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When people first hear the term ‘forest bathing’ they often assume it simply involves hugging trees, says certified forest therapy guide Amanda Yik, as she mindfully strolls along a quiet, tree-shrouded path in Lung Fu Shan, on the western slopes of The Peak on Hong Kong Island. Yet the healing pastime has been found to lower a person’s blood pressure, heart rate and levels of harmful hormones which cause stress and anxiety — all things that would be particularly beneficial to one’s body and mind, she says.
“Forest bathing is a very simple way of boosting mental and physiological health,” says Yik, who is a member of the United States-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs. “It’s really about immersing our senses, slowing down and just enjoying being in nature.”
Formerly a lawyer, Yik began to look for a deeper connection with nature after being diagnosed with cancer. While off work for treatment, managing only slow, gentle walks in her local park as exercise, she read about forest bathing — the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bath’.
“I’d find a quiet seat under the tree, allowing my eyes to relax into a gentle focus, breathing in the damp morning air, and look at the changing colours of the leaves on the trees,” Yik says.
Within months she resolved to find out more about the practice and in 2017 trained as a certified forest therapy guide and trainer. It involves ‘bathers’ walking unhurriedly and aimlessly as they immerse themselves in nature while their senses savour the sounds, smells, sights and feel of their surroundings.
“Hong Kong is so busy; we often shut down our senses,” Yik says. “When we’re on the MTR during rush hour, most of us don’t want to feel anything. So the whole purpose of forest bathing is to remove ourselves from that kind of stressful environment and place ourselves somewhere comfortable to slow down and open up our senses.”
Initially, Yik found that forest bathing was not something widely understood, but awareness has grown during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the city’s 24 country parks offering the ideal lush, green spaces to practise it.
“Hong Kong is unique in that about three-quarters of the land is countryside, with 40 per cent of it designated as country parks, and these green spaces are all so accessible,” she says. “Just 15 minutes’ travel away from the city’s built-up area you can find beautiful woodlands and stunning rock pools and waterfalls.”
The 47-hectare Lung Fu Shan Country Park — the smallest of the city’s country parks — is one of Yik’s favourite places to go forest bathing, particularly secluded Lung Fu Shan.
Lung Fu Shan, which includes lush woodland areas, tree-shrouded paved heritage trails and grassy picnic areas, is also a biodiversity haven. It supports hundreds of species of birds and butterflies, including the long-tailed Red-billed blue magpie (Urocissa erythroryncha) and the red-, white- and yellow-winged Red-base Jezebel (Delias pasithoe) butterfly. Yik says when she enters the park it feels like being transported to another world.
“The vegetation is very dense and you get this feeling of being enveloped by trees,” she says. “There is a little stream [Lung Fu Stream] along Pik Shan Path that I love spending time at. Further up the hill there’s a big patch of grass where I enjoy lying down and just looking at the sky while doing a little bit of sun bathing: it’s definitely one of my favourites.”
For people who are keen to try forest bathing, Yik recommends beginners go with a guide the first time. “That way you get a taste of what it feels like and then [later] it’s easier for you to recreate it by yourself.”
Guided forest bathing sessions, which typically last up to three hours, can be carried out throughout the year. Yik recommends, for safety reasons, to bring a fully charged phone, but switch to airplane mode with sounds and vibration turned off to avoid distractions.
She says it is important for people to “slow down” to fully appreciate forest bathing. “In Hong Kong everything is so fast-paced and needs to have happened a minute ago,” she says. “But going forest bathing is really recalibrating, so that we are actually more in tune with nature instead of the human pace of life.”
Forest bathing is something that can be done as an alternative to a hike, or part of a hike, Yik says. “Set aside some time to just be in one place, maybe find a nice spot to sit down and just take in the things around you — the colours, shapes, light and sounds — and open up your senses,” she says. “Notice if there’s any fragrance in the air, and see what you can touch to explore the textures of nature.”
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