Mindfulness in nature versus mindfulness indoors, latest UK research is revealing
1st July 2021
TRADITIONAL mindfulness practice versus forest bathing nature therapy, is one better for you than the other? Both practices involve spending reflective time to quieten the mind. However, the key difference between the two disciplines is that forest bathing is usually spent outside in a woodland environment, bathing in the aromas of the oils emitted from the plants and trees, whilst a mindfulness meditation practice usually takes place indoors.
Both practices are beneficial, but researchers from the University of Derby and the University of Birmingham decided to investigate whether one of these traditional Eastern practices might be more beneficial than the other?
With the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic reaching far and wide, people around the world have been looking for techniques to cope with increasing stress, anxiety, and mental health challenges. There has been a significant uptake in spending more time out in nature and exploring different mindfulness and meditation techniques. After all, the yogis have been talking about mindfulness for centuries, so there must be something beneficial in it.
Previous research studies have evidenced that both produce wellbeing benefits, including reduced levels of anxiety, depression, and rumination on problems.
During April 2021, the researchers carried out a study Comparing Mindfulness and Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing): Practitioners’ Perspectives. The researchers interviewed practitioners of both Mindfulness and Forest Bathing and asked how the two practices were similar and different, their strengths and weaknesses, and how their clients typically found both practices.
Published on 15th June 2021, these findings are the first to convey a key distinction between the two practices. Mindfulness involves directing our attention ‘inward’ to our thoughts. However, having an inward focus is not always a pleasant experience if you are feeling self-critical, experiencing low mood, or are worrying about problems.
In contrast, Forest Bathing involves an ‘outward’ focus to the beauty of nature observed through the senses (i.e., visual, touch, smell, listening). By offering a gentler, more intuitive approach that encourages outward attentional focus on the beauty of nature, Forest Bathing was found to overcome this difficulty and people experienced more instant wellbeing benefits. Practitioners felt that whilst Mindfulness may not be as suitable or as easy to practise for those currently experiencing wellbeing challenges, Forest Bathing was suitable for all groups.
However, whilst both practices involve similar activities, such as slowing down, being aware of the breath, and sensory activation, it was noted that there is less self-judgement with Forest Bathing. This is perhaps due to misconceptions surrounding Mindfulness and the expectation that you should be able to achieve an empty, calm mind or eventually ‘enlightenment’.
Mindfulness requires guidance and the development of skills through regular practice. The focus is on whatever thoughts enter your mind, be they good or bad. In contrast, practitioners felt that it was much quicker and easier to see progress and achieve wellbeing benefits through Forest Bathing, in part due to the focus on the positives, such as the beauty of nature, and how it offers a richer more dynamic, environment that is easier to pay attention to. In focusing externally on the forest through the senses, it was observed that the participants moved ‘away from’ thoughts and emotions and instead became engaged with the natural world around them.
When attention is shifted ‘outward’ there is less risk to personal wellbeing, particularly for those people suffering from anxiety, depression, and any trauma. Indeed, outdoor mindfulness is potentially more beneficial to these people, and those who are new to any form of mindfulness practice.
For many it is easier to connect to our natural surroundings because it is a more recent part of our ancestral history. We have spent much more of our time as a species in natural environments than built ones, and this historical connection to nature is often termed Biophilia (an instinct to connect with nature).
In describing their experiences of Biophilia, one practitioner who took part in the study said; ‘We evolved in nature and so intrinsically everyone is aware of that, but it just feels that we’re at home basically. Because in our deep psyche we feel at home in nature, even if we haven’t spent much time in it, but it can come back really quickly. There is this recognition of ‘this is where I belong’ or ‘this feels comfortable’ or ‘it feels safe.’
The lead researcher, Dr Fiona J. Clarke from the University of Birmingham, said: ‘This study revealed something really novel about Forest Bathing. Whilst most wellbeing approaches focus on going inward and examining our thoughts or our pasts, Forest Bathing focuses on the external environment and immersing yourself in the beauty of nature. In this respect it is a much safer wellbeing approach which is suitable for a wider range of people, including those experiencing poor mental wellbeing or trauma’.
One of the researchers Dr Kirsten McEwan at the University of Derby, said; ‘This study suggests that Forest Bathing might offer an easier and gentler path to wellbeing than mindfulness. There are still a lot of misconceptions around traditional indoor mindfulness, which can lead to many people trying it and then feeling like a failure when their thoughts wander. With Forest Bathing the benefits are instant and it’s something anyone can do with a bit of guidance to get them started.’
Gary Evans, The Forest Bathing Institute Director & Co-Founder commented; ‘It is a small study, but the conclusions are dramatic, and back up what I have experienced across hundreds of Forest Bathing sessions. Forest Bathing is a very gentle entry point to deep relaxation for some of the most vulnerable people in society, this gives the NHS a valuable new tool to help millions.’
Further scientific studies into the physiological health and mental wellbeing benefits are being planned. Currently, there are over 11 British universities who have expressed an interest in conducting research, and funding is being sought to instigate these studies. They will also include studies into men’s mental health and wellbeing and explore any barriers to nature therapy.
NB: In accordance with Government guidelines, please note that due to the current Covid-19 lockdown across England, no Forest Bathing+ nature therapy sessions are running.
Dr Kirsten McEwan, Senior Lead Researcher, University of Derby.
Photography copyright: Dominic Weil