Yoga for Farmers
Some might suggest that yoga and farming have no natural symbiosis, no reason to be linked. Yet a niche movement is growing. Many farms now open their fields and barns for periodic yoga sessions, while yoga practitioners from Seattle to Maine offer services just for farmers.
Proponents tout yoga’s healing powers, a balm for achey bones and sore muscles earned in the field. Some claim the connection runs deeper, based on a sense of thoughtful living and harmony with your surroundings. To learn more, we caught up with Abby Paloma of Growing Heart Farm in Wingdale, NY. Paloma is a farmer, yoga instructor, and founder of Farm to Yoga.
Modern Farmer: Which came first for you, yoga or farming?
Abby Paloma: I was a yoga instructor for years. The longer I did it, the more I felt connected to my body. This led me to be more aware of my food, and everything I put in my body. After awhile, I came to see the earth, the fields and the plants as an extension of myself. That’s why I ended up farming at Growing Heart — I felt called to it. We grow just about every kind of vegetable here, for a CSA. I also have my own herbal medicine garden.
MF: What’s the connection between yoga and your day job?
AP: The same way we practice responsible stewardship of our land, yoga teaches how to be good stewards of our minds and bodies.
I’ve met so many young farmers who have back problems already, and they’re only in their 20s and early 30s.
MF: How about a physical connection?
AP: I make jokes with my farmer friends about the particular ways we maneuver around the field, the way we use tools, and all the parallel motions in yoga. There are many strength-building poses that help with the repetitive motion of farming.
MF: Tell us more about that.
AP: The younger farmer movement often works on smaller farms, providing all their own labor and using less machinery (that’s a discussion for another day). This can be quite physically demanding, with a lot of bending over, a lot of squatting. I’ve met so many young farmers who have back problems already, and they’re only in their 20s and early 30s. Yoga helps teach how to access your core and support yourself when you’re working in these postures. I’ve learned a lot that has really saved my lower back.
MF: What yoga poses are best for the back?
AP: Twists are good, especially when you’re lying supine. Forward folds with bent knees can really start to open things up, depending on where your lower back tension is. A basic sun salutation sequence is also great for people without a prior yoga practice. It incorporates all motions of the spine, with a lot of dynamic movement.
MF: What other parts of the farmer’s body need special attention?
AP: For me, it’s the neck, and a general tightness in my calves. I farm on my hands and knees a lot, like when I’m weeding for hours straight. Yoga teaches you to be sensitive to your body. Instead of being in some prolonged position, and all of a sudden I get up and say ‘Oh my god I was in that position for half an hour!’, yoga has taught me to monitor my posture constantly. I’ll stand up or sit down when I need to, finding the most sustainable position for my body.
MF: Much of yoga is based on controlled breathing. How can this help farmers?
AP: I think people romanticize being farmer a lot. Yes, it’s an incredibly fulfilling lifestyle, but it’s also incredibly stressful. You don’t have any control over so many aspects of it. The weather, pest management…there’s a lot of risk working with the forces of nature. Breathing, what we call pranayama in yoga, teaches you to silence your nervous system almost immediately. It’s like getting out the tiller to redo your soil bed. It’s so helpful to have that breathing practice in your toolset during stressed-out moments.
MF: We heard you’ve used actual farm tools in your yoga lessons.
AP: I’ve taught sequences to farmers using whatever tools they had on hand. A shovel or a swivel hoe is great, anything with a stand-up pole. You can use it to pivot around and put your weight into. Using tools is an easy access point for farmers who may not be used to yoga.
MF: Okay, here’s a hypothetical. You’re working with a soybean farmer in Indiana who’s never done a lick of yoga. How would you start out?
AP: First I would try to find out where he had pain in his body, to find out his exact physical condition. Let’s say he’s in his 70s. I’d put him on his back, get him to start just by breathing. I’d say, ‘Inhale. Notice when you inhale. Now exhale. Notice when you exhale. Can you feel the breath in the upper side of your lungs? Can you feel it in the back? How can you make your breath bigger?’ We’d start with some simple movement, cat-cow pose as it’s often called in yoga, just to start orienting where the spine is.
A lot of new students may not be comfortable with the spiritual aspects of yoga, and that’s okay. I don’t push that on people. It’s just so helpful, no matter how you access it.