Stretch Or Kvetch

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Avoid unnecessary tidiness; let petals make magical, fragrant pathways

Gardening Without Pain (Or Less Anyway)

It’s finally spring and all week I’ve visited with groaning friends who can’t stand up straight, can’t turn their heads, can’t bend without yelping or don’t dare sit in a deep soft chair. I too am feeling somewhat incapacitated by painful hands and a cranky hip. 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 smugly pleased to notice that some of the complainers were far younger than I (though admittedly none were under 40. Hmmm.) I gladly shared arnica gel and cannabis muscle soothing cream as well as 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 thises 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, at 72, I am finally learning to honor 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 sporadic practice of tai chi. For over ten years, I practiced tai chi for hours every day, and though that practice dwindled with various life changes, I’ve been blessed to maintain a better sense of balance and better core strength even after some thirty years of very occasional practice. By now, though my mind remembers very little, my body still moves into the proper positions with very little prompting. Back straight, butt tucked under, knees relaxed, feet shoulder width apart and firmly planted. Even if I only go through the first few moves of the 108 I used to know, my movements become more fluid and feel more comfortable and confident almost immediately. I’m reminded of the research that shows that active imagining of favorite sports can do the body almost as much good as actually doing whatever it is. Yay! To put that into action is even better, so it’s well worth learning some of the basics, especially that opening stance.

A Supple Spine Promotes Athletic Gardening

Since a virus left me with premanant vertigo five years ago, I’m often appreciative of just how much that basic tai chi stance helps with balance. A few simple tai chi practice drills can also make quite a daily difference. Walking attentively, shifting weight through the feet, dropping the center of balance, keeping the lower back open, all work to restore at least some suppleness to stiffening backs and knees. This is extremely helpful as I age, and whenever 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 withour weight 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 it evenly between both feet and making one’s stance a lot more stable.

Simple Warm-Ups For Safer Pruning

Every year, 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, up 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 far easier if we adopt what an older gardener friend always called the Third World Squat; a fairly straight-backed position that allows amazing freedom of arm and hand movement. In my mind’s eye, this evokes National Geographic images of folks-around-the-fire and people doing repetitive field work all over the world.

If post-gardening soreness has plagued you in the past, there are some excellent ways to avoid it in the future. For starters, 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 stop as soon as your body begins to complain. Eliminate unnecessary chores that are more about tidiness (aka control over nature) than about creating a healthy habitat for plants, pollinators and people. Even more importantly, create a new habit: always start any gardening session, heavy or light, by warming up your neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. The whole routine takes just a few minutes so there is really no excuse for not doing these very simple, body-saving stretches. Right?

Heads Should Roll

When my neck gets stiff, I remind myself that heads are supposed to move flexibly. To get there, do 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 and trigger vertigo. Next, circle both shoulders 10 times, forwards and backwards. Raise your arms and rotate them at shoulder height 10 times in each direction. Next, 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 successfully, something I have never managed). Stand on one leg and shake out the other leg for a few seconds, the repeat on the other side. Now jump almost-but-not-quite off the ground on both feet together 10 times, VERY slightly jarring your head (this is part of the Eight Pieces of brocade Qi Gong series). Now with feet shoulder width apart and shoulders relaxed, shake out your arms and hands 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 hoop rotation again, then add a few pelvic tilts, gently rocking 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 a few minutes to reverse the blood flow to your legs by lying on your back against a wall with your feet up, heels pointing toward the ceiling, and your legs supported by the wall. Onward!

This entry was posted in Care & Feeding, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, Pruning, Safer Pruning, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Stretch Or Kvetch

  1. Urban says:

    Ya know, after a 36 pound box of frozen soup landed on my head after a roughly 2 foot drop, I was kinda a mess. A very good neck and spine doc fixed me up -last visit, he said ‘if you do a full Sun Salutation every day, you won’t need me any more.’ He was right – and irreligious about good stretching to this day.

  2. Cara says:

    I needed those tips and reminders. Thank you Ann!
    And thank you for making it funny to boot.

  3. Laura Matson says:

    Great reminders to care for ourselves as we care for the earth

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