When words fail us, there’s poetry

My nine surya namaskars for Day 27 of the Kiss My Asana yogathon for Mind Body Solutions are dedicated to poetry. The fundraiser for adaptive yoga ends April 30, and although my fundraising goal of $1,000 has been exceeded, more is always welcome. Read more about why here.

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Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. ~ Robert Frost

I knew that Purna Yoga was truly the path for me when I discovered that we study poetry. Poetry, as Robert Frost alludes to, comes from the unspeakable, as does yoga ~ from a deep inner silence that hums, from the soul’s yearning for answers and to be heard ~ a yearning that is also at home with the mystery of the unanswerable. Poetry is the art of expressing the inexpressible.

In other words, when words fail us, there’s poetry.

The Mind Body Solutions yogathon has been taking place throughout April, which also happens to be National Poetry Month, courtesy of the Academy of American Poets. How did T.S. Eliot ever think it was the “cruellest month”? (Actually, dissertations have probably been written on that, but never mind.)

It seems fitting to dedicate a day of the yogathon to poetry, especially a day near the end of it. I can look back on how the sun salutations have gotten more fluid and rhythmic with repetitions yet how they can be fresh each time, like a favorite poem, especially if I slow down. If my mind wanders and I lose track of which leg I’m on or which number I’m on, I start fresh with the next round, much as I might reread a line or a verse in a dense poem.

I’ve often turned to poetry the way an agnostic might turn to religion: In the depths of heartbreak and despair, when all hope has felt lost. Of course, there is also plenty of joy in poetry, too (see: Mary Oliver). I still feel connected to poems that I ran across in high school, some of which I copied into my journal. They clearly illustrate that, as a poetry teacher of mine would say three decades later, poetry is about two themes: Love and Death.

Exhibit A ~ the opening lines of the poem I wrote on the inside cover of my mid-1980s journal, by Ben Johnson:

Though I am young, and cannot tell
Either what Death or Love is well
Yet I have heard they both bear darts
And both do aim at human hearts.

There’s no angst like teenage angst. Except maybe middle-age angst, and all those in between, before and beyond.

Also in my woe-is-me chronicle: “Dreams” by Langston Hughes (poor bird), “Apology for Understatement” by John Wain (which ends with this killer line: (“It is not words could pay you what I owe”), “If You Should Go” by Countee Cullen, and others by Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Juan Ramon Jimenez.

Poetry: Love and Death.

Ayurvedic practitioners and yogic sages say the universe is about Love and Math.

So what’s between Death and Math, besides “The Matrix“?

Life and all its mysteries.

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In Purna Yoga we study poetry for many reasons. Horrifyingly, during trainings we have to read poems to our fellow classmates and receive feedback on our delivery. (For the girl who used to hyperventilate while giving oral book reports in AP English, this is quite a stretch. As is teaching yoga.) We do this partly to get used to communicating out loud, to a group, in imagery and to putting emotions behind words ~ to convey the feelings behind “contract your quadriceps and lengthen your hamstrings.” We want to get to the why of what we do. (Open hamstrings help you move forward in life, for starters.) We also recite poems to practice voice modulation, metering and pacing.

Themes in poems also hold a lot of yogic lessons. In my 200-hour training last year at Purna Yoga East, we had to memorize and recite “If” by Rudyard Kipling, one of most yogic poems in the English language: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you …”  That pretty much sums up Patanjali’s definition of yoga (the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind) and one of the main messages of the Bhagavad Gita (find, accept and live your dharma, your life’s purpose, with equanimity).

Many of my yoga teachers, including Aadil Palkhivala, the founder of Purna Yoga, have recited poems or lines from poems in classes. I vividly remember the moments in a workshop about 10 years ago when he beautifully quoted from Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from recollections of Early Childhood” …

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar.

