At the Himalayan Institute, a 400-acre ashram nestled in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, gardening begins before the ground has thawed. By February, the three full-time staff gardeners have begun their work in the greenhouses, nurturing seedlings that will be planted once the danger of frost has passed. Over the next nine months, these workers, joined by a handful of organic-farming interns, will grow vegetables and herbs to feed the institute's residents and visitors (more than 40,000 pounds of organic produce over the past three years) as well as planting beautiful flower gardens that inspire meditative strolls and provide adornment for rooms throughout the ashram.
It's hard but rewarding work, according to garden manager Thomas Woodson—work steeped in mindfulness that blends seamlessly with the yogic ideals that the institute teaches. "I'm inclined to believe that nurturing ourselves mentally, spiritually, and physically is what the practice of yoga is all about," he says. "Growing healthy food for yourself and others is a major component of that belief. Gardening certainly creates fertile ground for positive action in the world."
Yoga and gardening are a natural pairing. Planting a seed, nurturing its growth, and experiencing its beautiful expression in full bloom is not unlike the yogic process of setting an intention, nurturing one's practice, and, finally, experiencing the Self as an individual expression of the creative life force. "Gardening, like yoga, pulls us into that relationship of being connected to all things," says Veronica D'Orazio, a yoga teacher in Seattle and the author of Gardener's Yoga. "People garden for that timeless connection."
D'Orazio discovered a connection between yoga and gardening when she began to suffer ongoing back pain that was more noticeable after working in her vegetable garden. As she began healing her back with yoga, she realized that the same poses could counteract the many hours she spent digging, planting, and weeding. These tasks can result in stiff, achy backs; sore muscles; and creaky joints. "We are in these positions that aren't ergonomically good for our bodies," says Margaret Koski-Kent, head gardener at McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, California, which grows 82 acres of organic olive and fruit trees.
A few years ago Koski-Kent, who has practiced yoga regularly for six years to help counteract the physical exertion required by her job, initiated a weekly class at the ranch. "Yoga relieves the strain and stress we put our bodies through," she says.
At the beginning of the gardening season at the Himalayan Institute, a resident yoga teacher reviews poses with the gardeners, who are encouraged to take breaks to stretch. "We're in Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend) most of the day," Woodson jokes. "So some of the backbends and supine postures and twists offer really good relief."
D'Orazio puts it this way: "When you do yoga, you mobilize your spine in all of its directions, and this helps reduce injury in whatever you're doing."
On the following pages, D'Orazio recommends key yoga asanas to help support your gardening ventures—and keep you mindful. "In the garden, you're making something beautiful, but there's also so much work to be done," she says. "Yoga can help you maintain a conscious connection to the Earth."
A Practice for the Garden
To get the most from gardening—and to avoid pain and stiffness that can sideline "greenthumbs" in the midst of the season—D'Orazio recommends three distinct practices. The first, a "pregardening" session, gently warms your muscles and creates flexibility in places that need it most, like the hips, groin, shoulders, and low back. A midday standing yoga break will reestablish spinal length and help counteract stiffening, repetitive gardening postures. And once the trowel and watering can have been put away, she suggests a luxurious reclined sequence, to help ease your body back into balance by using the support of gravity to release any tension in your spine and by reconnecting with your breath and yourself before continuing with your day.
Find a patch of grass to lie on (or stay indoors for this segment) to do a series of gentle poses that will help warm and stretch your back. Be mindful of your breath. "The breath becomes a current you can follow to allow your body to open, and a focusing tool for the mind," D'Orazio says. "You'll cultivate a sense of mindfulness before you even begin gardening."
Take a Break
By the time you're ready for a midday break, you're probably already feeling stiff and creaky. D'Orazio says that this is a good time to stand up, stretch your muscles, get circulation moving through your joints, and reconnect to your body and breath. "When you are involved in a gardening project, you get really focused on getting it done," she says. "Midday is a time to make sure you're not overdoing it."
Unwind & Restore
When your work in the garden is done, it's time once again to tend to your most trusted tool: your body. "You need to release all those places that you've worked or that are stiff," says D'Orazio, who recommends coming down to the ground for this closing sequence. "Lying on your back is more passive for your spine. You can allow gravity to take you into the postures."
Garden Paradise: Meditate outside to deepen your connection with the natural world.
Earth. Find a comfortable seat in your garden and pick up a small amount of soil. Hold it for a moment before returning it to the ground. Relax the backs of both hands onto your thighs. Close your eyes and relax your face, hips, and feet. Take 7 to 10 slow, calming breaths. As you do, imagine that you can grow roots into the earth beneath you. At the same time lengthen your spine upward and balance your head lightly atop it. Now imagine the roots growing stronger as you release tension across your shoulders and chest. Take another 7 to 10 smooth breaths. Inhaling, visualize the earth's nutrients and minerals in your bones. Exhaling, release the muscles away from your bones, all the way from head to toe. Feel yourself supported by the earth.
Notice if you are holding yourself up, away from that support, and consciously let go. Sit quietly for several minutes. Allow any thoughts or feelings to be absorbed into the ground.
Surrender yourself the way a plant does. All that you need, you have.
After a couple of minutes, gently draw your attention back to your breath. Bring your palms together in front of your heart and bow your head.
After a few moments, release the backs of your hands back onto your thighs. Slowly lift your head and gently open your eyes. Stand up, knowing that you are fully supported by the earth beneath you.
Flower. Sit comfortably on the ground or on a garden bench. Rest the back of your hands on your thighs. Gently close your eyes. Imagine yourself as a flowering plant. Relax your hips. Lengthen your spine upward as though it were a stem. Allow your shoulders to gracefully release away from your neck like leaves. Take 7 to 10 slow, even breaths through your nostrils. Feel the light of the day softly touching your eyelids and skin. With each inhalation, imagine your body absorbing the light. With each exhalation, release tension around your temples and the corners of your eyes, nose, and mouth. As the light penetrates more deeply, let it spark the ever-present radiance in your heart. Take another 7 to 10 smooth breaths. As you inhale, invite the glow from your heart to slowly extend to the inner surface of your body. With each exhalation, relax and allow the rays to recede back into your heart center. Release any remaining tension around your chest, abdomen, throat, and back of the skull, as though clearing space for your inner light to shine more brightly. Sit quietly for several minutes.
In this stillness, you are a flowering plant. When you feel complete, place your palms together in front of your heart, and bow your head. Take 3 to 5 breaths. Release the backs of your hands back onto your thighs and slowly lift your head. Gently open your eyes to return to the garden of life.
Kate Vogt teaches asana, meditation, and the Yoga Sutra in the San Francisco Bay Area and sits on the advisory council of the Green Yoga Association. She is the co-editor of Mala of the Heart: 108 Sacred Poems.
Kelle Walsh is Executive Online Editor at Yoga Journal.
Listen: To download these recorded meditations, go here.