Yoga for Gardeners
Adapted from a previously published article in Herb Quarterly for Karen’s presentation to master gardeners, entitled
“Yoga for Central Fulton Master Gardeners”
on Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 10:30 AM
A teacher of yoga for nearly 40 years and a college English professor for 20 years, Karen currently teaches at The Buckhead Yoga Room, her studio located in Atlanta, Ga. She is a certified Yoga Teacher, Advanced Yoga Teacher, and member of Yoga Alliance, RYT 200.
As the beautiful days of spring and summer beckon to the gardener to come out and spend time in the garden, it is also a good time to prepare one’s body to counteract the deleterious effects of working in the garden. Despite the joys of gardening, any kind of gardening requires repetitive and tiring positions which strain the body. My husband, an avid gardener, attests to the fact that hours of gardening typically mean a very sore body. The constant reaching, kneeling, and bending in one’s garden puts stress on the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back, and legs. Thus, it is not unusual for a gardener to have pain and stiffness in these parts of the body. Not a “yoga person,” my husband has, nonetheless, found some yoga stretches very helpful not only in relieving the soreness that inevitably comes from gardening, but also helpful to do before he gardens to get his body in shape so that his gardening is less likely to extract such a painful toll.
Thus, what follows are a few yoga-inspired stretches you can use—even if you’ve never even thought about doing yoga—to prepare the body before gardening and to relieve those parts of your body that may be feeling sore or stiff after gardening.
It is good to know that yoga is completely non-competitive, as you’re focusing exclusively on your own body and feeling the stretches while also paying close attention to your breathing, which in yoga is slow and deep. Also, if a position causes pain, stop or feel free to modify the stretch. Ideally, nothing hurts in doing yoga, as we are concerned with finding our own bodies’ limitations and then gently, over time, expanding those boundaries.
If you’re new to yoga, keep in mind that there are three factors that will affect your ability to practice: age, overall fitness and flexibility, and body type. So be gentle with yourself and remember that all bodies, whatever the age and condition, can benefit from doing some yoga stretches and doing the slow, deep breathing which is just as important in yoga as the postures.
With the aging process, we tend to stiffen, to slump, and to experience a decrease in flexibility and alertness. Yoga is renown for retarding the aging process. The rejuvenating effects of yoga are legendary, for the stretches in yoga open us up and expand and strengthen us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. You can begin yoga at any time, but the older you are, the more you need to be gentle and patient with yourself.
Besides your age, your overall fitness and flexibility will also influence your yoga experience. If you’re used to an active lifestyle replete with movement—walking, tennis, running, and, yes, gardening—yoga will come more easily than if you’re used to a sedentary lifestyle that involves sitting behind a desk. Here again, yoga is an antidote to such static and often unhealthy, over time, positions and you’ll become more fit and flexible the more you practice.
Finally, your body type exerts a degree of influence over your ability to do yoga. Those with what I like to call “Cirque de Soleil” bodies can do any of the thousand-plus yoga positions effortlessly. At the other end of the spectrum, those with stiff bodies not in the habit of moving will find yoga, as with all exercise, more of a challenge. Most of us have bodies falling between these two extremes, but if you’re new to yoga, proceed gently either way. Your body—whatever the age, type, or condition—your mind, and your spirit will reap the benefits.
The following stretches are wonderful for the enthusiastic gardener:
Children and grandchildren serve as inspiration for many yoga positions, since they do them so naturally that they become live models for us. One pose, aptly named Child’s Pose (with its variation, Extended Child’s Pose) comes easily for kids and gardeners alike.
Kneel on the floor with heels close to the hips, tops of the feet on the floor. Bring the forehead as close as you can to the floor, or elevate the forehead with a pillow or two if pillows will help you more thoroughly to relax in this position. The knees, then, are under the abdominal area and hands by the feet, palms up, elbows on the floor slightly bent.
For Extended Child’s Pose, stretch your arms and hands beyond the head with the palms and arms gently resting on the floor, a very relaxing, comforting position. In either position, Child’s Pose (Balasana) or Hugging the Knees Pose (Apanasana) below, you’ll give your back a nice stretch.
These poses stretch the back muscles, the spinal ligaments, and relieve compression of the spinal discs, allowing you to rest completely.
If one has knee problems or is not comfortable in Child’s Pose or Extended Child’s Pose, simply turn over onto your back, gently clasping the hands either over the shins or behind the calves, and relax in Apanasana.
