We are all farmers, right? So chances are you have experienced some sort of back pain on occasion, or may even have some constant nagging back pain. It seems like every task on this farm involves some sort of back-wrenching maneuver.
Unfortunately RT and I are part of a particular ASCFG demographic—farmers over fifty who have farmed over 20 years—yikes! (Actually RT will be 60 very soon, but he is much older than I, two years at least.) We farm five acres, producing half a million stems per season. Known for sunflowers, we raise over 15 thousand stems of these “mankillers”. I have never weighed a full bucket of suns but I know they are a hernia in the making, and without some therapeutic yoga and a couple of excellent part-time employees we would never survive the season.
Every time you lift anything over fifteen pounds incorrectly—bending over and lifting rather than squatting and lifting with a straight back—your back and core muscles must strain to accommodate the lift. After hours of bending and cutting, and then a few more hours processing flowers for the cooler, lifting and hauling buckets full of water and flowers, your muscles can swell and become inflamed. Continuous overuse and misuse may actually cause muscles and tendons to begin to fray.
Yogis believe that practicing yoga helps restore the body to its natural state; not exactly the fountain of youth, but it works for us. The following exercises are therapeutic and restorative in nature. They are not meant to build or strengthen the back (that is for another article) but are a way to undo some of the damage a busy flower farmer does each day. I am not a physician so please check with your doctor if you have chronic back pain, diagnosed back issues and/or ruptured or bulging discs. I have listed the exercises in a gentle flow to relax, warm and restore the spine, so to get the full benefit do them in order. You are welcome to pick and choose, find what works for you and your body. All you need are loose clothing, a rug or yoga mat, a chair, and fifteen minutes.
Knees to Chest
Lying flat on a rug or yoga mat, draw your knees up towards the ceiling and, placing your hands on your knees, move your knees in a circular motion. Rotate your knees in both directions, clockwise and counter clockwise. The position of your knees corresponds with your back, so the part of your back that is directly under your knees is the area being “massaged”. During tulip season, RT may pull 500-600 stems a day. He is tall and has to bend over to work in the cramped conditions a greenhouse presents. He is usually leaning over a tulip bed with his back at a 30-degree angle, and even though each pull is not a big thing, after hundreds of repetitions and the little give at the end of each pull, his lower back can seize up. To keep his back in shape he may make a hundred knee circles every day!
Bring your knees towards the ceiling again; now make circles with your knees in opposing direction, circling outwards, like an egg beater. Reverse direction, circling your knees towards each other. Continue as long as needed to relax and unwind your lower back.
For a deeper massage for your lower back, cross your ankles and grab your toes with your peace fingers and make big circles with your knees in both directions. This offers me great relief. I make the deliveries, so I have super active strenuous days on the farm, and then long days sitting and driving. This simple exercise is a lifesaver for me because it works out and massages the muscles connecting my lower lumbar to my glutes.
Bring your knees together, kneecaps towards the ceiling, and gently let your legs fall apart, away from each other, like an open book. You can reach down and rest your hands just below your knees on your shins or thighs and let gravity and the weight of your legs press your back into the mat and gently release your hips. Relax and take ten long, even breaths. This is a passive exercise—let gravity do its thing, just breathe and chillax. Close your eyes and imagine your spine melting into the mat, each vertebra being supported by the floor, and the weight of your legs creating a comfortable opening in your hip joints. If you have had a hip replacement, this one may not be for you. Check with your physician first.
Gently roll on to all fours. Take care to stack your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Take a big breath, and as you exhale begin to arch your back like a big Halloween cat, pushing your spine upwards, and let your head drop naturally. Lift up through your thorax, letting your shoulder blades separate and make space between your blades and spine, push the floor away with your hands. Now inhale and reverse the position. Beginning at your navel, let it drop towards the floor, scooping out your back, begin arching your chest, moving up and out, finally lifting your head and tailbone, and letting your jaw go slack. Move between the two poses with the natural flow of your breath. Do as many as you like. A physical therapist told me this is the most beneficial exercise anyone could do for the back each and every day.
Return to a neutral back, on all fours. Swing your hips to the right, just like you were closing a car door with your hips, and turn your head to the right and look at your hips. Now move back through neutral and swing your hips to the left and look over your left shoulder. Repeat this exercise, flowing with your breath several times.
