As twilight descends on Auckland Domain, Geoff Handsfield guides a group of people through a canopy of native trees and ferns, silhouetted against a starlit sky.
Eyes adjusting to the eerie darkness, Geoff invites the group to open their senses to the sights, smells, sounds and touch of the forest around us. The cool, damp air bites my cheeks and the throaty warbles of tūī soften from the treetops above, lulled by nightfall.
As we venture deeper through the network of trees, the babble of a stream drowns out the drum of vehicles on the nearby motorways and my heart jumps in delight as I discover the earthy embankments are imbedded with hundreds of glowworms. The healing benefits of nature begin to take hold as I feel the stresses of the outside world melt away with every step.
The guided forest immersion run by Geoff is based on a practice known as Forest Bathing, or Forest Therapy, a Westernised approach to the traditional Japanese ritual of shinrin yoku which has been studied extensively for its beneficial physical and emotional effects.
The concept first came to light in the 1980s after many people in Japan began suffering chronic illnesses thought to be prompted by cityscapes and technologies taking over the natural environment at rapid pace. Researchers began studying the physiological benefits of forest bathing, providing the science to prove that time spent in nature is, indeed, good for us.
Geoff, a scientist and outdoors enthusiast himself, already understood some of these merits but deepened his knowledge during the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2021 by training under the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy and becoming a certified forest therapy guide.
His slow-paced walks are set in accessible environments and take place at either dawn, daytime or nightfall.
Through a series of invitations from Geoff, our group spends time both together and alone in the leafy darkness, coming together to share what we have learned.
The positive effects of time spent in nature are abundant. From promoting cardiovascular health to boosting the immune system, improving sleep and helping with anxiety and depression; to increasing self-esteem, empathy, kindness, compassion and appreciation for the world and the forest’s own ecosystems.
Scientifically speaking, trees and plants emit chemicals known as phytoncides which promote overall health when inhaled or when present on our skin. The concept of bathing in the health-promoting elements of Mother Nature can be taken literally.
Our time forest bathing comes to an end over a cup of warm kawakawa tea, harvested and brewed by Geoff and enjoyed in a small, dimly lit clearing. We notice there is an extra mug: for the forest, Geoff says, as he pours the liquid into the earth, giving thanks for allowing us the time to bathe in its many benefits.
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