Hand and Arm Stretches
Continuous use of the hands to plant, separate, dig and of the arms to lift, reach, carry in gardening make hand and arms stretches an ideal relief for concomitant over-taxing of muscles, joints, and tendons.
Sit on a chair or on the floor (or kneel). Be comfortable.
Clasp the hands, interlocking the fingers, in front of you, turn the palms away from you, and straighten the elbows. Lift the arms above your head, with hands still clasped, palms facing the ceiling. Bring the arms slightly behind the head and move the arms from side to side. Lower the arms until they’re straight out from your chest, still clasped. Remember to breathe slowly, deeply. Unclasp the hands and wave to yourself, then wave to anyone in front of you, and then wave again to yourself. Breathe.
The Tulip: As always, remember to breathe slowly and deeply throughout the position. Make tight fists and turn your hands toward you. Imagine your fists as tightly closed tulips. Keeping tension in the hands throughout this exercise, very slowly open your fingers, knuckle by knuckle. When the fingers are totally outstretched and wide apart, the wrists are also bent back so that the palms are facing away from you. The tulips are completely open. Again, still keeping tension in the hands, very slowly let the Tulips close back up, reversing the way they opened. After the hands are back in squeezed fists, then let all tension go from the hands and shake them out. Feel how relaxed the hands and lower arms are.
These hand and arm stretches help prevent or reverse carpal tunnel syndrome, mitigate the effects of arthritis and the aging process, and undo the strains of long hours in the herb garden.
Even if one has arthritis, hand and arm stretches are good to practice as they facilitate use and movement of the fingers and wrists.
Bridge (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) & Variations
When I told one of my yoga classes that I would be writing this article and asked if any of my students were gardeners, one woman in her late 60’s said she did a lot of gardening and one of her favorite positions after a day in the garden was the Bridge because, as she noted, it bends the back in the opposite way you bend in the garden.
Lying on the floor, bend your knees and bring your feet close to your hips. Feet are flat on the floor and about a foot apart. Lift your hips and press them toward the ceiling.
Clasp your hands, interlocking your fingers, behind your back and begin to straighten your elbows, or simply straighten the arms, hands unclasped. Arms and hands are on the floor.
For the more advanced yoga student, find your ankles and clasp hands around the ankles, still pressing hips toward the ceiling.
Besides being a good counterpose to hours of bending forward in the garden, the Bridge is a back bend reversing the stretch on the spine, it relieves pressure on the neck, and also puts us automatically, in yoga language—Sanskrit—into mula-bandha in which the sphincter muscle, reproductive areas, and lower part of the torso are compressed, making it a good position for toning and strengthening the bladder and reproductive organs. Further, the Bridge improves digestion & strengthens abdominal organs, relieves backache, strengthens the spine, relieves neck strain, and helps rest tired legs. This position would benefit us all as we age and will help keep gardeners’ back, neck, shoulders and legs in shape to enjoy their gardens.
If one has had recent major surgery, skip the Bridge for several months.
Legs-up-the-Wall (Viparita Karani) leading into The Plow (Halasana)
The position, Viparita Karani in Sanskrit, belongs to what is currently referred to in yoga as “Restorative Yoga,” or yoga positions that are so completely comfortable and restful that people with a variety of ailments and conditions can benefit. This one is always a favorite with my yoga students and would be restful and “restorative” to herbal gardeners. Roll up a towel or mat or have a pillow close by.
Sit on the floor very close to a wall with the right side of the body, that is, the right arm and right leg touching the wall. Begin to lie down and as you do so, turn your body so that the lower part of your hips and the entire backs of both legs are resting on the wall and your torso is perpendicular to the wall. If you like, place the rolled towel, mat, or pillow under your hips elevating the hips slightly off the floor. Lie here and breathe and rest for as long as you like.
For variations, you can separate the feet as far apart as you like. Then bring the bottoms of the feet together & hands to the inside of the knees. Using your hands, gently press the knees toward the wall.
Bring the feet and legs together, and bend your knees. Bottoms of the feet are on the wall. Move the hips slowly away from the wall.
For a slightly more advanced position, bring your feet over your head and toward or onto the floor. This puts you into The Plow (Halasana), a compression position, which means it’s not the easiest position for breathing since the lungs and abdominal organs are compressed, actually quite good for the compressed organs. When we come out of The Plow, freshly oxygenated blood from all the yoga breathing rushes anew into the once compressed organs. The Plow, too, is known as a good thyroid regulator. As always in yoga, come out of the position just as you got into it.
