Home » Eco-Farming Index » Why Mindfulness is Essential for Farmers and Their Health

Why Mindfulness is Essential for Farmers and Their Health

By Andrew French

Farming is tough on the body, and it can also take a toll on the mind. I’ve been a farmer for over six years now and not once has the job been less than physically and emotionally demanding. Before pursuing farming as my chosen career, I worked in a number of professions that exacted their own price from my body, including landscaping and cooking in professional kitchens. None of these jobs came close to matching the exhaustion I’ve felt after a hard day on the farm.

As farmers we face weather extremes, deadlines, unforeseen calamities and a variety of demands on our minds, bodies and bank accounts. Our backs are literally the backbone of our business, and we depend on our shoulders, arms and hands to accomplish our endless to-do lists. We wear through our boots like they were made of paper, and sometimes we get covered in manure. There is a reason that farming is considered one of the most dangerous jobs alongside the ranks of loggers, fishermen and pilots, and that is because we work with and around hazardous things day in and day out. We work days that can stretch far into the nights regardless of the conditions outside. To sum it up, farming can wear a person down, fast.

Farmer lifting hay bale
Farming is tough on the body. Our backs are literally the backbone of our business, and we depend on our shoulders, arms and hands to accomplish our endless to-do lists.

In my twenties I took the health and healing power of my body for granted. It could handle just about anything I threw at it and bounce right back. As I grew older I realized that the time spent bouncing back was growing longer. No matter your health or age, that one time you twist wrong or lift a bucket carelessly or injure an ankle stumbling over a rock can have a huge impact on your day, week, or even year. I’ve found that there is really no surefire way to avoid these accidents, but there is one mental practice that can minimize the frequency of their occurrence.

If you picture a whole farmer health regimen as a stone arch, mindfulness is the keystone that holds it all together. On one side, the arch is made up of our physical practices such as diet and exercise, and on the other side are mental practices such as education and bookkeeping. Mindfulness helps keep us in the moment, focused on what is needed in the present. I have been meditating off and on for more than 20 years, and it always seems to help balance out my perspective, which can sometimes become weighted toward a pessimistic outlook.

Meditation can take as little as five minutes to as long as multiple days. When I became a farmer I seemed to lose the ability to set aside time for meditation on any given day, in part because of the demands placed on any business owner, but specifically because days spent working on the farm were long and tiring, and instead of meditating for relaxation I would rather zone out and read a book or watch YouTube clips. Being honest with myself, I realized that I was not going to meditate or exercise in my downtime if there were distractions around me. I decided that the best action I could take was to find a meditation or yoga class in my area in order to force me to do the things I knew I needed.

My friend and neighbor Tracy Hovde is a professional yoga instructor and part-time farmer with her partner, Mark Triebold. They run Lazy I Ranch, raising cattle on 80 acres just a few miles down the road from my farm. Mark bought the property 10 years ago and started raising Highland cattle six years ago. Tracy brings her yogic perspective to raising their cattle.

Tracy Hovde helps farmer health
Tracy Hovde and Mark Triebold raise Highland cattle on 80 acres of land at Lazy I Ranch.

So what is yoga? It isn’t really necessary to understand the whole history of the practice, but essentially it is a method of working with the mind, body and spirit to bring about balance. As a Zen student I have worked within my mind realm for quite some time, but the beauty of the yogic approach is that it acknowledges that the mind, body and spirit are all intertwined. It doesn’t matter so much to the lay practitioner that yoga was created in fifth and sixth century India by groups of spiritual ascetics, but it does matter how it can make you feel. The word yoga means to “yoke together” or “unite,” and after a yoga session led by Tracy, I feel that my scattered thoughts are quieted and my nerves are soothed.

Before taking her classes, my previous experience with yoga was pretty limited. I had attended a few yoga classes when I lived in the Twin Cities, and I’ve been learning poses and techniques from books for quite a few years.

When Tracy told me and my neighbor friends that she was going to start to hold a yoga class in their barn on Sundays, we were all on board. The hardest part of any endeavor is to get it started. Initially for me it was difficult to get my joints to bend into the correct yoga pose positions, but after a few months of regular practice I began to feel more comfortable in the classes.

