Award-winning landscape designer Topher Delaney is standing in my backyard with a pained expression on her face. "It feels claustrophobic, because that tree is blocking the light and the sense of space," she says, looking at my beloved mulberry tree, from which has swung many a birthday piñata. Truth be told, it has gotten rather large for the space, dominating the landscape with its shade. "How attached are you to that tree?" she asks. "Could we get rid of it?"
Attachment. Delaney catches my ear with that word, a key theme in my life these days. She goes on to explain that creating a garden is a profound and deeply personal process of discovery that mirrors other aspects of our spiritual journey. "It's a process of clearing out to let in," she says. "It's just like in meditation: If you hold on to all that old stuff, then how are you going to be open to new awareness and change?" Sure enough, a few weeks later the tree is gone, and my garden feels spacious and unencumbered, open to all possibilities.
Delaney is here because I want to turn my ordinary and rather neglected backyard into something more serene and therapeutic, a secluded space conducive to yoga and quiet contemplation. Many of us have the same goal, it turns out. Meditation and healing gardens are becoming more popular, landscape designers say, as people seek to create a physical environment that reflects their need for relaxation, contemplation, and an escape from stress.
"It's a huge trend; people are starving for more nature and serenity in their lives," says Corinne Louise Greenberg, a garden designer in Berkeley, California (www.thegardenisateacher.com). "I've had clients who wanted gardens where they could do walking meditation, yoga, tai chi—or just breathe and retreat from the world."
Delaney and Greenberg are among a growing number of landscape architects and designers who've come to specialize in healing and meditation gardens both for public spaces, such as hospitals and spas, and for private clients. "It's taken off in a very encouraging way," says Clare Cooper Marcus, author of Healing Gardens, who teaches the concepts to other landscape designers at the University of California, Berkeley. "Now that research into the healing properties of gardens has gained currency in the medical field, it's triggered quite a movement." There's even a professional group of the American Society of Landscape Architects for those specializing in therapeutic garden design; it started with just 14 members in the late 1990s and has more than 300 members today, says chair Naomi Sachs.
It doesn't take research, though, to feel the calming effects of spending time in a garden or in nature—if only to enjoy a refuge from the constant sensory bombardment of urban life. Just being outdoors elicits more awareness of what's around us. "Yoga in essence means relationship, and one of those key relationships is between the body and the environment," says Russell Comstock, a Jivamukti Yoga teacher and codirector of the Metta Earth Institute in Lincoln, Vermont. "When we step outdoors to do yoga, it's like a portal to a new awareness. A hawk might fly by, or we might feel a breeze on our skin, and it becomes an interactive experience, awakening our senses and opening us up to a deeper understanding."
Even if you don't take your practice outdoors, a garden can enhance your yoga and meditation experience in other ways. "For me it was all about making a spiritual place where I could go and feel completely away from everything," says a San Francisco lawyer who hired Delaney to turn her urban yard into a peaceful sanctuary (and who asked that her name be withheld for privacy reasons). Drawing on this client's childhood spent in Florida and her practice of yoga and Zen meditation, Delaney designed a Zen-inspired landscape featuring palm trees and a dramatic round steel outdoor fireplace.
A healing garden needn't be expansive. Some of the most beautiful gardens are just pockets of space, says architect Sarah Susanka, coauthor, with Julie Moir Messervy, of Outside the Not So Big House. "You can give the illusion of space by creating layers and textures."
Jennifer Kline and Juan Sacristan of Napa, California, longtime practitioners of meditation and Iyengar Yoga, created a space with paths for walking meditation and an enclosed pagoda for yoga and massage, surrounded by organically grown fruits and vegetables. "Everything in the garden offers some form of nurturing, whether it's food or something visual," says Kline. "I can do walking meditation on these wonderful winding paths, then stop and pick raspberries. Anything can happen in our garden," including sleepovers in the pagoda for the couple's 12-year-old daughter and her friends.
No one knows exactly why gardens have such healing and stress-reducing properties; it seems to be at least partially a primordial reaction wired into our central nervous system. Researchers have found, though, that the more a garden engages the senses, the stronger its ability to distract us from the stressful whirlwind of our thoughts. "The gardens that work best are places that facilitate awe and fascination," says Sachs. "You want the garden to bring you in touch with yourself and your surroundings at the same time."
To that end, designers of healing gardens focus on stimulating all the senses; not just sight and smell, but also sound, touch, and even taste. "The goal is to hold and capture your attention," says landscape designer Jack Carman, who runs Design for Generations in Medford, New Jersey. "When we get lost in nature, it takes our mind off our ills and worries."
Studies back this up. Roger Ulrich, who's with the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, has spent decades documenting the effects of nature on people in health care facilities. He has found that those who have access to a garden experience dramatic drops in stress levels, blood pressure, and pain. Ulrich's research has prompted hospitals, spas, and other care facilities across the country to create therapeutic gardens.
Respite and restoration of spirit were the goals when the members of St. John's Episcopal Church in Oakland, California, decided to put in a meditation garden, says Margaret Bowman, who headed up the process. "We wanted a place where people could come and sit in contemplative silence when the sanctuary is closed," Bowman says. The entrance to the garden is marked by a dramatic boulder that you can touch as you enter. A box holds prayer stones blessed by the priest, which you can take with you when you leave.
Helping his clients achieve a deeper state of calm was also an important goal for Michael Stusser, owner of the Osmosis spa in Freestone, California, who was inspired to build a meditation garden by a profound experience he had years ago in an ancient temple garden in Japan. "This 800-year-old garden spoke of equanimity in a very profound way," says Stusser, who apprenticed himself to a Japanese master gardener for a year and later partnered with Japanese garden expert Robert Ketchell to design the Osmosis garden.
"It's very hard for people in our society to build a strong meditation practice because we don't have physical environments that inform the experience," Stusser says. Today the Osmosis garden is open to all, and a sitting group meets there weekly for meditation and a dharma talk. As for my garden, it's coming along in fits and starts, much like my yoga and meditation practices. I must admit it's taken a lot of effort, since most of Delaney's suggestions involved change and letting go of attachment, two things I'm not exactly good at. Take, for instance, the potted roses that lined my deck. "Why would you want your usable space enclosed by plants you can't touch?" she asked. "Move them back behind the railing where you can see them but be protected from the thorns."
I knew she was right as soon as she said it, but that doesn't mean it's been easy—they're heirloom roses that I've collected over many years. So I've moved them one by one, taking time to find each a home, either in my garden or with a neighbor. And there's been an unexpected benefit—without the mulberry tree, roses that before were spindly and sun-starved are leafing out happily. Like me, they're turning toward the light, eager to bloom.