~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~


February 19, 2010
Spring sends me out into the garden, where I'm eager and enthusiastic but not particularly experienced. I love to feel the grass tickling my toes and the dirt slipping through my fingers. I love fresh air, pink cheeks and brilliant colors.

Until recently, though, my gardening has been a little haphazard. Generally, my approach has gone something like this: Wander through a local greenhouse in search of a bright plant that makes my heart skip a beat. Bring it home, rip it out of the pot and plop it into a vacant spot of hard earth in the yard. No mess, no fuss, no preparation and no follow through. If a plant doesn’t survive my random care and spotty doses of dirt and water, then perhaps it just wasn't meant to live in my garden of tough love.

Only recently have I figured out that beautiful gardens aren't born of such reckless and innocent passion. I've decided that if I'm going to lavish such time and attention on my new summer obsession, I might as well be a little less half-witted and a little more whole-hearted about how I go about it. Through experienced friends and a growing collection of gardening books, I've learned about dividing and deadheading. About bone-meal and bloom builder. About importing ladybugs and exporting slugs.

This spring in particular, I've learned that the most important work goes into a good garden even before the first flower blooms. I've finally figured out that it's the dirt beneath the plant that lays the groundwork for its fertility and flourish.

Of course, this means I've finally done the inevitable, a task that a year ago would have left me rolling my eyes and shaking my head at the insanity of gardeners: I've bought my first big batch of cow manure. I'm hoping that along with a little compost and peat, this investment will replenish my garden's tired old soil and send my spring buds spiraling into radiant summer blossoms.

All this helps explain why these days when I settle onto my yoga mat and take my first deep breaths of the morning, I inevitably think of the earth, and of the dirt I've sprinkled through my garden. It's surely not the most prosaic image and I try not to linger there long. But there’s no doubt that my adventures in gardening have reinforced for me the value of preparing well. They have inspired me to be just a little more careful and methodical, not just in my garden but also in my exploration of yoga.

That means that as I surrender to the ground beneath me, as I nestle in for my daily bloom, I consider all the ways I can lay the groundwork for the play and poses to come. For the first few moments of my practice, I do nothing more than check back into life, asking myself what I can do today to nourish and nurture my spirit so that I may flourish fully.

These few moments of resting quietly, of breathing easily, of letting go, seem to add a healthy dose of ease and breathability to the poses that follow. I’ve learned that if I can find that gentle, inner pulse of life before I begin to move, then when I do finally dip into a few whiz-bang asanas, they are far less likely to strain my body and far more likely to touch my soul.

And I’ve learned that just a few moments of quiet contemplation - reading a poem or settling into an image that helps me remember who I am - helps place my triangles and dogs and pigeons into the bigger picture of my life. I remember that yoga isn't about popping through a string of poses just for the fun of it. Rather, it is about finding ways to bloom more fully, to breathe more freely, and to add instead of subtract from the care that keeps the world joyfully spinning along.

I guess you could say that just as I'm growing a little smarter about my garden, I'm growing wiser about my yoga, too. I’m learning that, especially in our caffeinated culture, one of yoga’s greatest gifts is its reminder to slow down, to be attentive, to take greater care of life. Yoga is supposedly about stilling the disturbances of the mind, and although I can't say I've mastered that trick yet, the fact that I’m slowing down means at least I'm moving in the right direction.

This means that lately I’ve come to appreciate teachers who are particularly slow and methodical in their approach, who are just as willing to hold us back as they are to push us forward. They know the profound benefits of laying the groundwork, of "training in the preliminaries" as the Buddhists say, of re-sensitizing our bodies to the feeling of life itself. They understand how important it is to allow our bodies to open and settle enough to move through postures in an even and wholesome way. And they offer us a chance to settle, to rest, to find our home inside, so we can emerge with greater vitality and wisdom.

There’s just one big problem with all this mindful preparation, whether for a garden or a yoga practice or a life: It requires time, care and wisdom. It requires patience and maturity, and a willingness to keep at least one eye trained on the big-picture, long-haul view of life.

All this makes me just a little worried as a teacher, since sometimes I’m not sure whether my students will be as eager to slow down as I am. I worry that if I go slowly, if I focus on the small and simple, if I prepare our bodies and minds with quiet breathing and reflection, my students will grow impatient. They won’t like my yoga, or they'll think it's boring, or they’ll wonder why we’re not dashing into those exotic postures offered up by the super-yogis in glitzy magazines.

But then I look back at my garden and remember how much delight I take in the slow unraveling of the flowers’ buds, in the faithful unfolding they share. No one hurries them along. No one questions their progress. And no one knows which day they’ll choose to shock us by overflowing into joyous bloom.

They spend months deep in the earth preparing for their short and showy spring. And then with just a little bit of help - a little sun, a touch of spring, and an occasional dose of fertilizer - they stun us with their effortless unfolding.

Maybe it’s the same for us. Maybe our job is to prepare ourselves well, to lay the groundwork with care and heart. And then to step back, with full faith and patience, letting life unfold in its own mysterious and remarkable way.

This article was originally published in Sattva (May 2001)