Forest bathing is like aromatherapy

“We have roots, and they definitely did not grow in concrete”, said musician Andreas Danzer.

Forest bathing trainer Bianca Forstik knows too well what the forest does with people, why the practice of mindfulness is especially useful there and why the Vienna Woods are good for forest bathing.

Out of the city; into the woods

With almost 38 million inhabitants, the metropolitan area of Tokyo feels more like ten cities rather than one. The world’s largest city is definitely fascinating. But the people who live there and mostly work too much need to find other ways to satisfy their need for nature, fresh air and silence. The concept of forest bathing, as we know it today, comes from 1980’s Japan. It is definitely one of the best programmes for protecting your health and wellbeing. It’s called “Shinrin Yoku”, which can be translated as “Immersion in the forest atmosphere”. But what few people know is that the trend, which isn’t actually a trend, originally comes from old China. There, they call it "Senlinyu". As Bianca Forstik knows, "The great Chinese masters already understood the effects of the forest thousands of years ago - and they practised qigong among the trees". Qi or chi stands for vital energy, and gong for skill cultivated through steady practice; so qigong means exercises involving the senses and the body that bring about vital energy.

It is without question that Vienna is in a different league compared to Tokyo. But still - it is a city that has the fortune of bordering the Vienna Woods. So you don’t need to go far to enjoy some wellbeing in the forest. "In terms of evolutionary history, life in cities is very young", says Bianca, who has been offering forest bathing since 2017. "Before the industrial age, people always lived in areas near forests or steppes". That the forest is good for people is not only a perception, but is also scientifically proven. "Trees communicate with each other through certain messenger substances called terpenes. When we go into the forest, we absorb these terpenes - and they have been shown to strengthen the immune system, balance blood pressure and reduce stress hormones. Forest bathing is like aromatherapy", says Bianca. Terpenes can be compared to the vocabulary used by plants in the forest to communicate with each other. If they were visible to the naked eye, the forest air would be full of words whizzing around.

But what distinguishes forest bathing from a walk in the woods or a hike?

"With forest bathing, the journey is the goal. In fact, if you are in the forest for two hours, you should only cover one to two kilometres", says Bianca, addressing an important point. Rather than walking, it’s mainly a matter of lingering. It's not about moving forward, but about standing still. In the water, you often just stand around, submerge yourself or just drift on the surface. Look up to the sky, inhale and then exhale for longer, close your eyes. "A Chinese proverb says, 'A turtle can tell you more about the journey than a hare'", explains Bianca. And not only in spring, for the forest is charming in every season - the blossoms in spring, the coolness in summer, the colours in autumn and the coolness in winter. The forest is always a good therapist.

The much-cited mindfulness also has a therapeutic effect.

Bianca describes it as "arriving in the present moment". It’s about noticing what is present and also about appreciating small joys. Its effect can be seen within practice, so you need to practice it again and again, and integrate it into your life - or just in the forest. Mindfulness is the central element of forest bathing. Also in the forest, it's about being aware of your surroundings, slowing down your pace, taking a closer look, smelling, feeling, listening. "You should spend 20 minutes a day in nature, unless you're very busy, in which case you should spend an hour there", are old Zen words of wisdom that are also very relevant here.

The Attention Restoration Theory, which states that spending time in nature clears your head (keyword: brain fog), promotes concentration and pushes creativity, has a similar take. It is not surprising that the Vienna Woods have always attracted artists, and the forest bathing program “WienerWaldSein” (“Be the Vienna Woods”), developed by Bianca takes place there for a reason. According to stories, the composer Franz Schubert composed a famous song for the cycle "Die Winterreise" (“Winter Journey”) in the Höldrich millsmühle, in the shade of an old linden tree. The writer Adalbert Stifter was inspired by the special view from the Tulbingerkogel to write a text about it. Beethoven was there time and again - I wonder what he heard among the trees?

The Vienna Woods are the ideal counterpoint to densely populated Vienna.

About one third of the biosphere reserve is under special protection as conservation and core zones. In core zones, which are defined as nature reserves, there is the path requirement, which means that only officially offered and marked paths may be used. For forest bathing, rather quiet hiking trails are recommended.

Tour tips by Bianca Forstik:

  • “Pure solitude” from Laaben to Breitenfurt (tour details)
  • Circular hike over the Hoher Lindkogel from Pottenstein (tour details)
  • Route from Berndorf over the Guglzipf to St. Veit an der Triesting (tour details)
  • From Dürrwien to Rekawinkel, where you also pass the Kaiserbründl, a spring from which even Empress Elisabeth liked to drink (tour details)

For forest bathing with qigong, Bianca Forstik recommends places such as more sparse forest areas ("You feel more comfortable where the trees are not so dense"), or, if available, places near streams, rivers or lakes ("Water has a calming effect on people"). Spots at higher altitude also lend themselves well. “There, you have an overview and can symbolically leave everyday life behind". Incidentally, a final ritual of forest bathing in Japan is the tea ceremony, which is also integrated into the “WienerWaldSein” (“Be the Vienna Woods”) tour. "So, there is also a cup of tea for the forest - as a sign of gratitude that you were allowed to stay there now". 

Forest bathing to go

The exercises that intensify forest bathing still have an effect in everyday life - and can also be done elsewhere. Bianca Forstik recommends the following 5 exercises:

#1 Earth. Consciously feel your feet and perceive the forest floor under them. Barefoot contact is even more direct - and also promotes health.

#2 Collect Qi. Breathing in, raise your arms up over your head by your sides. While doing so, point the palms of your hands upwards. Breathing out, turn your palms downwards and lower your arms in front of your body so that your palms are then facing your lower abdomen. This is how you absorb the vital energy of the forest.

#3 Listen to nature. Find a beautiful place in the forest, turn off your mobile phone and close your eyes. What do you hear? The birds singing, the wind in the leaves, a rustle in the bushes? Let the different tones and sounds inspire you as the great composers once did.

#4 The tree. Follow your intuition and choose a tree. Lean against its trunk and let the surroundings affect you. Also take a look at the treetop. The Japanese even have their own word for the play of light and shadow - "Komorebi".

#5 Walking meditation. Break free from your usual rut and go for a slow and conscious stroll. Take time to explore the path, smell flowers, or simply explore everything that you find interesting.