-sided. (Spoiler alert: Boi Henwu went with Lemugot Mangay to heaven and Kludan ended up in the underworld.) 
Roused from my thoughts by my fellow hikers and, after checking I was OK, we proceeded down the mountain to the base camp.

The beauty of our traditional music remained in my mind the rest of the day. I recalled an interview I did with US-based Filipino soprano Stefanie Quintin Avila, who said, “Filipino singers should work toward the decolonization of our consciousness as a people.” 

She decried how Filipino musicians would revere Western classical music while our own traditional music is simply relegated to intermission numbers. For centuries, musicians all over the world have had to adhere to strict norms of the field of vocal arts. Avila pointed out, “The Philippines has its own musical traditions that (are) enough to fuel the Filipino artist’s creative passions. This has to be acknowledged and cultivated with the help of government. Only then can we find our voice and realize the full potential of the Filipino artist’s capacity to create, innovate, and liberate ourselves from established musical authorities.”