… and from another Wordsworth poem

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

I’ll also never forget when Matthew Sanford quoted this line from Galway Kinnell’s “Wait”:

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

There is as much power in poetry as in yoga. I don’t fully remember the contexts for these utterances, but I remember how I felt: Absolutely still and quiet, grounded wherever I was sitting or standing ~ but my heart and bones were vibrating. My chest hummed in the silence that fell around the words. It’s the sensation that Matthew would later describe when he said that the energy in restorative poses is the heart of yoga. It’s the energy of dawning light, of transformation and of connectivity ~ the energy that helps us feel less alone.

Matthew explains the hum behind silence, the very hum of om, in his stunning memoir, “Waking,” and in this article here.

Jane Hirshfield has a great yogic poem about dualities and what I think of as the hum, “Late Prayer”:

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
a single nail, a single ruby ~
all the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

Poetry is yoga, yoga is poetry ~ of the heart, bones and soul. The are both embodied experiences. Both arts can last a lifetime, even help to sustain a life. They can be profoundly healing. They offer opportunities for endless explorations of what it means to be human, to try to make sense of a life that doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Both seek to unite the unseen with the seen, to make the unheard heard. They aim to unite all of our scattered parts and to lift and destroy the veil of separateness that divides our Self from ourself and from the Other.

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Now that I’ve been teaching for a few years while also dabbling in poetry (attending workshops and writing my own scribbles), I can see how much yoga and poetry have in common from a technical perspective. The effort to write a poem is a lot like planning a class. Poetry is built from a vocabulary of words; a yoga class, from a vocabulary of poses. The language of poetry gets its structure from the rules of grammar, but also from the freedom of breaking them (see: e.e. cummings); the language of yoga gets its structure from the rules within a particular form, such as Purna, and experimenting within them.

Both practices often involve brainstorming, a physical, heated purging of words and ideas onto paper, and then editing for craft and presentation. The private and public processes each have a place in the overall practices. Editing either a poem or a sequence helps to bring clarity and eliminate the fluff of unnecessary words so that the reader (or listener, since poetry is meant to be recited) and students don’t get bogged down in details, distracted or confused. (This is easier said than done.)

There are parallels for the creative process in poetry in the ashtanga or eight-fold path of yoga laid out in Patanjali’s sutras. Limbs five through seven are especially useful for figuring out how to silence the mind-chatter and go inward, toward the heart: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (sublimation of the mind) and dhyana (sublimation of consciousness).

What holds us back from fully expressing ourselves, from achieving the eighth limb of samadhi, divine bliss? For starters …

Obstacles to mastery of the self are disease, inertia, doubt, heedlessness, laziness, indiscipline of the senses, erroneous views, lack of perseverance, and backsliding. (Sutra I:30)

What writer isn’t familiar with these? And …

Sorrow, despair, unsteadiness of the body and irregular breathing further distract the mind. (I:31)

Luckily …

Adherence to single-minded effort prevents these impediments. (I.32)

Mastery of contemplation brings the power to extend from the finest particle to the greatest. (I.40).

I love that last one. Like yoga, poetry aims to make the personal universal ~ to go inward to go outward, but with room for specificity, subjectivity and adaptability. In both, we have to get quiet within ourselves and eliminate distractions to be able to explore our depths ~ the best and the worst layers, our correct and incorrect memories. How, when and even if we bring those shadows into light is a matter of choice.

Pratyahara is withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects and then drawing them inward. (II.54)

To take that a step further, Purna Yoga encourages us to:

Concentrate in the heart. Enter into it; go within and deep and far, as far as you can. Gather all the strings of your consciousness that are spread abroad, roll them up and take a plunge and sink down. A fire is burning there, in the deep quietude of the heart. It is the divinity in you — your true being. Hear its voice, follow its dictates. ~ The Mother of Sri Aurobindo’s ashram

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But back to the nitty-gritty: In a sense, poetry is a type of vinyasa, the art of linking words in a meaningful way. A class might be built around a particular “peak” pose or set of poses in the way a poem is built around an image or emotion. Each word or pose is a stepping stone to the next. Each piece is discrete, but they all fit together to form a meaningful puzzle.

