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Entries in health (5)


Yoga Positions for Gardeners, a book review

Gardener’s Yoga - Bend & Stretch, Dig & Grow. Veronica D’Orazio, Sasquatch Books.

Essentially, this delightful little manual demonstrates how yoga can help combat the common aches and pains associated with otherwise pleasurable gardening chores.

In this cheerfully illustrated handbook, the author suggests a series of yoga poses that help prepare our bodies for our favorite hobby, protect our limbs from surprising strains, and soothe our muscles after our outdoor work has taken its physical toll.  

For both men and women, the objective is to foster awareness how breathing, posture, and deliberate flowing movement can benefit the gardener. For those who have never practiced yoga before, this publication, based upon twenty-one simple poses, also serves as a general introduction to yoga itself.

When Veronica D’Orazio felt her back go out after a strenuous week of weeding, she decided to soothe her sore muscles with yoga. That inspired her to create a yoga program that targets the body’s stress, helps prevent injury, and bolsters strength and flexibility.

Prior to beginning a gardening chore, the reader is encouraged to Break Ground. This group of yoga poses gently warms up the spine and prepares the lower limbs for the day’s work

For the actual outdoor chores, aka Planting Seeds, the author suggests poses that emphasize breathing and balance to reduce body tension and soreness.

In the last section titled Harvest Time, the focus is on poses for relaxation and elongating tired muscles to restore and unwind the body.

A valuable addition to this publication is a chart that readers can consult when seeking guidance to cure specific pain. Seven body parts that are most vulnerable to discomfort are cross-referenced with specific yoga poses that offer relief.

If yoga is a new concept for gardeners, it’s helpful to know that it does more than relieve strain on muscles and joints. It also rejuvenates the mind and spirit, balances the central nervous system, cleanses internal organs, strengthens the circulatory system, and promotes an overall sense of well-being and contentment. In that respect, both yoga and gardening are sources of similar natural benefits and each complements the other.

The author is a certified yoga instructor and gardener. The illustrator, Tim Foss, who gives life and meaning to Ms. D’Orazio’s text, is also a gardener and yoga practitioner. The publisher, Seattle-based Sasquatch Books, has created the ultimate printed product. It is an instructive, affordable gift, beautiful to look at, and fun to read.



Sustaining Our Health and the Planet: How Local Consensus Helps Get Things Done

In little over a month from now, those of us who are concerned about the health of our planet will be observing Earth Day, on April 22, 2011. Each year, Jan Huston Doble, who blogs at Thanks for Today, organizes a communal cyberspace celebration of this event. Fellow bloggers are encouraged to post a relevant item on their own sites with a link back to hers. Alternatively, readers may leave a comment about sustainability on Jan’s blog. This cyber-event generates so much traffic that several suppliers of gardening products and services are eager to contribute prizes to wining entrants. Yes, there is a contest! To participate in this unique observance, or to read additional thoughtful comments and opinions on the subject, click onto this link.

Preserving the earth and our health is a serious matter. Wherever it is realistic to contribute to sustainability, concerned citizens have been making incremental changes in the ways they conduct their lives. It is surprising how effectively local commerce and communities can rise to the occasion, without assistance from distant federal agencies, where and when there is a consensus among the citizens, that a status quo is no longer acceptable.

In an earnest attempt to preserve our health, our planet and our precious resources, here are a few examples [and there are so many more] of what is being done in some communities in North America:-

