Annette Lavrijsen has been the chief editor of Women’s Health magazine in the Netherlands. Now she’s a freelance journalist that writes about health, psychology and nature.
A few years ago she heard of Shinrin-Yoku, also known as “forest bathing”, the Japanese art against stress through nature, and decided to write her first book about it.
The Lince Ediciones publishing house has recently translated it into Spanish and I was able to talk with Annette in the Malpaso bookshop in Barcelona.
Mixa: Hello Annette, thank you very much for being here today and congratulations on your new book.
Annette:Thank you for having me.
M. : First of all, I was surprised to read that the first time you heard of Shinrin-Yoku you thought it was some kind of secret meetings and shamanic rituals in the middle of the forest… But then you realized it had nothing to do with what you had imagined… How was the process of understanding Shinrin-Yoku and deciding to write a book about it?
A. :It was actually… Shinrin-Yoku was mostly for me a recognition… confirming a feeling I already had inside, that nature is healing in several levels. I grow up on a farm, in a little town in the Netherlands, close to the Belgium border, and our house was surrounded by forest. So as a kid I used to play everyday outdoors. I felt very connected to nature.
But of course, life happens, I moved to the city to study, got a stressful job as an editor, deadlines, you know, the drill, I think we all know it… I tried all kind of mindfulness courses, yoga, meditation, I even went to a ten days silent meditation retreat, and it was all great. But went I came back home, and sat on my meditation pillow to do my daily practice and meditation I found it very difficult, I couldn’t find the inner peace. So I was asking myself “ok, what truly calms you down, Annette?” And the answer was nature.
So I decided to go more often into nature, I went camping, I did solo trekking all over the world, and it really helped me to calm down, but also to get peace of mind and also a clear mind. After I came back from a trip to Tasmania and I was describing my magical experience to my friend in a café and she said: “Annette, did you know that I have a word for this in Japanese, Shinrin-Yoku?” Oh, really? Of course, it’s Japanese… they have beautiful words for everything. So then my first thought was wow, maybe, as they have such a beautiful culture they must have rituals, and they call it “forest bathing” so… naked? Who knows? Do you have to take a bath with your clothes on?
So I started researching because I was intrigued. I went to Japan as well to research it. And then I found out it’s not like a therapy with rules and you need to do this and this and then you feel happy and healthy again. It is more like… Yeah, for me it’s more the philosophical concept of the healing force of nature.
M.: In the book there are multiple exercises to enjoy forest bathing -with your clothes on-and enhance observation, meditation, self-consciousness, creativity… You even encourage people to write haikus, right?
A.: Yes, why not?
M.: Is there any exercise that you particularly like?
A.: Now, what I always do myself, there’s a very simple exercise –and I also describe it in the book- and it’s like… visualize you are a tree. So just stand upright and feel how the roots reach into the earth, and not only to get nutrition and water from the soil, but also to release the sources of energy we have during the day. Because it’s a two way road. It’s all very easy and approachable because it should be for everyone, I think.
M. : You’ve been guiding some “forest bathing” sessions around Barcelona these days… How was that?
A. : It was amazing. Really special to see… because there will be forest bathing sessions coming up in Netherlands as well, Barcelona has the scoop because the book will be published here first and the in two weeks in the Netherlands. So here I was a really nice surprise to see that in the beginning people are, like, waiting, and they want to hear more, they are curious about what is Shirin-Yoku. It means that we slow down our pace and take these natural surroundings in with all of our senses. Specially now in spring it’s beautiful, and also to feel it… touch a tree, you don’t need to hug it if you don’t want to, just touch it, or touch the soil.
But then with this “forest bathing” sessions we went to Collserola and to the Ciutadella, the park, and even in the park, we were walking slowly and then we lied down on the lawn, eyes closed, focusing on our breathing… and you could feel a calmness coming over us, everybody was very relaxed. There were traffic noises in the background, but when I asked afterwards “what sound did you noticed most?” it was the bird song; they didn’t even noticed the traffic because it fades away, this background noise. So even in a city park you can have benefits of Shinrin-Yoku.
M. : While reading I found all kind of quotes from very different personalities: Greek philosophers, oriental masters, movie characters, scientific geniuses like Einstein… In fact you finish the book with a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca! Was it laborious to collect them? How long did it take you?
A. :I love quotes about nature so I had quite a library already… and I love Lorca! I also thought to show people that “nature is healing” it’s not something new, it’s an ancient wisdom and it’s also not solely uniquely for Japan or the Far East.
M. : Yeah, the power of nature is something we’ve already noted but now we can prove it, right?
A. : Yes, because we all know a forest walk is healthy, of course, it calms us down, but now there have also been so many studies all over the world, not just in Japan, but also, you know, in the University of Barcelona. They have proven that nature is beneficial to our health.
Now, to name a few examples: a forest bath of 40 minutes lowers our blood pressure, lowers our heart rate, activates our immune system, improves our concentration, boosts our creativity, helps with sleeping problems, stress, anxiety, depression… And I think one of the things that astounded me most in my research is that wow, there’s so much! And that’s what I thought; “you could write a book on this”. So, that’s what happened!
M. : Finally, can you give me one or two words that describe what this art meant to you in order to convince those sceptical readers?
A. : I think the two words that describe it best are… reconnecting with nature and with yourself. So that’s more words, but, like, the reconnecting is the most important about Shinrin-Yoku. We’ve always learned and have been taught that we are outside of nature, we need to dominate nature with our buildings… we can beat nature.
But whereas in the East, they believe that, just like the plants and the animals and the elements, that we are part of one holistic system. And specially now in our modern society, the global warming…. we spend so much time on our screens, our smartphone… we are constantly online, connected with the whole world, except with nature and also with ourselves, because if you consider you are nature, how does that influence in your experience in nature.
M. : Quoting a little bit Yoda from Star Wars, the Force is everywhere, it’s nature.
A. : That’s a better one, the Force!
M. : So Annette, may the Force be with you!
A. : Yes, may the Force be with you.
M. : Thanks you very much.
A. : Thank you!