Stretch Or Kvetch
All week, I’ve visited with groaning friends who can’t stand up straight, or don’t dare sit in a soft chair, can’t turn their heads, or can’t bend without yelping. I too am somewhat incapacitated by a pulled rib. What dreadful disorder lies behind all these physical woes? Sadly, the culprit is the garden, or to be more precise, the gardeners. Though advancing age could conceivably play a tiny part in this scenario, I was weirdly pleased to note that some of the complainers were far younger than I (though admittedly none were under 40. Hmmm.) I gladly dish out arnica gel and cannabis muscle soothing cream and offer hopefully not-too-smug reminders about stretching BEFORE gardening as well as after.
If I am smug (I probably am), perhaps it’s partly because I have deliberately moderated my gardening techniques quite a bit over time, as arthritis and variously damaged this-es and thats have cramped my original style. Also, sad but true, I am not as strong as I was a decade or two ago, nor as sure-footed on ladders or when climbing up in trees. Though I still garden often, it hasn’t regularly been a daily activity for me for some years now, largely due to family obligations that kept me inside more than out. Thus, I am newly learning my own pace, balancing lifetime skills with changing abilities. I have never been fond of accepting limitations so this is not really a whole lot of fun. However, accepting reality turns out to be a whole lot less painful than denying it. Sigh.
Gardening As Tai Chi
One of the greatest aids to limitation acceptance has been my return to tai chi. After some twenty years of total abandonment of the practice, I was lured back in January by a dear friend. At first it felt very odd; my mind remembered very little, but my body delightedly recalled exactly how it wanted to feel and move (though wanting and doing are not exactly the same, sadly again). By the second practice session, even my clumsy, unaccustomed versions of the moves felt blissful and now I find myself grinning like a happy fool through every class.
We are blessed with a kindly and compassionate teacher who offers his students the freedom to do the tai chi form their particular body is inclined or able to do on a given day. That’s quite a new idea for me, and I am finding it refreshingly realistic and pleasantly uncharged with expectation. That’s not to say his form is sloppy or casual, not at all. However, his teaching style thoughtfully accommodates both the energetic, youthful, and skillful as well as the lame and the halt (or the tired and the wounded).
A Supple Spine Promotes Athletic Gardening
I had forgotten just how beautifully tai chi helps to build balance and core strength, even when done imperfectly. Even, or perhaps especially, the simple drills I practice at home help enormously. Walking attentively, shifting weight through the feet, dropping the center of balance, keeping the lower back open, all work to restore some suppleness to stiffening backs and knees. This is extremely helpful, and when I bend and stoop and kneel and crouch or roll about on the soggy ground, or find myself leaning over backwards or turning almost upside down to fit a saw or pruner into a tight tangle of branches, I am deeply grateful for all those stretching and balancing exercises.
For gardeners, the most important tai chi concept may be that of the straight and elongated spine. Sitting (which most of us do far too much of) compacts the spine and causes a lot of lower back issues. Standing around (usually depending mainly on one foot) isn’t much better, but tai chi offers a magic move: the Pelvic Tilt, a little forward tuck of the tailbone that involves the abs and core muscles. This small adjustment shifts one’s weight downward to the lower belly, dividing evenly between both feet and making one’s stance a lot more stable.
Simple Warm-Ups For Safer Pruning
Many, many unfortunate accidents occur because armed and dangerous people attempt to work with sharp tools. Pruning becomes both safer and far easier when we are internally grounded, our weight held low in the belly instead of high in the chest (or worse, the head). We can then stand securely on one foot with our saw-bearing, outstretched arm counterbalanced by an uplifted back leg rather than a flailing foot. Similarly, planting is a breeze once one has mastered (mistressed?) the art of the Third World Squat, a fairly straight-backed position that allows amazing freedom of arm and hand movement. For how-to’s, consult a National Geographic for a folks-around-the-fire picture.
If soreness has plagued you in the past, here are some excellent ways to avoid it in the future. However, please internalize the fact that that knowing is not enough; one must also DO to get the benefits. First of all, to keep heavy gardening chores pleasant and invigorating, don’t try to make up for a winter of neglect in a weekend from hell. Do just a bit at a time, and create a new habit: from now on, always start any gardening, heavy or light, by warming up your neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. The whole business takes about ten minutes so there is really no excuse for not doing these very simple, body-saving stretches. None!
Neck Rolls First
Begin with 10 neck rotations, avoiding the backward position: Drop your right ear toward the right shoulder, letting the shoulder slope away earthward. Roll your chin to your chest, then repeat to the left. Return your chin to your chest between each side, but don’t roll your head backward, which can strain the neck muscles.
Next, circle both shoulders 10 times, forwards and backwards. Raise your arms and rotate them at shoulder height 10 times in each directions. Now, with your arms at your sides, lightly clench your hands and circle your wrists 10 times forwards and backwards, then squeeze and release your hands 10 times. Shake out your hands lightly; they should tingle just a bit.
To loosen the waist, do 10 hip circles forwards and backwards (pretend you are using a hula hoop). Shake out each leg for a few seconds and jump almost-but-not-quite off the ground on both feet together 10 times. Now end up by shaking out your hands and arms again for 5 seconds. After all that, you should feel brisk and warm, with all joints loosened up and ready for action.
If you feel sore after working, do the hula aloha again, then do some pelvic tilts and gently rock the spine forward and backward. If your back still feels tight, lie down on a yoga mat or rug and press the small of your back to the floor, holding through five full breaths before releasing. Do that gently a few times and then take five minutes to reverse the blood flow to your legs; relax against a wall with your feet up, heels pointing toward the ceiling, and your legs supported by the wall. Onward!
Thank you for the wonderful suggestions for gardening wisely after a certain age. I am especially pleased to read your praise for the benefits of taiji. I’ve been doing taiji for nearly 12 years now and also have a wonderful teacher who focuses on helping individuals accommodate the taiji practice to their own physical abilities. You remind me to use taiji principles when I work in my gardens.
It sure helps me and it sounds like you also benefit. A pity that mindfulness is not automatic, darn!