Crocodile to Cobra
This is another passive exercise to loosen your lower back and gently create flexibility. Take it in steps, listening to your body at each step. If you feel uncomfortable or challenged that is okay, go for the good stretch. If you feel pain, that is the signal to stop immediately.
Crocodile: Lie on your tummy with your arms crossed in front of you, parallel with the front of your mat. Place your chin on your hands and breathe. If this is doable, move on to the next step. If you feel really challenged just hang out here for a few minutes each day until you are ready for the next increment.
Next step, make a fist and rest your chin on it. Stay here for several breaths. If this is doable, let’s move on. Make two fists and stack them upon each other and rest your chin on top of them. Relax here for several breaths and decide if you are ready for the next step.
Place your elbows on the floor and rest your chin in your hands, relax here and evaluate your lower back and thoracic area. If you are not feeling stressed or any pain, gently move your chest forward and up, sliding your hands right under your shoulders to help you balance, look down at the floor in front of you so you do not compromise your neck. Congratulations—you are in cobra! Hold your cobra for three breaths and release to the floor. Rock your hips side to side to release any tension and inhale to cobra three or four more times.
Peanut Butter Jar
Come to a full standing position. Feet right under your hips, tailbone down, shoulders back and away from the ears, chin parallel to the floor—this is mountain pose. Put your hands on your hips and shift your right hip way out to the right, now swing your hips to the back, sticking your bottom out and leaning forward a bit to accommodate and balance. Continue swinging to the left and then shift your hips forward, arching the back for balance. Imagine you are scraping the sides of a giant jar of peanut butter—or nutella—with your body. You’ve got it! Just continue making huge circles with your hips and get all that peanut butter. Then switch directions and get all the rest.
Return to mountain pose, and fold forward at the hips, knees bent, head and neck relaxed, hands dangling down, like a rag doll. Move your hands to your shins or thighs for support and then inhale your knees straight and bring your back up to make a 90-degree angle with your body. Focus your gaze on the floor, keeping your head in line with your spine, and reach the crown of your head forward, elongate your spine and try to make it flat, like a tabletop. Exhale and release to rag doll position. Repeat several times, inhaling and exhaling.
Modified Downward-facing Dog
If you have ever taken a yoga class you’ve done a downward dog or two. It is my favorite pose but it is not for everyone. I have modified it here so you can get the benefits of the stretch in a safer environment since I am not right there with you. You can do it just about anywhere, and believe me, I do!
You can use a chair, a table, or even a tractor, just about anything that is sturdy and secure and the right height for you. (For our photo shoot we used a small stool.) Re-establish mountain pose; standing a few feet behind the chair, place your hands on the chair and back up so you can replicate a 90-degree pose, supporting yourself with your hands on the chair. Stretch and breathe.
If this is comfortable for you and you desire a deeper stretch, back your feet up until the stretch is really satisfying. Keep your head in line with your arms and just stretch. This pose will lengthen your spine and open your chest muscles, releasing your upper back and shoulders. It should feel amazing; if it does not, move forward and work into the pose over time.
Legs on a Chair
Yep, this pose is exactly what you think it is. Return to the mat, lying on your back. Move your buttocks as close to the chair as needed to rest your legs, with bent knees on the chair. You want your knees and legs at a 90-degree angle. Again, just relax and breathe deeply and let gravity and your body do the work. Your body is a miracle and will tell you want it needs. So still yourself and listen for a change.
Move the chair away, or better yet, have your partner/friend/spouse move it for you. Bring your knees up toward the ceiling once again and put the soles of your feet against one another. Now gently lower your feet and legs to the floor, pushing your feet away from your body until you are comfortable. Your feet and legs will make a diamond shape. Relax here and breathe deeply for five to ten minutes in this very restorative pose. If you are tight and feel uncomfortable in this pose, prop your knees up with some rolled-up towels or pillows. Close your eyes and imagine your spine melting into the mat, relax, and just breathe.
Artist Jeriann Sabin
Artist Jeriann Sabin is co-owner of Bindweed Farms in Blackfoot, Idaho. Contact her at [email protected]