Yoga and poetry: A not-so-abridged (haha) version

Random, yoga-high and Mucinex-fueled thoughts and questions after another inspirational teacher training weekend with Matthew Sanford, which was set in snowy Minnesota against the backdrop of a great time spent with friends old and new.

April is national poetry month. I found a new favorite poem in a most unlikely yet perfect place.

Place: Minneapolis.

Atha yoganusasanam. Now begins the exposition of yoga. (Sutra I.1)

If yoga meets you where you are, where are you? More to the point, who are you, and who is with you? Do you know when to fill a space and when to leave it alone? Can you appreciate the gifts of the world’s many places, and the people in it? Know that a moment in time, brief acquaintances ~ especially those that leave a lasting mark, even in an instant ~ can have a ripple effect for the rest of time. Can we try to be good stewards of such gifts and return them?

Motion: On and under the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge.

Yogas citta vrtti …

What are bridges for? Where are you trying to go? What’s ahead, what are you leaving behind, what’s in the middle? What is this particular bridge made of, and why? What is in the space between the steel and pavement? What is in between the steel girders? What is your place on the bridge? What is the bridge between asana and real yoga?


Stillness: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. (Sutra I.2)

Get grounded. Stop. Look. Listen. To yourself, then others. To paraphrase Matthew: Can you sit in the presence of suffering without trying to fix it? Can you listen someone into speech? Can you discern when to move and when to just observe from the inside? Can you come home, to yourself, your body, your spirit, so that you can help others do the same? As a teacher, do you know that how you show up is part of what you are teaching?

Like yoga, poetry can live anywhere. It’s like the new-car phenomenon, if your antennae are up. While in Minneapolis last week, I found a poem on the inner overhead beams of a footbridge across a major highway. I’d probably read about it in my guidebook, but I didn’t make a point to find it. I’d budgeted a free tourist day before settling in for what I knew would be a weekend of intense teacher training in adaptive yoga with Matthew and the staff and students of Mind Body Solutions. I was staying with a friend I’d met in Costa Rica when I was a 16-year-old exchange student. I’d not seen him in 29 years, nor had I met his lovely wife. Their open-ended hospitality was truly the cherry on the cake of my weekend. They showed me around the “water city” and beyond, giving me glimpses of the ice-covered Chain of Lakes and stately surrounding neighborhoods, the old mills downtown and many of the bridges that cross the Mississippi, and St. Paul and their old neighborhood. This was my first trip to Minnesota, but I hope it’s not my last.

I’d decided to check out the Walker Art Center. On a snowy Thursday morning, I made my way across Loring Park. I asked the only other person I encountered if he could point out the gallery in the gray mist. He told me to take the bridge. I took my time walking along the slippery wood and taking in the view. As I got about halfway across, I noticed words up inside the high beams, the carved all-caps letters a dull gold. I realized I was catching the middle of something, so I walked to the end of the span to find the beginning. (The poem also runs down the other side of the bridge, in the other direction.) There was no title. Simply the first line:

“And now I cannot remember” …

I followed these words of John Ashbery ~ which were commissioned for the bridge project in 1988 ~ and photographed them. Honestly, finding this poem was worth my whole trek out that day. It was more stimulating and satisfying than anything I saw at the Walker (sorry, no offense to those artists). The poem set the stage for the yoga workshop, and for any journey. After crossing the bridge (over and back), spending a second weekend with Matthew and bridging a link to my teenage years, I am still trying to make some sense of it all. But it’s okay to just let it all be, for now, as well.

“… how I would have had it.”

Does it matter? You can make a plan, outline a vacation, build a class sequence, but in the end, you have to show up for Now, for whoever else shows up and whatever occurs. But in yoga, at least, the practice is the preparation. Embodying the poses and all the other stuff leads to responsive improvisation. I hope. And in Iyengar yoga, through props and adjustments, we learn and teach how to create and use correct memory: how to feel the energy of a pose ~ not necessarily the shape ~ and re-create it for ourselves and others. As Matthew so poetically illustrates, we create and explore boundaries and containment not to restrict per se, but to ground, extend and expand more fully into who we already are. Not to become anyone else. In his words: We give adjustments to reveal, not to fix.

“It is not a conduit (confluence?)
but a place.”

A conduit is a channel throw which something flows ~ water, motion, knowledge. And the space we try to reveal and explore in yoga “is the conduit of the inner body,” Matthew said. A confluence is a junction, where two things come together. Yoga. Yoke. Union. The body is the ultimate channel through which to practice achieving a confluence with the mind, and teachers are also conduits. Yet, as Matthew said, knowledge is not the answer for everything. Don’t just throw your knowledge around, he said ~ that’s just information; “meet me spine to spine,” with confidence, not overcompensation. Have you ever sat with someone, spine to spine? Try it in sukhasana or dandasana. Or just sit back to back; you don’t have to call it a yoga pose. Know that you can have someone else’s back, and that that person can have yours. We can be conduits for confluence.

