Dec 27, 2010

Yoga Garden

A friend recently asked me if I had ever considered combining gardening and yoga. I looked at him as if he had three heads before thinking about his question for a moment. Did he mean designing gardens specifically for yoga practice, or incorporating yoga moves into my garden routines or designing gardens that inspire meditation? He later sent me a link to a site that focused on yoga practice to strengthen the muscles commonly worked out during garden chores and instructions to relax and sooth muscles aches associated with gardening injures. Gardening can be a series of repetitive tasks including lifting, stretching, digging, raking, lots of bending and using hand tools. As an urban gardener my job often involves installation in high, windy places and there are circumstances which often require sudden movements. Any combination of the above can cause injury and/or aches and pain. Unfortunately I do not have the luxury to move at a relaxed pace on many of my projects. In one day I can visit up to four gardens to do installations or maintenance and there is little time to focus on deliberate, careful movement. 

However, one particular garden always brings yoga to mind. It is a garden in the West Village which was designed for a classical music composer-conductor by my Mac Carbonel of Verdant Gardens Design. The garden is a simple layout in two levels. The upper level is made of long beds of tall bamboo on three sides of a rectangular gravel-laid area. At the end furthest from the house stands a mature London plane tree (Platanus x acerfolia). Near the tree are a couple Eames knock-off chairs. More seating and containers with a Japanese maple and seasonal planting are installed nearer the front of the rectangle. Two huge mirrors were installed along the back wall of the garden behind the London plane tree thereby creating the illusion of a deeper space. It is a shady garden until he leaves of the plane tree begin to fall. The tall bamboo create a dark canopy which contrasts nicely with the gravel.

The lower area is concreted and bordered by raised beds of moss and ferns. Emerging among the clumps of moss are strapped vines of Boston ivy and climbing hydrangeas which cover the walls on east and west sides. A rectangular cast iron dining table with a glass top sits on the west side and on the right side are containers with seasonal plantings. The steps connecting the two levels sit on the east side and on the landing (which is a small middle level) stand two large containers housing a Japanese maple and a dogwood.

It is a simple and very organized space with a serene and almost zen-like atmosphere. Birds love it and they call to each other in the surrounding yards all day long. I do seasonal container planing but the bulk of my work in this garden is almost janitorial. I remove leaves from the gravel, the mulch-covered bamboo and moss beds and the concrete. I prune and cut back where necessary but much of my time is spent on my knees stretching to collect fallen leaves between the tall bamboo canes, raking and picking leaves from the gravel. It is very repetitive and often tedious work. At the beginning of summer I began to think of this garden as my thinking garden. It was the place where I found that my mind wandered off in all directions and each chore became so automatic that I sometimes had to force myself to think about where I was and what I was doing. My introduction to the garden coincided with a break-up that was particularly horrendous, on the heels of a long tumultuous relationship. The transition into my new life was emotionally difficult. During those moments on my knees, picking fallen bamboo leaves and later plane tree leaves, my thoughts would provide both solace and torture, sometimes for hours on end.

At another garden just a few blocks away, I met Harry who is a retired documentary film producer. I talked with Harry about my never-ending revolving thoughts and he said "You are and artist, make art out of everything you do while gardening. Bring your mind back to every action and make it art". I likened Harry's words to those of past yoga instructors who say when your mind wanders off bring it back to the body and breath, focus on the breathing.

Is there a better environment more suited to the practice of yoga than a beautiful outdoor space with birds singing?

My new goal while gardening is to exercise a balance of breathing, stretching and seeing with more deliberation, focus and intent. Each time I reach between the bamboo canes I remember to switch sides so I 'm not always supporting my upper body on just one arm and shoulder. While kneeling on my garden mat I take turns extending each leg alternately with the reach of the opposite arm, lengthening my spine while stretching the surrounding muscles on either sides of my tail bones and lower back. When both knees are together I practice versions of cat/cow poses with slow, deep breathing. My breaths may never coincide with the pace of my hand movements (after all, I am being paid to work and I move at a fast to moderate pace) but I become more aware of my breath and focus my thoughts to control it as I harvest leaves and rake the gravel.

I am also learning to live in the moment, becoming more aware of seeing what I am looking at. A small pile of leaves can become an abstraction of mid-veins, curled edges and shadows. The stems of the Boston ivy and climbing hydrangeas turn yellow and fall in crisscrossing patterns all over the dark, speckled mulch. The yellowing leaves of the ornamental cabbages have dramatic lavender and burgundy vein coloring that would look great on a silk scarf. I observe each curled maple leaf as I pick it off the the spongy chartreuse clumps of moss and I can cite the differences between the leaves of Platanus acerfolia and Acer saccharum. I am also learning to distinguish between the various bird calls. Chickadees and robins are the ones I hear most often.

There is little opportunity for downward dog, warrior pose, tree pose or many of the asanas one would usually associate with a yoga practice. While I may never relax in savasana or clasp my hands giving thanks to the universe for the time and will to do movements that are good for my body, I always leave the garden with a great sense of accomplishment. The concreted area is always spotless, the gravel is an unbroken sea of gray and the lines created by the tables and chairs are all parallel or perpendicular. Lately when I leave the garden I am mindful and grateful for the opportunity to combine my work with the time I've been given to heal, strengthen by body, nourish my spirit and grow. Namaste.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...