Farmers doing yoga in a barn
Tracy Hovde teaches yoga classes in her barn at Lazy I Ranch in Clayton, Wisconsin.

Now, if I go for too long without attending one of Tracy’s classes my muscles are tight, my bones are unaligned, and I feel full of unresolved tension. It helps that Tracy is a gifted teacher with an intuitive grasp of the energy in a room, as well as the ability to guide that energy into balance. Friends of mine who attend other yoga studios have mentioned that Tracy takes it slow with us farmer folk, which makes sense if you consider that our bodies are already sore from our daily work, whereas in a typical city studio you may have students who are seeking a strenuous physical workout to offset sedentary lifestyles.

I spoke to Tracy in September 2016 about her thoughts on how farmers can keep their bodies and minds healthy and what it is like to raise cattle and practice yoga in the countryside:

What led you to practice yoga, and what does yoga mean to you?

Like most people, I started yoga for purely physical reasons. I started a regular yoga practice when I was a dancer. The physical demands of dancing were extreme, and I wasn’t taking good care of myself. I was burned out and was constantly injured.

I found that the Vinyasa classes offered at the gym I worked at as a massage therapist satisfied my need to move, and did so in a way that didn’t strain my body. Now yoga is less about the postures and more about the way I live, the way I view the world around me and my place in it.

When you teach a yoga class, what are your goals, and how do you work toward them?

My goal is always to bring balance. I never know what that means until my students walk into the room and I see how they are walking, their mood, what are they talking about, their energy level, etc. I also factor in things like season, weather and time of day. I use different breathing exercises (Pranayama), poses and specific sequencing of poses, as well as different styles of yoga to help shift their energy toward balance.

yoga for farmers

How did it come about that you live on a farm with Highland cattle and Mark, a motorcycle mechanic?

On the surface we might seem very different but Mark could not be any more perfect for me and, I hope, me for him. We think enough alike to be able to be partners, but we see things from a perspective different enough to be able to complement each other.

When I met Mark I knew as much about farming and motorcycles as he knew about yoga, but really those things have more in common than you would think.

What does it mean to you to live in the country on a piece of land caring for animals and plants?

That’s hard to explain because I’m still figuring it out for myself. In a way it’s like I’m learning who I really am without the noise and outside influences that I had been surrounded by most of my life. Out here there is no one to tell me who I am supposed to be or what I should do or think. Things just become simpler and clearer when your world is full of nature and life instead of media and electronics. It is all very grounding, especially the cows.

Did you ever picture yourself living on a farm with livestock?

Nope, I couldn’t even have imagined it. I grew up in the suburbs and my only farm experience was spending the day at my sister’s place a few times a year on holidays. She had horses, but I never really understood or experienced farm life until I moved here.

Highland cows
Several of Tracy Hovde’s Highland cows

I know a lot of yogis are vegetarian or vegan, many for ethical reasons, so how do you explain to them your stance on eating meat?

I could talk about this for days! There are so many reasons, but from a yogic perspective I have to look at the big picture without judgment, criticism or expectation. The reason many yogis are vegetarian or vegan is the concept of ahimsa (non-harming). This is one of the foundational principles of a yogic lifestyle.

My personal belief is that interpreting ahimsa as vegetarianism is a narrow or limited perspective. In yoga philosophy we have layers to our existence. In a yogic view your body is a vehicle for the spirit. We use the body but we are not the body. The physical body is called anamayakosha. This literally means “food body.” Every living thing — from plants to insects to animals to humans — is food for something else, and every living thing has a purpose to fulfill in this existence — or dharma.

So, if I look at the big picture without judgment or expectation I see that death is a necessary part of life and that living things, in their physical death, nourish other living things. I see that animals eating other animals is a part of the natural balance of life as a whole. For me, the practice of ahimsa is to think about minimizing the harm that I do to the whole and to live in a way that is in balance with all.

