The Yoga of Gardening

We gratefully reprint an article here by TSYP chairman Andy Curtis-Payne, recently published in Darśanam, the quarterly journal of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram.

I have been extremely fortunate over the last thirty years to have been able to work both as a gardener and a yoga teacher. At first these two may seem rather different; one is about working with others, the other is a solitary pastime, one more obviously physical and the other more cerebral. But if we look a little more carefully, we can see that there are many areas where the two are closely linked. How so?

Both are concerned with development of potential, of cultivating something extraordinarily beautiful, by care and diligence, over time. We can look at the human system as a microcosmic ecosystem, self-sustaining, self-supporting, with a powerful impetus towards survival, growth and eventual fruition. Also, like any garden or piece of land, each system has its strengths and its challenges; some are naturally more robust or rugged, while others are more delicate with potential for great beauty to unfold if appropriate care and nurture are applied.

If we take the human system as our garden how can we realise its potential, how should we care for or cultivate it?

One way of looking at the relationship between gardening and yoga is to embrace the idea of the pañcabhūta (the five elements). I and the garden are made of the same basic materials: space, air, fire, water and earth. Both I and my garden need the essential elements, in the right ratio, at the right time, to maintain a healthy, fruitful and vigorous balance. Too much fire can be destructive, like too much sun, and not enough water can leave me dry, dehydrated and barren. But of all these the most crucial is space; without space nothing can exist or come into being. Restricted space can mean a distorted or unhealthy development. This would equate to the concept of duḥkha or suffering; if my development were to be restricted at a critical point, I would be unable to realise my full potential. 

Thinking about potential we can look at the yoga concept of vāsana, or dormant potentials. Like seeds, some will have positive, helpful potentials and others less so. I have learnt by experience that to get the best from my garden I must spend time in it every day, getting to know it, keeping an eye on what is coming up and, when necessary, weeding out those things that are unwanted or unhelpful. This is akin to abhyāsa (Yoga Sūtra 1.12-14): regular practice over time, without interruptions while maintaining a positive outlook. The concept of svādhyāya is also pertinent here, observation and reflection, a need to keep a close eye on what is sprouting or developing in the garden and discrimination to remove any unwanted or unhelpful weeds as quickly as possible before they grow too strong, and so it is with our patterns of behaviour.

So, if this is the case who or what can help? Here the role of the gardener or teacher is crucial, someone who cares and is skilled in the appropriate techniques is essential in guiding us back to health. In his discussion of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra 4.3 in ‘Freud and Yoga’ with Hellfried Krusche, TKV Desikachar actually uses the analogy of a farmer or gardener (kṣetrikavat), someone who knows how to intervene and when to intervene to remove the obstacles to healthy and appropriate development.

Another such analogy appears in Frans Moors’ translation of the Yoga Sūtra, ‘Liberating Isolation’. In the commentary to 3.13 he quotes the teaching of Sri Prof. T. Krishnamacharya on the topic of transformation, presenting three key factors necessary for this essential process:

Dharma Parināma – what is the dharma or potential of the person/garden? For example, an apple seed can only produce apples but if appropriately nurtured it can produce the very best apples, wholesome and free of disease.

Lakṣana Parināma – for this change to happen an appropriate intervention is needed. A catalyst external to the person/garden is required, someone both knowledgeable and caring such as a teacher or gardener who by taking the right steps and care can help to create the conditions for the apple seed to germinate and grow into a strong and healthy apple tree and so the potential is realised.

Avasthā Parināma – the final part of this important process is timing; any such intervention must come at the right time. I must plant the seed in the right way at the right time of the season, then it will germinate and begin to grow. In addition, I cannot expect the young plant to bear fruit in its first or even second season, I have to continue to nourish and care for the plant until the time is right for it to bear fruit. Such care for an individual can come from a skilled and caring teacher.

It is this last lesson that has been the most important for my own growth through Yoga –patience. Thankfully, despite my rajasic tendencies, gardening is one of the few things that cannot be hurried. There are beautiful mature trees growing now that I planted 25-30 years ago. No amount of worrying, fussing or fretting would have changed that; nature must take its time and there is a very important lesson here for us all. Technology, while it has its uses and appropriate application, can mislead us into expecting instant results, but nature must have its time. Growth, development and healing come in their season, when the appropriate circumstances come together and the right intervention is applied by a caring and loving teacher or gardener.

I have at times been blessed, while working in the garden, with moments of deep and profound peace, simply content to be in harmony with my surroundings; working with nature I have fostered my own development. As it is said in the Bhagavad Gītā6.16-17: “Yoga is not eating too much, nor is it not eating at all, and not the habit of sleeping too much, and not keeping awake either, Arjuna. For him who is moderate in food and diversion, whose actions are disciplined, who is moderate in sleep and waking, Yoga destroys all sorrow.” This beautiful quote sums up quite sublimely the importance of living in harmony with ourselves and the world around us.

We can see all too clearly in the world around us what happens if we try to take short cuts or speed up the natural processes of development such as the use of chemical fertilisers in agriculture. Initially it seems as if we have gained something but, there is always a price to pay for this perceived gain and that price is generally in terms of quality. If I take short cuts or apply unnatural forces to facilitate change, I will not get the same results, in fact it will probably cause more harm than good. If there is a lesson to learn from the 20thand 21stcenturies, it is that we cannot have what we want without cost. The earth, our home, is changing and while the causes are uncertain our collective actions are at least an aggravating factor.

By following the teachings of yoga, we can not only heal ourselves but also the world in which we live, our shared ‘garden’. How? By skilful and appropriate action (Bhagavad Gītā2.50) and where does such action originate? From a mind that is clear and steady (Bhagavad Gītā2.48) which comes as a direct result of the practice of yoga (Yoga Sūtra 1.12-14). So, I would encourage all to explore, through yoga, their actions and their potential effects, because we can all make a difference, both to ourselves and the world we share by living more skilfully, more thoughtfully, with more care. I would like to leave the final words to Sir, Sri TKV Desikachar: “Changes happen as in the presence of a farmer (or gardener): everything is there, and the intelligence applied by the farmer enables the plants to grow. The farmer here is one who knows and one who acts. He is not giving just anything, but that which is needed. Everything is already there, but without his help there would be no plants.

With grateful acknowledgement to my teacher Gill Lloyd and her teacher TKV Desikachar.

You can download Darśanam, the quarterly journal of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram from the KYM website.

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