Lessons from the dirt


I was the student who wouldn’t leave

I met Myra back in the late 90s on Maui. When I first saw her do asana, some kind of switch flipped in my mind. I knew that I had to learn from this person. She had clearly figured something out. So I kept showing up on her doorstep, asking if I could help around the house or in the garden, hoping to absorb some of her wisdom - her connection to the magic of life.

Myra kindly let me hang around and I began to learn things. She taught me about the principles of Ayurveda. She taught me about Agni, my digestive fire, and how taking care of it was pretty much the most important thing I could do. I understood what she said intellectually. It made sense. Ayurveda is based in nature, and I adore being in nature (I was basically raised by dogs in the woods).

But I didn’t really get it until I experienced the principles of Ayurveda as a farmer.

As it turns out, dirt was one of my greatest teachers. Tending soil taught me everything about balance.... about how what I put into my body will either take me towards balance or away from it.

So I share with you my 5 key lessons from the dirt, from my years of trial and error with growing and nurturing

1. The gut of the garden: proper digestion requires a balanced environment

Soil is a complex living organism embodying many systems. When it is healthy, soil is a fragrant home to a diverse community of flora and fauna. It provides their nutrition as well as their communication network. Soil constantly regenerates, it reproduces and even grows. And like us humans, it possesses agni, digestive fire.

Soil with imbalances eventually loses its ability to sustain life and becomes inert (smiling, I note this is another trait shared with humans). In order to have good health, soil needs a natural balance of moisture and microbiology - teeny tiny creatures like bacteria, virus, and fungus. When this balance is disturbed, meaning something becomes overly dominant or something is absent, the nutrients plants need are not available to them in forms they can assimilate, even with the addition of the best fertilizers.

The same holds true for our human gut health. Poor eating and emotions will disturb the microbiome of our digestive tract and weaken agni, impairing our body’s ability to utilize the nutritional value in our food. So even when a person is eating the very best food, if agni is weak it doesn’t matter. It won’t be digested properly.

Myra and I, plus a team of staff and students created and tended three farms in Hawaii. We repeatedly transformed an expanse of hard, poisoned (from chemical farming), dead, red dirt into a fertile oasis in a short period of time.

I think this is akin to reversing a long-standing medical diagnosis – totally possible. It just comes down to learning to view everything holistically so the cause of imbalances can be eliminated.

2. Quick fixes lead to fungus among us

Let me tell you a little something about fungus. It’s the little bugger that seems most eager to take over in a soil system. I learned this when we were trying to revive some depleted soil. We added a natural homemade remedy but we found out it was too sugary for the soil because all of a sudden we started having fungal issues with the veggies. Virus and fungus populations explode when fed sugar. To balance the fungus, we then applied a beneficial bacteria. This worked to remedy the fungal diseases but it caused other issues. Trying to just fix symptoms is a bit like the fable of the old woman who swallowed the fly. One remedy would lead to imbalance which would require another remedy and on it went.

 So I gave up on the notion of using concentrated inputs to fast-track our way to finished soil and switched to just using compost for the restoration. It was a process, and at first it looked like everything was getting worse and I admit I was tempted to keep trying other things. But we stayed on the simple path and ended up with sustainable, beautifully balanced soil and happy plants.

I see people doing the same kind of thing with supplements, superfoods, and medicinal mushrooms. They’re looking for a magic bullet to make them feel good or fix an issue, which often ends up causing systemic imbalance. Sticking with what’s simple, works.

3. Observe cause and effect: wisdom trumps knowledge

I remember one night at a farmer’s union gathering on Kauai I was presented with a slick and compelling presentation on soil testing from an agricultural scientist at the University of Hawaii. He explained that detailed analysis of vitamin and mineral content that is now possible. Then he showed an example report showing lists of amendments that can be purchased and added to remedy the soil deficiencies that are revealed. He marveled at the contribution this would be making to us farmers. 

Then Ned, the most experienced and successful organic farmer on the island, was invited up to share his thoughts. Ned removed his hat, scratched at his head, and said “well, if I needed to test my soil… I’d plant something in it. If what comes up looks weak, I would check stuff like the sun exposure and irrigation, give the soil some rest, talk kindly to it, and add more compost. Then it always comes right.” He replaced his hat and took his seat.

Now, I doubt If Ned is aware of Ayurveda, but I would call him an expert on the principles. It’s not about what we “know” or collecting data. It’s about direct experience and observing cause and effect.

4. Keep It Simple Silly (KISS)

When I came to Ayurveda I had a host of physical symptoms. One thing I learned was how my intake of sweets and yeast (sourdough) not only whipped my mind into a frenzy but also had created fungal overgrowth in my body. I never had a ” yeast infection” so systemic candida would never have been my guess. But what made all the sense in the world was learning that when it is systemically dominant, fungi can create wicked sugar cravings in their host making them feel crazy. That, I certainly identified with! 

 When I first tried to eliminate sweets, yeast, mushrooms, and molds (like aged cheese and nut butters), I felt even more emotional and some symptoms seemed to crescendo. The fungi fought to stay in charge and then eventually gave up and died off.  

With all the simple tools Myra offered to support my body, mind and spirit, I was eventually able to make it through a candida cleanse. The initial discomfort of dietary and lifestyle changes turned out to be a small price for the freedom from symptoms and cravings I received. But let me assure you that Ayurvedic eating is also scrumptious, honestly, we eat like Gods.

5. We are part of nature

I no longer fall into that old cycle, where the remedy to a symptom only temporarily masks it but then leads to more imbalances and more symptoms to remedy, and so on. Thinking that vitamin supplements, superfoods, a new fitness routine, or the latest scientific discovery would bring me a state of greater wellbeing, instead brought me confusion and an empty wallet. Without any lasting relief from symptoms. 

Ayurveda life does not involve new products and diets, getting tested, or being able to recite a litany of chemical constituents. It is being willing to do simple natural acts consistently over time to support my agni. Things like not snacking between meals, chewing well, keeping a schedule, and sticking with Balance Bowls

I have always felt more alive in a garden or forest - there in the sattva, in the balance. Since being freed to become my own healer I am not afraid, and I am at home in my own skin. Nature knows what she’s doing and will impartially, without exception, return to a state of balance when given the chance. As will my body and mind. I don’t have to understand every detail, I just have to keep seeing things holistically. Meaning not poking at a symptom but rather seeing how each of my choices affects the whole of me.  It’s tempting sometimes to chase the latest fads but I’ve tried enough times to have become wary and weary of it all. Instead, I steward myself like a beloved garden, proving consistent water, sun, rest, good company, and sattvic food. I love the results I get from keeping it simple.

start your healing journey


Agni Therapy

Seeking balance, and a sustainable, natural lifestyle? Join our Agni Therapy program today.

Back to blog