  • In order to reduce pollution in the core of the city, municipal officials in Montreal voted to install a bicycle rental program whereby citizens can rent a bike in one part of town, and drop it off at their destination.
  • Massachusetts, along with the states of California and New Mexico, has set targets to reduce carbon emissions. With a program similar to that of Montreal, the municipality of Brookline, Mass. has introduced a car service, using miniature automobiles.
  • There is at least one supermarket chain in North America that has accommodated customers who demand organically grown produce and organically raised cattle and poultry. Those who opt for these foods are the same ones that consume health and beauty aids made with safe ingredients. Decisions are made, about which safe toiletries to buy, only after consulting the Environmental Working Guide website.
  • Some utility providers conserve resources by offering energy at discounted rates outside of peak usage hours. This encourages consumers to run their appliances when energy demands are low.
  • In the Mid West, where water in drought season has become a scarce commodity, some local communities have installed cistern-type collection systems to recycle rain water for irrigation. Here the watering of lawns is regulated through community by-laws. Other home owners are reconsidering the need for resource-hungry lawns altogether. For some, self-sustainable gardens are a viable option.
  • Plants that are invasive and that threaten local ecology have been outlawed in many states.
  • In an attempt to moderate consumption of unhealthy food, New York City banned the use of artery-clogging trans fats and ordered that the caloric value of food be displayed on restaurant menus.
  • Most states ban smoking in public places, both indoors and out, and post signs in rest rooms instructing employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom.
  • In many communities, homeowners have been legislated into re cycling kitchen waste that is later converted into compost, while other refuse is sorted and recycled in order to reduce the size of land fills.
  • An increasing number of gardeners are opting to use organic matter to enrich their soil rather than commercial fertilizers. Also, they are attempting to grow crops for their personal consumption, even on tight little plots in urban areas.

An example, that demonstrates how powerful citizens can be, may be observed in the way that huge, mass market retailers were forced to stop selling milk containing the growth hormone rBST, after female medical problems were reported in girls as young as 8 years old. Usually, too large a number of consumers deliberately disregard publicity about herbicides, pesticides, and other toxic substances found in the products that they use or consume daily. They also tend to ignore the nutritional deficiencies or health risks of certain food products. However, the disturbing side effects of pre-mature puberty in little girls were too serious to ignore and consumers voted with their wallets against purchasing the undesirable milk. That was a rare occasion when the powerful lobbying activities of a chemical company that supplied the growth hormone, were stymied by the actions of a surprisingly well-informed, determined public.

I’m not a big fan of rallies, pickets, protest marches, parades and other boisterous crowd scenes. I suspect that the only benefit from these manifestations is to supply camera crews with fodder for cable news and salaries for the bused-in professional protesters and their organizers. I am also skeptical of the actual net benefits of extreme ranting at the blog level. [Polite ranting is OK :)].

I believe in respectful grass roots initiatives that influence both consumer behavior and the agendas of local officials. Gardeners, farmers, conservationists, and citizens concerned about a large variety of issues that impact our health and our planet need to ensure that their opinions will be heard. In addition to educating the public, and voting with our wallets when we shop, it is important to remain active in our communities to make sure that somebody is listening. Politicians pay attention to their constituents. They also care about the number of bodies that turn out to vote for or against them. In most North American elections, only 35% of the population exercises that precious privilege. For the largest truly democratic continent on earth, that number is too low.


Gardeners and Scientists: - What Can They Do About the Environment, Really?

Each season, more and more people come to realize that our environment and our bodies needs better tending. For most of us, information on these subjects comes from the internet and the media. Very few of us do our own research; we rely mostly upon second-hand information. One would expect that gardeners, farmers, and conservationists to be the best informed on these subjects, by virtue of their connection to the soil and their sensitivity to nuanced environmental changes. But that is not the case.

Many of us, especially those outside of academia, are influenced by information that is anecdotal, that is not always scientifically accurate, or that cannot be easily corroborated. Consequently, there is a weak consensus about the effects that environmental changes and questionable agricultural practices have on the environment and on the health of all living things, including our bodies.

I once asked a scientist-mathematician friend for his opinion about global warming and he replied that he could not formulate one until he examined the data. Without numbers, he said, one cannot know, with any certainty, the extent of climate change and if it requires any action on our part. There was some truth in that because most of the information on that subject had been inferred from observation. Eventually, climatologists mustered up the courage to report that the earth undergoes warming and cooling cycles over time and that perhaps we were experiencing one of the warming cycles. It was also suggested that perhaps human activity was exacerbating this natural phenomenon. However, no reliable, empirical evidence could be supplied for that opinion.

No matter how much we care about the planet, we cannot control the destruction of rain forests in other countries, nor can we regulate world-wide polluters, including those close to home. Furthermore, we are unable to control life-threatening agricultural practices in third world countries, where one is allowed to apply herbicides and pesticides that are toxic to humans, alive or yet unborn. On one hand, there are powerful interests that need to prop up the industrial status quo, which, ironically, helps us sustain an enviable high standard of living. On the other hand there are dedicated scientists who are not yet prepared to connect the dots between environmental issues and health problems, be they real, imagined, false, or hypothesized.

