Despite gardening like a maniac for decades, I've never hurt my back, not even tweaked it, and I owe it all to yoga. In the late 1970s I was lucky enough to find my way to the studio...

DESPITE GARDENING like a maniac for decades, I’ve never hurt my back, not even tweaked it, and I owe it all to yoga. In the late 1970s I was lucky enough to find my way to the studio of legendary yoga teacher Marie Svoboda, a former Czech ballerina and stern taskmaster. This was no-frills, hard-core yoga, and I still hear Marie’s voice in my head telling me to stand straight, tuck, roll my shoulders back. Many of her former students are among Seattle’s finest yoga teachers.

I love yoga for its emphasis on breathing, exploration of the link between mind and body, and for the reminder that there’s no competition with anyone but yourself. But I’m afraid I practice it just enough to stay in shape for gardening. Perhaps not a noble goal in the yogic tradition, but I’ve gardened pain-free for many years, thanks to time spent on the yoga mat.

Yogis say you’re only as old as your spine. My guess is that most gardeners, to their chagrin, have come right up against this adage. One of the great satisfactions of gardening is submerging yourself in nature’s green current until you look up hours later, amazed it’s already getting dark. Unfortunately, it’s when we’re most absorbed that we’re vulnerable to hurting ourselves. It’s in the rush of enthusiasm for digging deep, reaching to prune or scooting a heavy pot around that we fall, pull muscles or strain our backs.

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Yoga is so valuable because, with dedication and time, its lessons are internalized. If you practice this discipline, you’ll not only become strong and limber, but also understand your own weaknesses so well that even in the midst of gardening frenzy you’ll correct and compensate to avoid problems.

Now I admit that for the past few years I’ve felt nearly as frustrated on the yoga mat as when I’m unable to move a heavy bag of soil by myself or dislodge a plant despite jumping up and down on the shovel. Yoga doesn’t get easier as you age, either. Asanas (poses) that used to feel liquid and smooth are now challenging, and I resort to a resting pose more often during class. But I keep at it, telling myself how much worse off I’d be if I didn’t practice yoga.

I don’t have an exact ratio of asana time to gardening time, but three or four hours of yoga a week does wonders for strength and flexibility. Just don’t skimp on the dreaded Chadaranga and upward facing dog, which are kind of a slow-motion push up and pull through. Nothing builds strength more effectively than supporting your own body weight. And pay close attention to asanas like tree pose that reveal how different one side of your body is from the other. The wonder of yoga is that you understand all too clearly, but can work to correct, the imbalances we all have between our right and left sides, our backs and fronts. Remember that crooked old lady in the nursery rhyme? She didn’t do yoga.

Yoga’s aerobic benefits are debatable, although I believe it strengthens the heart. It certainly opens it. Anyone who has done Ashtanga, or any kind of yoga that flows continually from one posture to another, knows that these practices build endurance. And what is tending a garden but an endurance contest?

A tenet of yoga is that every pose needs a counter pose. This means that all the bending over you do out in the garden should be balanced with back bending, the squatting with stretching. Seattle yoga instructor and gardener Veronica D’Orazio has written a little book on yoga as gardening antidote. These are gentle yoga poses that promote tranquility and revitalize your energies, as well as prepare your muscles for gardening. Every pose recommended in “Gardener’s Yoga: Bend & Stretch, Dig & Grow” (Sasquatch Books, $12.95) is illustrated by Tim Foss, a local artist and yoga practitioner, with drawings as soothing as a good day in the garden.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is