You’ll feel this pose in the neck and back since the neck and upper spine are stretched and the whole spine is bent forward. Also, besides being a compression position, The Plow and Legs-Up-the-Wall are inversions, in which parts of the body normally below the heart are now above it, thus reversing temporarily the usual pull of gravity on the body which makes inversions of great benefit to the inverted organs, cardiovascular and lymph systems.
In the Plow, some people experience difficulty in breathing or too much pressure on the neck. Go slowly and keep the shoulders as far from the head as possible by lengthening the neck and taking the shoulders away from the ears. If you feel pain in the neck or back or a suffocating sensation, slowly come out of the position.
Forward Bends, either standing (Uttanasana) or seated on the floor (Paschimottanasana) or in a chair
Though gardening is replete with forward bending, the yogic forward bend can be done as part of a sequence following The Plow in order to address the stretching of the lower spine, as The Plow focuses on stretching the upper spine.
Feet together, legs together, allow your self to bend forward from the waist and just relax. If you feel like bending the knees, bend them. However, if you want a good hamstring stretch, gently begin to straighten the legs without locking the knees. Just “hang” in this position for as long as you like. Let the arms, neck, and head just fall toward the feet. Imagine being like a limp, rag doll from the waist to the head and fingertips.
Clasp the hands behind the legs or ankles and gently pull abdomen, chest, and face—in that order—toward the legs keeping the spine straight. Gently straighten the legs keeping your torso and face as close to the legs as is comfortable and keep the spine is straight.
Inversions, again, are great for getting increased flow of blood to the head, neck, and shoulders, if standing. You’ll feel the benefits primarily in the back when seated, either on the floor or in a chair. Internal organs are stimulated, as is the entire nervous system in Forward Bends.
Do not perform the Standing Forward Bend if you have a spinal disc disorder or glaucoma, as you don’t want to put extra pressure on your eyes. If you’re susceptible to dizziness, stand with the legs slightly apart.
After bending the spinal column forward and backward as we’ve done in earlier postures, ending the yoga session with a half spinal twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana or Bharadvajasana) is always a good idea because what occurs in this position is the lateral rotation of the spinal column which we’ve not experienced yet in this series of stretches.
Sit on the floor, legs together and outstretched. Cross the right leg over the left with the right foot on the outside of the left knee. Bring your right hand behind you onto the floor and the left hands on the outside of the right knee. Keep the shoulders level and the spine straight throughout this position. Turn your head and look to see what’s directly behind you. Breathe as best you can, twisting a little more on each exhalation. Reverse & release the position; breathe; and then do on the other side.
If you’d rather sit on a chair, sit forward on the chair and put your right hand behind you on the seat of the chair, left hand holding onto the right arm of the chair. Turn and look behind you, twisting a bit more on your exhalations. Turn back around, take a deep breath, and as you exhale, turn and do on the other side.
In order for the spine to be truly flexible, the lateral rotation of the spine is necessary in addition to the forward and backward bends for the spine. And as we’ve ascertained, it’s the back, primarily, that is adversely affected in gardening, though also the neck and shoulders. The Twist relieves backache and stiffness and pain in the neck and shoulders, as well as toning abdominal organs and improves functioning of the liver, spleen pancreas, kidneys, and intestines.
The master yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, born in India in December 1918 and who will turn 95 in 2013, says not to practice this posture if you have diarrhea, a cold, or headache.
Gardening can call our attention to our bodies through discomfort resulting from long hours in the garden. Yoga reminds us to be aware of what our bodies are feeling, to stretch slowly and gently, to breathe out pain and discomfort, to breathe in peace, light, and love, and to have patience with ourselves as we’ve learned to have with our gardens. As we begin to feel better, thanks to our yoga practice, we find gardening more enjoyable, and so it’s not surprising that we want to make time for the deep breathing and the stretches that help us to feel so good.
Some stretching before and after gardening will go a long way in countering gardening’s stresses on the body. Yoga stretches and deep breathing done even two or three times a week will increase your energy and vitality as well as your strength, flexibility, power of concentration, and overall sense of well-being, thus making your herbal gardening–even life itself–that much more fulfilling and rewarding.