The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge (any bridge) is neither just a conduit nor a confluence; it’s both, and as those two aspects come together, it becomes something else entirely, transformed. Conduit + Confluence = Passage.

Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge
(image “borrowed” from the Walker Web site)

Funny how the bridge looks like a spine doing cat-cow, incorporating the energies of flexion and extension. One half, the suspension part, is bowed like cow pose, or the backbend of dhanurasana. The other half, the arch, is rounded like cat or balasana, child’s pose (and both look like bridge pose, depending on your point of view). The suspension part is painted yellow ~ sunny. The arch is a pale sky blue ~ more sedate. The two halves are yoked and supported underneath by a trestle and beams. A little Googling shows that the designer of the bridge, Iranian-born Siah Armajani, intends through his pieces to “reflect the ideals of a democratic society and to foster discourse and learning in the communities they inhabit.” The footbridge connects Loring Park to the Walker’s sculpture garden (home of the famous cherry and spoon sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, in which the spoon serves as a bridge across a pond).

The Walker bio of Armajani says that he has explored bridges as a metaphor for passage in much of his work. It’s interesting that he’s an immigrant: I wonder if he feels or has felt any of the sense of dislocation common to people who are or just feel out of place, who have voluntarily or not willingly left their home, their bodies, who have sustained trauma of any kind? How do we heal? Where do immigrants find a home? Where do those of us with chronic wanderlust in our DNA find home? There is this from a 2010 Star Tribune article: “Asked if [Armajani] felt himself to be in exile, even after half a century in an adopted country he deeply loves, he said, simply: ‘Right.’ ”

On the first afternoon of the teacher training workshop, as we settled into a passive chest opener after introducing ourselves, Matthew asked us to consider: Who or what ~ or even a period in our life ~ are we trying to heal? After we came out of this restorative pose, we got into groups of two and shared our answers. Have you ever told a deep, painful truth to a total stranger? It’s amazing what people may share when they feel safe.

“The place of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement
is new.”

 “Allow for a new truth,” Matthew said during the Raleigh workshop I attended in October. “Go into the silence.” In his memoir “Waking,” (What’s that? You haven’t read it? Do it now!!!) he talks about healing stories ~ those that harm and conceal truth, and those that help or heal. Through his traumatic injury (he was paralyzed in a car accident at 13 in which his father and sister were killed) and intensely painful recovery, he figured out a way to make his life stories new, and he encourages others to do the same. Trauma, whether physical or psychic, causes a profound mind-body disconnection; to try to heal, we search for the bridges back to wholeness. Adaptive yoga (and all yoga) aims to meet people where they are, in the bodies they have. Matthew said that he once had a transformative moment while studying with senior Iyengar teacher Manouso Manos. Matthew asked Manouso how he’d known what to tell him to do in a certain pose. Matthew said Manouso’s answer was: I don’t know. Just let it be different. You don’t always know why an adjustment works. At the close of the workshop last weekend, Matthew made that point again, knowing that for a lot of us, he is turning yoga inside out and spinning it on its head (no pun intended). “Be strong enough to let it be different.” It = everything. Your experience of yoga as a student or teacher. Life. Let go of stories that aren’t working. Find new ones.

“Driving us to say what we are thinking.”

Words are nice, but communication takes many forms. A touch, a look, attentive listening. (Was Ashbery punning on “driving”? I wondered as cars rushed below me while I read his words.) And thoughts are just thoughts. They can be changed. The brain loves itself, Matthew said in October, and is parasitic to the spine. One of my new year’s resolutions was to try more to live in the pause, in the space between thinking and doing. That is a practice, too.

“It is so much like a beach after all, where you stand
and think of going no further.
And it is good when you get to no further.
It is like a reason that picks you up and
places you where you always wanted to be.”

On that bridge, in the moment of reading these words, it felt as if I was where I’d always wanted to be. The moment found me, not vice versa. And how interesting to think of “no further” ~ the middle of the bridge ~ itself as a place, a destination, although the Walker was my ultimate destination. And, oh, beaches. The home deep inside me is a beach. This is possibly partly a result of early childhood experiences in Florida, but being around water always makes me happy, or at least calm. In my geographic ignorance, I was surprised by how much water is around Minneapolis, not just the Mississippi but the lakes, so many lakes. In this most recent workshop, one of the MBS teachers described a restorative pose using water as a metaphor. Before the 35 or so of us trainees did the pose, we watched how the adaptive students ~ paralyzed or otherwise living with limited mobility ~ were being set up in a variation of viparita karani, with calves on a chair instead of up the wall. Props abounded ~ a belt around the chair seat and calves, a sandbag on the shins, a low block under the sacrum ~ such that the body was set up like a cascading waterfall from feet to head.

