Farm Flexibility
February 5, 2011



I have been practicing yoga off and on for a number of years now. But lately I'd been lax in my practice - too many things to do, not enough time, and a general attitude of "I'll do it later." Well, this morning I was so stiff when I woke up I knew the time had come to get back into it. It's one thing to have occasional physical issues that don't really impact my ability to do the things that need doing. But when I have ongoing physical issues that reduce my effectiveness, that's a call to action.

Yoga itself isn't very difficult. Well, let me say it's not difficult to learn, but it takes a lifetime to master. I've heard people say they "aren't ready" for yoga; they have to train first, or study first, or any of a number of other plausible-sounding reasons to put off starting. Hogwash. Yoga is the ultimate "come as you are" party. No dress code. No minimum opening balance. No previous experience required. The only thing needed is a body, a pulse, and a willingness to explore some unfamiliar postures and sensations.

Like many really important things in life, someone watching yoga would have no idea what's really happening "behind the scenes". It is one of the few activities we can do together, which nevertheless takes us so deeply into our internal selves. Seemingly simple postures will suddenly bring new awareness of muscles, bones and tendons, along with tightness, resistance or discomfort, which we never knew was there. You'd think we'd each lived in our bodies long enough that we'd already know all that stuff. Nope. Like the day after doing hard physical labor shows you muscles you never knew you had, yoga introduces us to very new aspects of such fundamentals as breathing, movement and balance as we sit, as we walk, as we hold some limb in the air. And we are invited to go so deeply into our physical selves that sometimes we can lose track of our usual senses. I have occasionally been so immersed in a posture, with eyes closed and breathing deep, that the instructor will have to call me back to the world I forgot was out there. It's like taking a vacation without ever leaving home.

And what in the world does this have to do with farming? It is allegory, Dear Reader, and a useful metaphor for those moments when we find that our farms are stiff, painful, and/or unresponsive or restricted in some way. Just as yoga helps the individual body and mind move forward more nimbly, a yoga approach can help us find new ways for our farms to move and progress more comfortably. We often seek to get away from things that are pestering us - keep it at arm's length, put it on the back burner, shelf the idea or table the conversation. Our very language has all sorts of expressions for putting distance between us and something that bothers us. Yet yoga teaches us to go into the stiffness, into the discomfort, into those painful spots that are hampering our movements. Through such simple yoga tools as visualizing more space, breathing deeply through resistance and pressing gently but persistently into difficult postures, yoga helps us learn to move in ways we couldn't move before. And be more comfortable in the process. All those literals can be applied metaphorically to any and all aspects of farming (or life) that are causing us pain, or discomfort, or loss of mobility, or loss of function.

For instance, I used to dread hauling a hay bale into the goat yard every morning and evening, because I'd be mobbed by two dozen hungry animals that all weigh about as much (if not more) than I do. I'd put it off and chores would run late and then my whole schedule would be blown. Forcing my way through that mob every morning and evening wasn't earth shattering. But it was unpleasant. Yet the solution came to me one day while I was in one of my yoga postures. Instead of going into the yard to feed the goats, all I needed to do was set up feeders and aisles such that I always have a fence between me and them. Voila! A very simple modification, requiring less than half a day to set up, and suddenly I'd have no more resistance to forward movement, no sore spots that slowed me down, and a task I once dreaded could be done with ease in a relaxed manner. I made the change and goat feeding went from hassle to enjoyable. Not only did feeding get easier, I suddenly had a new ability to stand back and watch them all move around as they visited the new feeders and hay piles. Feeding time turned into a high quality herd assessment opportunity. As I look at how our farming practices have changed over the years, I can find similar instances of tasks which once were a real hassle, but which later were refined, and improved, and simplified thanks to yoga-like philosophy. Powerful movement, either physical or mental, became possible and even comfortable with little effort. That's what yoga gives us.

I think there's a danger in allowing ourselves to get so busy, so tired, and so sore (physically or mentally) that we don't give ourselves the chance to stand back and look at our day to day activities, and how to make them simpler or easier or more pleasant. Life is not "work hard and then you die". Life can be "work at what you love, and be a happy tired at the end of each day." It doesn't take more work. It takes looking at our daily tasks with new eyes, and breathing deeply into those unpleasant tasks to find more constructive ways to accomplish them. Whatever those tasks may be.