Your Garden Can Teach You Yoga
“It is the marriage of the soul with Nature that makes the intellect fruitful, that gives birth to imagination.” –Henry David Thoreau
It came to me while working in the garden how similar the lessons I learn here are to my practice of yoga. That can include, but not limited to, the physical actions of bending over, squatting down, lifting heavy objects (in yoga that would be my own body weight) and twisting around to grab the plant cutters. All those physical exertions come into play in the course of planting, weeding, harvesting and restoring. As my body goes through a series of postures when gardening it is my mind that also reaps the benefits of being in nature.
When gardening, as in a yoga practice, you have to pay attention to what you are doing. The temptation is to daydream and let your mind run on about any number of trivial topics, but to stay focused and present allows communication between yourself and nature, between yourself and the plants themselves. I recall a passage from Stephan Harrod Buhner’s book, The Secret Teachings of Plants, where he writes, “Personal relationships with plants are like personal relationships with people. A whole range of experience exists, for there are many types of plants, each with its own personality, each of which will draw your interest and affection to differing degrees.”
And yet, how can you have such a relationship if you cannot remain quiet and calm, while listening to the deeper vibrations transmitted by the plants? In yoga practice this focus is a listening to the deep intelligence of your body, a natural intelligence that can move you past your fears and limitations without aggression or stress. This intelligence can safely guide your limbs and internal organs from once impossible contortions to the freedom of flexibility in all the joints and muscles. In the garden listening can guide you where to place one plant alongside a companion plant that will protect and defend against insects and predators. When listening to nature you create a garden dictated by the plants for survival and productivity.
In the presence of Divine intelligence I find myself observing how I breathe or when I hold my breath before slowly releasing an exhale. This act moves me to take in the air of the garden, the breeze coming across the lawn, the rustle of the tomato leaves and the fragrance lifting off the herbs. In yoga I remind myself to breathe naturally and move my body to the organic rhythm of my breath. I am not the breather, but rather this body intelligence is, the one that keeps me alive while I sleep, the one that operates my body systems without my having to be aware of the liver metabolizing, while the intestines absorb and the gall bladder secretes.
There is the same symmetry to the workings of my garden. The plants and the trees surround me with fresh oxygen to feed body, mind and spirit. It is food of a kind that is essential for life and I cultivate this breath as I garden or as I move from posture to posture on my yoga mat. Essential, necessary, transforming, and life giving.
Patience and Persistence
Recently I watched a student succeed in mastering a rather difficult inverted arm-balancing pose. It had taken her ten years to arrive at that moment, and though she had grown frustrated over the years, she had patiently persisted in practicing until her mind and body were in perfect alignment.
Over the years I have learned patience from the endless picking of weeds and I learned persistence from the weeds themselves. I marvel at how they return over and over again, even shaping themselves to look like the vegetable whose bed they have invaded, whose nutrients and moisture they covet. If I can harvest them for my table I will, otherwise they move from the garden to the compost pile providing essential minerals that will be returned to the garden in a persistent cycle of growth and decay. My yoga practice mimics this cycle of change and persistence as the years shift my body from youth to maturity. I discover frailties disguised as strengths and uncover a strength that runs deep as the roots of the weeds I pull.
In my yoga practice I no longer demand, but instead ask what my body is willing and able to do on any given day. Then I listen and I breathe and I harvest what is good and ripe from these bones, ligaments and muscles that have been stretching, reaching and twisting for 30 years. You might think that it all gets easier and one could do yoga in their sleep after so much time. And yet it is not so. One must continue to be vigilant, attentive and most of all, kind to one self. Just like in the garden or in the world of people.
After the rains have fallen for days on end and the weeds are in control and the insects are feasting on the leaves of my precious plants, the ground hogs have dug their way under the fence to enjoy the sweet taste of cabbage. But what really tries my compassion are the squirrels who eat the raspberries before I can fill my bowl and then before the pears are half grown they strip the trees and bury whole pears in the garden. I find the pears while patiently, persistently weeding on a summers morning and look to the orchard in hopes of maybe harvesting one piece of fruit.
The weeds, insects and animals are my lesson to love and share this land, this food, my work and toil. Yoga teaches that we are all one and if we are to survive we must do so together. Plant a garden. Practice yoga. They will both teach you what you need to learn.