Scientists have an allegiance to the scientific method and the proper journey from observation to conclusion. They cannot climb on the bandwagon of protest because it is morally correct or humanitarian to do so. Not only do they require much more time to discover truth than we are prepared to give them, but also, they risk losing their careers as scientists if they try to whistle-blow prematurely, or to be forthcoming at all. In the meanwhile, they are dismayed to see how people’s emotions, conspiracy theories, and even the convoluted but seductive opinions of scientific charlatans, have created anxiety among the populace. When misinformation is disseminated, it shapes the opinions of some of the most astute among us.

Scientist–journalist, Dr. Joe Schwarcz of McGill University, once informed me that science is tough while hearsay and opinion formulation is easy. Most journalists who write on topics that concern us, subjects for which they usually have no academic credentials, are not willing or are unable to engage in the hard work required to understand the details of science. Science, Dr. Joe pointed out, is in the details and not in the headlines. .

Therefore, without the scientific community’s courageous corroboration, it is unrealistic to expect that organized drum beating will be effective in changing most environmental situations, at least in the near future. For the time being, all that we can do is to take care of our bodies and the environment in our own back yard and hope, optimistically or naively, that one day everyone’s garden will be linked to a national string of safe, eco-friendly mini environments.


About Nature and Michael Pollan's Grandfather

A long time ago, during weekends at the beach, I had the luxury of reading the entire Sunday edition of the New York Times. The Adirondack Park location, where I vacationed, was run by the State of New York which supplied three qualified life guards to survey the swimmers. Since the beach was relatively small, I knew that my children would be carefully watched and that I could take my eyes off them to read and relax.

The fascinating thing about committing oneself to a hefty Sunday paper is that one usually ends up learning about topics that are, otherwise, irrelevant. From time to time, I would discover articles that held no interest for me, yet I found my eyes riveted to their pages simply because they were so well written. When finished, I would return to the opening paragraph to check out the name of the author. Time after time, the name Michael Pollan appeared. Eventually, I learned that anything this journalist wrote deserved to be read - he was that good.

When I first began to read TNYT, it was a balanced, almost scholarly newspaper that dealt with subjects in an even handed manner; it displayed intellectual integrity. With changing times, its high standards slipped to a point where I no longer enjoyed it. In addition, the focus of its magazine articles, which once had a smattering of international appeal, had become too local. Eventually, there was nothing in that paper to motivate me to buy it. Thus began my hiatus from reading articles by my now favorite journalist.

One weekend in June, in the early 90’s, I received as a Father’s Day gift, a copy of Mr Pollan’s first published book, Second Nature. My children believed that I would enjoy it because it was about gardening. Little did they know how excited I was to re connect with a writer whom I admired.  By now, Mr. Pollan had moved on from the New York Times and was about to begin a career that would not only bring him to national prominence but would also reward him with many professional accolades.

The gift that I had received was a collection of essays on gardening, many of which had originally appeared as magazine articles. Even though the flow of the book was a bit disjointed, and the author’s knowledge about gardening, at that time, was less than authoritative, I was drawn into the text by Mr. Pollan’s writing, his humor and the manner in which he personalized his philosophical yet infectious relationship with nature. In many circles, this book became a must read.

The author begins with the role played by his grandfather in inspiring the young grandson to take an interest in gardening. Eventually it moves on to describe how, as an adult, Mr. Pollan reconnected with nature after he moved his family to the Housatonic Valley in Connecticut.

The grandfather had been a successful New York businessman, who enjoyed gardening and gentleman farming on weekends. Now the stereotype of “successful New York businessman “is diametrically opposed to the stereotype of “weekend gardener” because each conjures up cultural images that are contradictory. Juxtaposed against each other, they created reader fascination. Mr Pollan had unintentionally stumbled upon an effective literary device which contributed to making the narrative, of quality time spent with a grandfather, all the more interesting.

During the years that followed, I noticed how the author adopted as his themes, various layers of nature - related topics. Subsequent books, all best sellers include,  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2010); In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008); The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (2001).Today, Mr. Pollan is Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, the director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism, and lectures widely on food, nutrition, agriculture, health and the environment. That is quite a feat for someone whose background is English literature and not medicine or science.