“This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.”

Fair. What an interesting choice of words. What’s fair? Does the poet mean that it is just, an earned thing, to be crossing, or that conditions are fair for crossing? What’s on the other side of the crossing? Are you even allowed to expect anything? Who knows. Yourself? That’s pretty much all you can count on, although sometimes, even that seems doubtful. Before going to Costa Rica as an exchange student with the American Field Service in 1984, I went through a pretty thorough interview and orientation process. I remember being told in so many words not to forget that, as the cliché goes, wherever you go, there you are. The point was that we were being warned not to take the experience of leaving the country as a way to escape any problems we might be having at home, because they would just come with us. This was far from my personal situation, but I did know of at least one person for whom this turned out to be true, and he went home early. All these years later, I know it’s true: You have to work out your own stuff first to be clear about what you are trying to share with others and certainly to try to avoid inflicting the worst of it on anyone else.

There is no promise on the other side. But if you don’t cross, you’ll never know. As Matthew said as we began on Friday: “Trust what you feel in your body. Don’t be afraid of your heart.” Through the practice of yoga ~ and it is a practice, not a destination ~ we work, as Matthew said in October, to get our bodies “congruent with the corridor.”

“Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
small panacea and lucky for us.”

Steel and air, heavy and light. Ground to expand. Make more space for the breath. A mottled presence, full of dualities. A suspension and an arch, grounded by a base of beams. Yet: Small panacea ~ can a cure-all really be small? Don’t be fooled into thinking there is even a cure-all for anything, although yoga offers plenty of questions and answers. And lucky for us, because otherwise: What’s the point? We are lucky to be offered crossings. Do we dare take them?

While I was in the corridor contained by the ribs and fascia of the bridge, I felt safe and exposed at the same time. Raw and warm. Comforted by the stirring words and a sense of adventure, yet a little woozy from being held over fast-moving traffic. Stilled yet moving in place, vibrating and feeling a certain hum. Two days later, I felt a blessed hum and a joyous release during a partner-assisted Warrior II. We worked in pairs, using our hands to gently support the undersides of our partner’s extended upper arms. Zing. As I felt the work dissipating in my triceps, my shoulders softened, my legs kicked in and relaxed at the same time. I felt more supported throughout my whole body, tingly pins and needles spreading up through my spine and out through my fingertips and the crown of my head. Such a simple pose with a profound adjustment. When I gave the adjustment, I could feel my partner’s shoulders relax. I don’t know if she felt the rest of what I felt. But imagine trying to feel a hum ~ or anything ~ if you are paralyzed and can’t “feel” your legs.

“Hum” was the word that Tiffiny Carlson, one of the MBS adaptive students (who has a fabulous blog at, used to describe what she feels when she grounds her feet ~ on her wheelchair footrest, or the floor or blocks. She is paralyzed from the upper chest down and can’t “feel” her legs.

“And then it got very cool.”

Such a funny way to end this poem, almost as abruptly as it began. As if the poet is saying, I’m done now. I’ve led you over the bridge; it’s time for you to get off. And cool? It was freezing ~ literally about 32 degrees, April 11, 2013. When I had finished with the poem, fingers nearly numb from gloveless photo-taking, I went down the steps and into the Walker garden, taking some snaps of the cherry sculpture before heading into the gallery and quiet warmth. Speaking of dualities, I love how the blood-red cherry suggests a luscious and sweet, juicy kind of warmth, quite out of reach; the steel spoon, a cold and impersonal utilitarianism. (All sorts of puns and cliches came to mind as I walked around the sculpture. I’m sure you’ll be glad I’ve kept them to myself.)

“Spoonbridge and Cherry” by Claes Oldenburg
(Walker sculpture garden, Minneapolis)

Matthew encourages us to teach the inner experience of a pose, to translate its energy for people who can’t move in traditional ways. (This method of course applies to able-bodied folks, but there are very real and important distinctions and differences between the two populations.)

Poetry also aims to translate what exists beyond words. And, perhaps like poetry and all art, yoga, as Matthew said, is not taught so much as it is shared. He said he suspected that Patanjali, the sage of the sutras, felt the wordless truth first and then found a way to try to convey it. In that sense, poetry and yoga both live close to the bone, our marrow.

For a few years, maybe forever, I have, in Rilke’s words, been trying to live with questions for which there may never be answers. In October and again last weekend, Matthew quoted from Galway Kinnell’s fantastic poem “Wait”:

 Trust the hours. Haven’t they carried you everywhere, up to now?”

I thank Matthew, the MBS staff and students, my fellow teachers and my Minneapolis hosts, Olman and Faith, for a spectacular and humbling experience. Words cannot pay what I owe, so I will borrow these from Rumi:

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

I made a collage of my photos of the Ashbery poem. And you can listen to the poet read it here:


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