Forest bathing is no walk in the park
A gifted biophilic Japanophile, an environmental scientist, the custodians of a forest and a biomimicry professional share a passion for the practice of Shinrin-Yoku.
After a violent attack on his life when intruders broke into his home, Vincent Truter resolved to immerse himself in the multiple disciplines he studied in Japan; a creative director who incorporates biophilia into his designs for narrative environments wherever possible, he now shares his skills more widely in South Africa.
His collaboration with Barend and Helen Booysen, custodians of the Kilgobbin Forest in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, Dr Mark Graham, director of Groundtruth, and Biomimicry South Africa founder Claire Janisch is an expression of this commitment.
Speaking about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Truter said: “A veil has been lifted on what we tacitly understood was a world that was 100% ordered and organised, in which we could not be caught off guard. We have realised that the systems that we find ourselves in are far more fragile than we had ever imagined and that is scary.”
A positive spinoff of the existential crisis that so many people find themselves in, according to Truter, is that people are beginning to comprehend that modern life has dislocated us from the natural world and we need to find new ways of connecting and new ways of being. “The pendulum is swinging; it’s a perfect storm at the moment,” said Truter, who has more interest in his Shinrin-Yoku retreats than ever before.
Forest bathing is no walk in the park. It has a proven scientific foundation and requires a shift in the way we see ourselves in relation to the natural environment.
In the 1980s the Japanese started a body for forest medicine, Truter explains. Their approach was to follow the traditional allopathic way of treating cancer and other chronic illnesses, but in addition, they prescribed an hour a day in a forest on autumn afternoons. The positive results in healing were revolutionary.
“The Japanese are deeply animistic,” Truter explains. “They believe that human life is part of a vast living matrix of information which incorporates the way in which our DNA forms to the way in which our hair comes out of the follicles on our head. It is all happening in this golden ratio which is ever-present in nature as well.”
After reading a book by Shinrin-Yoku master Dr Qing Li, Truter went to train as a Shinrin-Yoku practitioner in Okutama, about two hours northeast of Tokyo. He returns to Japan annually for retreats.
Truter is also a qualified Shiatsu practitioner and has a master’s degree in a Japanese dance form, Ankoku Butoh. All these disciplines are held together by what Truter refers to as a “golden yarn”. “I come to the Japanese epistemology and world view from many angles. I have a deep-rooted passion for many of the approaches they have to the body and environment,” he said.
“It is not my intention to exotify or appropriate a foreign culture,” he adds. “But I have seen what enables people to go deeper and there are aspects of Japanese corporeal philosophy, aesthetics and mindset that help me with this.”
While Shiatsu helps to identify blockages within the human body and how to channel the chi, or life force, to release those blockages, Shinrin-Yoku gives insight into the healing power of nature and very practical ways of exposing oneself to the natural healing that is available for the taking, Truter explains.
Ankoku Bhuto (“Dance of Utter Darkness”) is a tradition-breaking Japanese dance form that was a post-war reaction by avant-garde artists to the rapid westernisation of the country. The dance is radical. The intention of its founder, Tatsumi Hijikata, was to liberate the body from the grip of the ego and facilitate “a more universal way of connecting to the world”, he says.
“The dance is very extreme. You pretty much push the body to complete breakdown. I lost 40kg. You fast for 10 days before performing and then five hours before you dance, you eat some raw protein and that galvanises in your system. I couldn’t sustain it physically, so I started choreographing more in my 30s,” says Truter (42).
Ankoku Bhuto is a medium for embodying natural processes that resonate in nature and in human life: flowering, rotting, growing, dying, he adds.
“Images of naked Japanese people painted white may look grotesque or horrific,” he says, but the dance gives insight into the energies of nature on a very physical level. “The reason it appears to be grotesque is because it embodies the range of human experience. Rotting and flowering are two sides of the same coin. It is about living and dying in the same moment.”
Truter maintains that his background in Ankoku Bhuto helps him to facilitate sensory sensitivity in participants on his Shinrin-Yoku retreats. There are subtle aspects to our biological existence that we are largely unaware of that connect us to the natural world when we attune ourselves to them. Awareness “creates that bridge between you and the environment”.
Forests in Japan are graded for the healing properties of the air, sound, microbial biodiversity in the forest bed, and phytoncides (antimicrobial volatile organic compounds) derived from the trees. Dappled light filtering through the branches of autumn trees has a powerful impact on the parasympathetic nervous system, he adds. “You are taken into a state that mindfulness and other techniques may produce, but you get there much quicker.”
In a study to evaluate the healing properties of a forest in Japan, a control group of nurses did a reading of the phytoncide count and found that in parts of the forest where the count was highest, healing was accelerated and continued for weeks after leaving the forest.
Truter’s Shinrin-Yoku retreats in Kilgobbin Forest are structured and systematic. He begins by doing specific work to cut what he refers to as “the social body”. This enables participants to have a deep meditative experience. It is the kind of experience where individual claims to the experience originating from the ego are irrelevant, Truter asserts.
Participants learn pranayama breathing techniques to balance the left and right brain, and engage in partner work aimed at degrees of sensory deprivation in order to activate the olfactory senses that are “overridden in our contemporary screen glut”.
Changing the way we look at and see the world is also important. “We put so much emphasis on the visual, on our sight, to guide our experience in everyday life, but what we are trying to do is to activate peripheral vision through various techniques and exercises that activate different parts of the brain and also make the human organism far more open.”
Grounding exercises help participants to benefit maximally from what Truter refers to as the “grounding charge of nature”. Movement and creative visualisation are also part of the preparation.
The forest walks themselves are structured around key anchor points. Truter and his partners hope to get various forests in the country certified as places of healing.
Mark Graham’s team from Groundtruth is involved in this work. “I originally thought it was a bit left field, being a scientist,” Graham, a “specialist aquatic scientist”, said about Shinrin-Yoku. “But when I looked at the background and papers written on it, in terms of medical monitoring before and after they are fairly robust.”
One of the priorities for the team is to get Shinrin-Yoku CPD-accredited and to encourage medical and mental health practitioners to take it on board. “We have been working with an insect-pheromone specialist at the University of KZN, who has developed a machine that can pick up volatile compounds,” Truter explains. “This is the kind of equipment we need to tell us which phytoncides are in the forest.”
The team has developed a metric for looking at key indicator tree species in the forest, their composition and maturity – some trees are over 2000 years old.
Phytoncides will obviously also be measured. The aim is to certify the Old Kilgobbin Forest first. “There is no conflict between my experience of the forest and Shinrin-Yoku,” Barend Booysen says. We now know that the forest has healing benefits which can be proven scientifically.
Booysen and his wife, Helen, bought their property more than 30 years ago. The attraction for them was that it is 90% indigenous forest. The Booysens are members of the Dargle Conservancy and their property has been proclaimed as a nature reserve under the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme. They have the titles for one-third of the Kilgobbin Forest, but the three owners treat the forest as one entity, and forest walks are across all three farms.
South Africans are “living in a pressure cooker” and post-traumatic stress is widespread, Booysen says. “People need access to natural spaces and to engage with nature to retain their equilibrium and sanity.”
Describing the healing power of Kilgobbin Forest, he says: “I have led walks where people take one step into the forest and burst into tears. There is something that happens when you stand next to a tree that is 600 years old. There is an ancient wisdom in the forest,” he says. DM/ML