On our farm, we raise the animals in a way that we believe honors their nature and that their lives contribute to more than just meat on our table. Our cattle have restored land that had been farmed to death through generations of conventional farming. Their hooves till the land, their grazing encourages growth of the pasture grasses and their manure fertilizes the pastures. Something else that is very important to us is how the animals are harvested. Bringing an animal to an approved slaughter facility would mean taking an animal that had lived its entire life on our farm, herding it onto a trailer and bringing it to a slaughter house. Regardless of the humane treatment we provide in its life, ending the animal’s life in this way would, in our view, be traumatic and inhumane. The stress hormones would affect the quality of the meat and from the yogic view, would be energetically damaging as well. If you are what you eat, then you would be eating stress and fear. We do not “ship” animals for processing. We have the butcher come to our farm so the animals don’t have to experience that stress.

In terms of diet, what eating habits have you found to be most beneficial for your own health and why?

I have tried everything including gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarianism and veganism. I think the biggest benefits for me have come from the nutrient value of the food I am eating now. I get most of my produce from Ken Keppers. He is more than organic. He pays attention to the chemistry of the soil, and therefore, the chemistry of the produce equals a higher nutrient content. All of the meat I eat comes from our farm, yours, or other local farms where I know how the animals are raised.

Beyond nutritional value, I believe that food carries with it a more subtle energy that comes from the land it is grown or raised on and the care taken in raising or growing, harvesting and preparing it. And lard! Good quality lard is the best!

Why and how did you decide to start the yoga in the barn sessions?

I remember standing on the front porch of the house on a cold January day looking at the barn. Mark said, “That would make a pretty good yoga studio.” I thought he was nuts. Who would come all the way out here for yoga? I was thinking about my students in Stillwater and Hudson — an hour away. What I didn’t realize was that there were people out here in the country who wanted yoga but didn’t want to go all the way to Stillwater or Hudson.

yoga in a barn

Farmers have pretty specific issues with their bodies. What are some issues that you have seen and ways to address them with yoga?

Farmers are very physically active, and we have all types of movement. We have the repetitive movements of daily tasks like weeding, milking, or hauling feed or water, and we also have occasional movements related to seasonal tasks like baling hay or moving fences. As a general rule, I lean toward a slow and gentle approach and avoid strenuous forms of yoga like Ashtanga or other Vinyasa styles that are great for those with a sedentary life but can be depleting for farmers who are already physically stressed. I also spend more time on back bending, chest opening and hip opening to counter-pose the forward motions of carrying and bending that we farmers do all day.

If you could lead one short yoga session each morning or night for farmers, what would it be?

This is great because people think they need to do a 60-minute yoga class. This is so untrue. There is so much benefit from adding a breathing exercise or a few poses wherever you can fit them in. In the morning Agni Sara breathing followed by 5-10 Sun Salutations every morning is the perfect way to start the day. Agni sara stokes the internal fire. This can be done in the shower, when you first get out of bed, whatever. (Needs to be done on an empty stomach, and do not do this during pregnancy or if you have high blood pressure.)

  • Start by balancing your breath — four counts in and four counts out.
  • When breath is balanced and steady, switch to four counts in eight counts out.
  • Then add a pause after exhale — four counts in, eight counts out. Hold four to eight counts.
  • During the pause, draw your navel back toward your spine and up under your ribs (think of hollowing rather than contracting).

Sun Salutations

Sun Salutations encourage deep breathing, improve mental focus and increase circulation and range of movement for all of the major joints in the body. I would end the day with the following

  1. One slow Sun Salutation
  2. Alternating cat/cow poses
  3. Child’s pose
  4. Child’s pose with side stretch
  5. One half pigeon
  6. Windshield wiper stretch
  7. Supported bridge
  8. Legs up wall
  9. Reclining twist
  10. Relaxation pose
  11. Alternate nostril breathing

What do you see as the relationship between yoga and natural farming techniques such as organic, permaculture andholistic management?

There is a very innate, natural relationship here. The word yoga means “union.” Our culture has embraced yoga as a physical exercise but the history of yoga is a more complete lifestyle and spiritual practice. The postures are just a step toward finding union — with nature, God, the Universe, whatever. Anyone who is living a life in union with nature is practicing yoga.

Andrew French is a livestock farmer and permaculture designer based in western Wisconsin working on developing a viable model of regenerative pig farming from farrow to finish using a whole systems design approach. He can be reached at fullboarfarm@gmail.com. Visit fullboarfarm.com for more information. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.