Memorizing “If” was helpful for craft as well. The task seemed daunting at the outset ~ it is not a short poem ~ but we did it and recited it as a group at our graduation. Learning it simply took repetition and focus, like learning how to do (never mind teach) yoga poses or any other skill. Memorizing and reciting a poem is not unlike trying to memorize a class sequence, even if the poem is not yours but the sequence is. Having a good plan for a class allows for it to flow well, ideally, but it also allows for spontaneity if the plan needs to be edited or scrapped altogether based on who shows up. As Aadil reminded us, there is a great deal of freedom within structure. And as Matthew Sanford says, boundaries create a safe container from which to expand and express ourselves. A poem in itself can help to organize a class around a theme, and I often draw on some of my favorites to illustrate a point of yogic philosophy. 

In poetry and in yoga, the discipline of the mind and body meets the ineffability of the heart. Poetry comes from the body just as much as yoga does. The body remembers everything that happens to it. The mind warps and misremembers and makes stuff up. The heart has a mind of its own, thank goodness, and that’s what we’re after ~ the real truth, the light behind the veil.

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Our lessons on poetry in Purna Yoga trainings are also lessons in listening, which is an art in itself. Without the words in front of you, can you key in to what the person is saying, to the emotion behind the words? It’s also good practice for being a yoga student, especially in a precise, alignment-based form such as Purna. Can you take in what the teacher is saying and translate the instructions for yourself, into your own body, and really experience the meaning of the pose? Off the mat, as Aadil has encouraged us, can you actively listen to another person without reloading what you want to say? And as Matthew says, can you sit with someone else’s pain and suffering and listen them into speech?

To that end, poetry and yoga are about the art of paying attention ~ of being awake, noticing, processing and trying to wring meaning out of emotions and experience. In the way that “all life is yoga,” as Sri Aurobindo says, all life is poetry. Sometimes this comes true quite literally. Public yoga isn’t about documenting yourself doing sexy pretzel poses in exotic locales (but if that’s your thing, more power to ya); it’s about how you relate to other people and show up in your life. I’m cheered to see poetry writ large in public places, however, like psychic selfies for the masses. Some cities put poems on buses, and I’ve seen poems in hospital hallways.

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The Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis, April 2013. The John Ashbery poem runs along the upper beams on the left.

When I went to Minneapolis for Mind Body Solutions’ Level I training in adaptive yoga in April 2013, I took some time to wander around the downtown area by myself the day before the workshop started. It had snowed that week, so it was quite a slushy tour, but peaceful. Snow makes everything just a little quieter, even in a big city. As I left the Walker Art Center and crossed the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge over Hennepin Avenue, I noticed some writing in black block letters inside the top beams. I took some pictures and made some notes. Later, through Googling, I found out that it’s a poem by John Ashbery about motion, stillness and place ~ very yogic concepts.

And now I cannot remember how I would
have had it. It is not a conduit (confluence?) but a place.
The place, of movement and an order.
The place of old order.
But the tail end of the movement is new.
Driving us to say what we are thinking.
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.
This far, it is fair to be crossing, to have crossed.
Then there is no promise in the other.
Here it is. Steel and air, a mottled presence,
small panacea
and lucky for us.
And then it got very cool.

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The cobbled-from-snapshots visual of the John Ashbery poem on the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge.

Matthew talks about having the grace to land the gifts that yoga can bring, about mining your stories and clearing space within yourself from which to heal and grow and help others, about keying into the silence that can make us whole again and connect us to each other. I was grateful to have been graced with such a curious poem in such an unexpected place ahead of a weekend full of exploration in territories that were new to me ~ the terrain of a city I’d never visited and the interior landscapes and revolutionary teaching techniques that we swam through in the training. I was glad I crossed those bridges.

On the first afternoon of that training, I looked out the windows of the Mind Body Solutions studio and over a pile of dirty snow into the parking lot of the shopping center across the street. The red letters of a True Value hardware store stared back as Matthew rolled in and started to speak. “Minnesota winters are tough,” he said, “and so is this work.”

“Trust what you feel in your body. Don’t be afraid of your heart.”

The next thing I wrote:

“I already want to come back.”

I’m so glad that I returned to poetry and keep returning to yoga. They continue to shower me with gifts that I hope to share with others.

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