I knelt in the damp grass, one hand wrapped around a tiny radish plant, the other gently coaxing clods of soil from its delicate roots. I felt the satisfaction and peace of feeling grounded in the most immediate sense—earth surrounding me, in my hands and in between my toes, the scent of greenery all around and lush, leafy abundance everywhere I looked. “Ahh,” I paused. Bliss. And then, a very fleshy toad leapt straight for my face.
Even as a farmer’s granddaughter, I had to engage a few deep yogic breaths to stifle my scream. Kelly looked over and smiled. “Hey, big guy,” she said to the toad, “Sorry to bother you.” Kelly Stern is the co-founder of Yogarden, and she is next-level cool.
An organic farmer, vegan chef, world traveler, yoga teacher and trainer, Kelly doesn’t fret the many hats she wears. “It’s all connected,” she explains with a smile, “Like life, you know? It really is that simple.” She quickly adds, “But it’s not easy.”
“Well, not always.” She smiles again.
The deep wisdom—yet lightness —behind Kelly’s words are just the beginning of the lessons I learned this day at the farm. It’s Thursday, which means volunteer day at Yogarden: an open invitation for the community to come and learn and get their hands dirty. Yogarden represents a beautiful piece of land in the back roads of Waimānalo, cultivated by co-founders Kelly Stern and Paul Izak.
While I recover from my toad encounter, Paul drops more knowledge bombs. O’ahu-born and -raised, Paul is a popular musician, songwriter, yogi, organic farmer, and natural teacher. “We make all the soil ourselves. That over there,” he gestures to a towering pile of rich brown compost, “is like gold.” I know nothing about making compost and Paul gladly shares his knowledge.
The pile before my eyes was home to billions and billions of micro-organisms that break down and transform the decomposing material in what he called “the mix.” Paul uses a bobcat to turn the huge mound, and as the mix gets hot, the pile gradually becomes nutrient-rich compost. “You can’t rush it,” Paul says, “There are so many variables: heat, moisture, beneficial microorganisms, what’s in the mix, and what’s not. You can kind of control it, but each mix has its own process.”
The yoga of composting: Be present. Notice. Don’t rush. Observe what is before you. Like compost, we as organic beings work through our experiences to become new versions of ourselves, all in our own time.
In 2008, Paul started having dreams about partnering with Kelly to create community gatherings centered around their three loves: yoga, gardening, and music. In true, unhurried, organic fashion, they grew their vision naturally in various spaces over the years, including an old bowling alley, a rooftop yoga studio, and Paul’s grandmother’s home in Kāne‘ohe. In 2010, the first Yogarden Music Gathering was born. After many successful independent events, the two met Sean Anderson, owner of Green Rows Farm, also in Waimānalo. Sean offered his space for Yogarden’s unique offerings, and these Windward farmers have collaborated ever since.
Shared purpose and kinship sparkle in everyone’s eyes at today’s volunteer day. Students from a neighboring community center, an adorable mom-and-keiki team and a group of Lululemon employees trek to the chicken coop together. We all help carry five-gallon buckets of odd-sized radishes and other garden dross. Kelly calls out to the feathered “ladies” by name (Sassy and Brownie were this writer’s favorites) and directs the volunteers where to empty their buckets.
“The chickens eat better than we do,” Paul laughs. “They get the old produce and food scraps from local businesses. It’ll be bruised or damaged somehow and so they can’t sell it. Sometimes, I think, ‘Hey! That stuff is still good for me.’”
With that thought, I pluck a squiggly-shaped radish from my bucket. I wash and wipe it clean, and it’s gorgeous. I take a tentative bite. Peppery. Very crisp. A little tart and yet a little sweet. It’s just perfect. These chickens do have it good.
Paul explains the harvest, the variety of their produce sold at the Kailua Farmers Market, and about the restaurants that receive Yogarden’s bounty of organic turmeric. “[You get to] watch the evolution of life as you harvest a fruit or vegetable, watch it break down and compost, and then it turns back into soil where that seed can be planted again and the cycle continues.”
Boom. More wisdom. With the radish in my mouth and soil in my fingernails, I feel life lessons take root in my heart.
The yoga of harvest: Things grow, things die, things grow again. Perfection doesn’t have to look perfect. This moment is beautiful because it is temporary. Enjoy it. Trust in the miracle of life.
The previous holder of the property didn’t farm the ground. In fact, the land was completely covered with crushed gravel, effectively making it more challenging to till the earth beneath. The major task on this volunteer day was combining Yogarden’s no-till, compost-filled garden beds to make them larger and easier to maintain.
This wasn’t the first time Paul and Kelly had encountered adversity and responded with grace. We didn’t talk about the paths they decided not to take, but they both assured me that their journey had not been without struggle. Each evolution of Yogarden led them to the beautiful farm surrounding us now, and they hope for even bigger things in the future.
Kelly and Paul envision a larger space to offer bigger festivals to the community. With an expanded space and larger reach, they plan to continue inspiring healthy lifestyles with the foundation of Yogarden’s trinity: yoga, music, and sustainable farming practices through education.
Paul also intends to make enough compost to distribute beyond Yogarden, sharing the lovingly cultivated mix with other farmers.
“It’s about intention,” says Kelly. “With focus and intention, we create a full and rich life that is in harmony with ourselves and our surrounding.” New seeds laid in the fertile soil here—soil which starts as rotting material— thrive from the nutrient-dense earth, and figuratively blossom from great intentions.
But in all things beautiful, a little unsavory can enhance the outcome, too.
Because it’s the “shit” in life—and in the soil—that makes things better.
“Can I say ‘shit’?” Kelly asks. “Because there is literal shit in the compost, and it just makes the mix richer.”
“Kind of like how the shit I’ve been through can help others?” I offer. Kelly smiles broadly. “We can all help each other, and we can all use the help,” she says.
The yoga of planting: sow your seeds with care. Set the intention to cultivate prosperity. Cultivate self, and cultivate community. There is unity in all things, as we all come from the same earth.
Yogarden’s weekly volunteer day is every Thursday from 9:00am to 12:00pm. Participation is free and all ages and abilities are welcome.
By Stephanie Keiko Kong
Stephanie Keiko Kong, E-RYT 200, teaches yoga in India, Japan, Australia and the US. Born and raised in Wahiawa, Hawaii, she would
love to meet your mom.
Catch Stephanie moonlighting as a featured actor with the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival.