I tried "forest swimming" and it immediately helped my mental health

I tried “forest swimming” and it immediately helped my mental health

Before the session, everyone filled out an online private questionnaire about how they were feeling (Image: Getty / Metro.co.uk)

I have lived in London for eight years and have always appreciated that the city’s magnificent Victorian parks have functional beauty – open spaces with rich trees, playgrounds and cafes for the entertainment of my two young children.

But I never thought of city parks as a place to dive into nature or switch off.

After all, a walk in a local park is not the same as a walk in the wilderness. I usually look for my toddler or stuff myself fast-paced – neither is my first choice for young children.

So I was intrigued to discover a new community project, ParkBathe, on Instagram teaches Londoners the Japanese wellness technique of forest swimming in Crystal Palace Park – a local park that I visit every week.

I assumed that swimming in the woods was a new wellness trend, but it turned out that it was originally launched in the 1980s by the Japanese government to encourage frozen workers to spend time in ancient forests in an effort to prevent burnout.

Nevertheless, I was skeptical – I am sure that in remote forests it is possible to take advantage of forest swimming, which reduces stress. But could it be adjusted for a busy park in zone 3?

Still, I was curious. As it turned out, I wasn’t alone.

On my first ParkBathe show earlier this month (May 2022), there were about 12 others, some newcomers like me, and other seasoned ParkBaths who kept coming back for more. Described as an hour-long walk through the park with a guide, sessions are free with the opportunity to contribute.

ParkBathe is set in a wooded area along the edge of Crystal Palace Park, once part of the Great North Woods, one of the last remaining forests in the United Kingdom.

I didn’t even realize that there was an ancient forest in the park always stuck on well-trodden public roads and lawns.

Before the session, everyone filled out an online private questionnaire about how they were feeling.

My answers revealed how anxious I was; connected to the nervous feeling I always have before I start any new, unfamiliar activity.

It was a relief to find that once ParkBathe started, there would be no calls or phone calls – we were asked to go in silence to really appreciate our surroundings.

Woman walking through the autumn forest

It was incredibly quiet, but it was not an isolated experience (Image: Getty)

ParkBath’s founder, Vanessa Potter, explained that we would only walk about 500 meters, so the glacial pace can be frustrating at first.

And it was – at some points we felt like we were barely moving. But after about five minutes of walking slowly along the deserted forest path, I realized that my heart rate had slowed. It also meant that I really had no choice but to look around, not just in a hurry to really see everything I was passing.

I found myself doing things I did as a child, like trying to identify different trees from their leaves. Something I would never have thought of on my usual trips to the park if I was watching the phone with one eye.

The silence meant that I was not distracted. There was no pressure for me to talk, so I couldn’t help but tune in to the rustling of the leaves and the afternoon bird singing.

It was incredibly quiet, but it was not an isolated experience – I realized all the time that I respected the moment with others.

I also realized that I probably wouldn’t feel safe running off the beaten path alone in my local park. But ParkBathe gave me the opportunity to do it in a safe and supportive environment.

Sometimes we were asked to stop and stretch our ears on listen to the leaves and look at the tree trunks. Or breathe deeply and slowly, smelling bear garlic and moist ground.

Looking at the middle distance and foreground, a focus on the differences in the landscape around us was also encouraged at several points during the session.

I felt a little emotional when I realized that the things I noticed in nature were there every time I went to the park, but my mind kept rushing into what I was doing after I didn’t do it. I often pay a lot of attention to my natural surroundings.

It was the quietest hour I’ve had in a long time.

When the session ended and I filled out the questionnaire again, my answers were completely different from what they were 60 minutes ago – I felt unexpectedly clear and relaxed.

Vanessa later explained that most people need three ParkBathe sessions to learn forest swimming skills, which they can then use on their own whenever they find themselves in the green, even if only for a few minutes.

However, many participants still return to guided sessions because they appreciate the lasting benefits they then experience.

And it also works – extensive research shows that staying in nature, ideally two hours a week, can help reduce stress levels and improve well-being.

I understand why people keep coming back. Usually, I frantically checked my emails after turning off my phone for an hour.

But after ParkBath, I didn’t feel the urge, so no. Instead, I wanted to keep the calm I experienced as I walked home through the park and noticed spotted sunlight and tiny mosquitoes buzzing over the lake.

I’m interested in ParkBath again – it encouraged me to pay more attention to the nature I see in my daily life. I found myself slowing down on a school run to admire the purple wisteria above the door I pass every day, even though I would usually go on.

Tiny breaks like this to appreciate my surroundings allow me a few moments of peace during the day, and that’s the way I think I want to cultivate.

Do you have a story you would like to share? Contact us by email jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

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