Lessons I Learned From Gardening

Before & after photos of the traffic circle, in case you were curious. :)

Before & after photos of the traffic circle, in case you were curious. :)

Summer is just around the corner and I’ve been having fun with a few gardening projects. One in particular (tidying up a seriously neglected traffic circle by my house) has taught me a couple of things. First, bindweed is devious, resourceful, and almost impossible to eradicate. Second, spending several hours nearly every day for a week shoveling, bending over, and squatting while pulling out stubborn weeds is hard work. But, it doesn't have to be backbreaking.

I actually felt pretty good after each work session. Yes, I was tired (okay, really, REALLY tired) and I could tell that muscles in my shoulders, arms, and back were doing more and different work than they were used to. But it was totally doable for a couple different reasons.

Backbreaking vs. Whole-Body-Empowering

One thing that's an injury-in-the-making is my tendency to reach with my rib cage instead of my hamstrings or shoulders. My mobility in both of these areas has gotten SO much better since starting Restorative Exercise, but there’s still work to be done. My posterior leg muscles don’t have the yield to let me reach all the way to the ground while doing a forward bend, and ditto for my shoulders when I’m squatting and trying to reach way out in front of me. Instead I have a tendency to thrust my rib cage forward to get that little bit of extra reach, which makes the work easier...at least in the short term.

LEFT: Reaching by hinging at my spine and shearing my vertebrae forward - ouch in the low back! It also made it difficult to take a full, deep breath.  RIGHT: Ribs down where they should be, and I’m using the strength and mobility of my shoulder girdle to reach up.

LEFT: Reaching by hinging at my spine and shearing my vertebrae forward - ouch in the low back! It also made it difficult to take a full, deep breath. 

RIGHT: Ribs down where they should be, and I’m using the strength and mobility of my shoulder girdle to reach up.

Moving like this occasionally is no big deal - in fact, it’s great if you really need to get a dish on the top shelf in your kitchen cupboard and can’t...quite...reach. However, chronic rib thrusting (which most of us are guilty of), wreaks havoc on many areas and systems of your body, including your lower back, core, shoulders, and upper back - basically your entire upper body, and then some! This is because it moves the spine WAY out of neutral by extending and shearing vertebrae in the mid back (primarily at vertebrae T12/L1), and forces the rest of the upper body and pelvis to compensate.

At the first twinge of pain in my low back while weeding, I would evaluate how I was moving, and guess what? The culprit was rib thrusting every single time! As soon as I dropped my ribcage back down where it belonged the pain would go away.

Mixing It Up

Another thing that really helped avoid injury was frequently changing my position. For inspiration, check out this entertaining video of my colleague (Brea Johnson at Heart & Bones Yoga in Toronto) doing some gardening of her own.

I love that she is constantly moving from squatting to standing to forward-bending to squatting, never staying in one place for too long (all while barefoot, to boot!). Not only does this give you true whole body movement, but it also lowers the risk of overusing any one set of muscles or joints.

For another great example of incorporating whole body movement into what life throws your way, check out Katy Bowman’s most recent blog post. Even though she’s just chilling on the beach with her daughter, she’s still getting tons of varied movement in.

In closing, mind your ribs, move your whole body, and garden to your heart's content!