Nevertheless, I am going to always admire Mr. Pollan, not for the essence of his first book or the popularity of the later ones, but for the manner in which he described his relationship with his grandfather. In Second Nature, the discerning reader will notice, stealthily woven into the essay, an invisible thread inferring how much this author loved and admired his grandfather. He never states that out rightly. Yet, it is imbued in every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph that he wrote. I found the inferred affection, of grandson for grandfather, to be so touching that this aspect alone made reading the book a memorable experience.



Gardening Heals

Photo by Brian Peterson for the Star Tribune Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. Click on the image to read their article "Program Seeds a Path to Healing". Gardening makes us feel good. Ask anyone with a green thumb, even those whose bodies ache from weeding, and they will extol the health benefits of this very satisfying hobby. Although we gardeners do not need validation for our commitment to this pastime, it is comforting to read that professionals agree with us. Of course, their language is more academic than our own vernacular, but that does not stop us from appreciating their remarks. 

We should not be offended to learn that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, horticulture was an acceptable form of treatment in mental institutions. By the early 20th century, its therapeutic importance was recognized in the caring of war veterans, the mentally handicapped and at-risk youth. By the middle of the 20th century, healers reached the consensus that horticultural therapy deserved professional status. Today, professionally trained Horticultural Therapists apply their skills for healing, rehabilitation, and training.

Garden therapy has been adapted to almost every kind of medical situation and social service, including Alzheimer’s and autism. Garden related activities have been implemented in schools, hospitals, correction facilities, at-risk-youth and vocational programs. For example  the Langone Medical Center in New York City uses Horticultural Therapy in the departments of Pediatrics, Oncology, Epilepsy, Psychiatry, and in its preschool.

Teresia Hazan is a horticultural therapist at the Legacy Health System in Portland Oregon. From her perspective, there are four main health benefits associated with gardening:-

1] Cognitive Benefits: Gardening can be knowledge building. The mind is stimulated when memory and logic are used and when judgments in the garden are made about numerical quantities or safety. Gardening exercises the attention span and sharpens one’s ability to follow instruction. In addition, horticulture teaches about living things- a learning activity that may also lead to a broader interest in the natural world. Furthermore, acquiring knowledge about the life cycle of plants helps in understanding abstract concepts such as time, change, growth, and death.

2] Physical Benefits: Gardening is good exercise. It challenges the body and gives it a work out. It involves flexibility and movement because the gardener needs to walk, stoop, bend, reach, and maintain balance. Gardening also exercises the upper body, hands, fingers, and arms, and the lower body, especially hips and thigh muscles. For those with no other physical activity in their lives, gardening offers mild to moderate exercise that develops coordination, strength, and stamina. Sensory stimulation is provided by touching, feeling and, smelling. Horticultural activities exercise the eye through visual scanning, by observing near and far, and by increasing awareness of spatial relationships. Selecting appropriate tools for various gardening tasks sharpens problem-solving abilities, as they relate to physical movement. Not to be overlooked are the fundamental corporeal benefits derived from working in the fresh air and sunshine.

3] Social Benefits: As a common interest, shared by many, gardening stimulates social interaction. It improves self-esteem, confidence, and social skills. Communication between gardeners generates the expression of opinions and provides opportunities to embrace opposing points of view in a friendly environment. Communication also stimulates verbalization of descriptions, the ability to ask questions, and the expression of disappointment and happiness. Gardening also helps to develop positive work related attitudes and behavior, and motivates people to work cooperatively.

4]: Psychological Benefits: Gardening provides opportunities for creative self-expression and for relieving tension, aggression, and frustration. The planting cycle promotes an interest in, and a positive enthusiasm for, the future, which helps fight depression. Gardening has the power to lift the spirits of those with little sense of purpose or hope - feelings that may have developed because of isolation, or from loss due to illness, accident, disease, retirement, or death.

Some gardeners admit that they feel misunderstood by those who does not garden. Perhaps this information will empower them to speak with pride about their passionate hobby. Horticulture is good for the heart because it exercises the body; it warms the soul because it is satisfying, and it benefits the community because it helps to rehabilitate the fallen.