Yoga in Poetry

Poetery can inspire yoga practice
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Over the course of more than 20 years of studying and practising yoga, I have noticed how ideas found in yoga also blossom like wild flowers everywhere. It seems that the aspirations we call yoga are innate and find expression in all kinds of places and times. These notions – like dance, music and art – come into being simply because we are human. As humans we naturally have an urge to flourish and be the best we can in this one life we have before us. These universal ideas express themselves repeatedly in different times and different places. In this article I look at some of the connections between yoga teachings and some of my favourite life-affirming poetry.

Lost in thought: the ordinary state of living

Louise Glück wrote a lovely poem called Nostos in the 1990s and it ends with these provocative words:

We look at the world once, in childhood.

The rest is memory.

I like to think that Glück is telling us that, while we might think we are living in the real world, we are actually only living in our recollections of the first time we experienced it. Only in childhood, when everything is new do we really pay attention, do we really see the world as something to be observed, something to be experienced.

After those early discoveries we become blasé: done that, seen it, got the T-shirt. We stop seeing the world as it is and ‘see’ it as we suppose it and those impressions of the world are heavily influenced by our memories of our first few encounters.

One goal of yoga is to return to Seeing the Cosmos as it is and not as we imagine it but as it really is.

“In order to discipline the mind, we need to develop a mental practice that clearly reveals the distinction between the nature of Jīva [that which experiences] and Prakṛti [that which is experienced] [2]

[See also, for example, YS I.2-3]

The one you hurt the most

Yoga, one might also say, is a collection of techniques to transcend the suffering (duḥkha) of daily life, one source of which is the way our untrained minds operate. Our minds have the quality of craving pleasure and avoiding pain and thus causing actions that lead towards or away from these two experiences. Those actions have consequences. Karma, from the root kṛ – to ‘do’ or ‘make’ – refers not only to an action but also to the reaction it produces (unpleasant or pleasant in accordance with the original act) either today or tomorrow.

EJ Koh wrote this beautiful poem about suffering existence. It’s called My Father in His Old Age.

There is a Korean belief that you are born

the parent of the one you hurt most. Watching

my father use chopsticks to split chicken katsu,

he confesses that I may be the reincarnation

of his own father. We finished our waters in silence

and walked home chatting about who to blame

for where we are. He says, the present is the revenge

of the past. Revenge goes too far, I argue. And

in our unhappiness, we both want to know

we cannot pay enough. Pain becomes meaning.

After this life, I fear I’ll never meet him again. [1]

Those words: the present is the revenge of the past might go too far but they seem to capture the essence of the concept of karma and its link with duḥkha. And there is a hopeful suggestion that the Cosmos may be offering us a way out, a second chance, so to speak, to live in harmony with life: you are born the parent of the one you hurt most.

What a wonderful invitation to make recompense by being kind and compassionate Now, as, for example, a parent prioritises love for their child (see also, e.g., YS II.35).

Breaking the spell of ordinary thinking

Yoga requires effort, tapas, to break out of the confines of everyday thinking and cultivate a peaceful and attentive mental attitude. What keeps us in our torment is our own self-created sense of self, asmitā. Yoga suggests we relax this sense of self, and open up or trust, īsvarapraṇidāna, to that which is not us.

For instance, the practice of reminding ourselves that everything is impermanent has the effect of focusing our attention on what really matters and īsvarapraṇidāna gives us the confidence to say Yes to what the world has to offer us on its terms not ours. That’s one of the things I get from William Stafford’s 1998 poem called “Yes”:

It could happen any time, tornado,

earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.

Or sunshine, love, salvation.

It could you know. That’s why we wake

and look out – no guarantees

in this life.

But some bonuses, like morning,

like right now, like noon,

like evening.

When we deliberately set out to see things in this surprising way – imagining the worse that could happen – we are using a Zen-like yoga technique called pratipakṣa-bhāvanam. Its goal is too disrupt the grip that harassing negative thoughts can have on our minds by applying some reflective reasoning, dhyāna. Our minds can become calmer and clearer, sattva, knowing that the present moment has wonders of its own and worrying about tomorrow is just an unproductive use of the here and now.

Naomi Shihab Nye expresses a similar idea in her poem The Art of Disappearing to help her prioritise Life’s tasks. The ending is a mantra, of sorts, and one I invoke in one form or other many times to help me make better choices and focus on what really matters when we have but a single lifetime to squander or make good use of.

When they say Don’t I know you?

say no.

When they invite you to the party

remember what parties are like

before answering.

Someone is telling you in a loud voice

they once wrote a poem.

Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.

Then reply.

If they say We should get together

say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.

You’re trying to remember something

too important to forget.

Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.

Tell them you have a new project.

It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store

nod briefly and become a cabbage.

When someone you haven’t seen in ten years

appears at the door,

don’t start singing him all your new songs.

You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.

Know you could tumble any second.

Then decide what to do with your time.

I just love the suggestion that one should bring to mind the image of greasy sausage balls on a paper plate just before deciding to give up some of your time for a friend’s mediocre piece of work. And it isn’t because we don’t love them – of course we do – it’s just that the really transformative and inspiring stuff is a rare thing.

Yogic mindfulness

Everyone has heard of mindfulness as a way to meditate or to relax and be present to things as they are. Yoga has been offering mindfulness practices for a very long time. In yoga we can call mindfulness practices smṛti-sādhana, literally the “practice of recall”. This is the yoga technique of repeatedly bringing to mind what it feels like to experience the sattva I mentioned earlier.

Coleman Barks has done a beautiful translation of the Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi’s poem The Guest House. This poem, like the others I have selected for this article, is worth learning by heart because reciting it whenever one wants or needs, helps in the transformative process of smṛti-sādhana.

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

What we can find when we engage with this poem is a way to reduce the influence of restless and over energetic thoughts and feelings or ones that bring us down. Many of us have an inner critic who appears to have taken to loving us with dark thoughts. Rumi is suggesting we return our inner critics ‘love’ with the love of acceptance and gratitude. When this happens tranquility, sattva, begins to dominate and the present moment can be experienced as a wonder.

Turning old failures into sweet honey

Yoga has many ways to help transform our lives. A central concept is that, deep down, in a secret cave located somewhere in the heart, we are already perfect. This is a tremendously important and powerful thought: we are already perfect. We can spend far too much time fretting that we don’t measure up to others or to ourselves.

It is true that somehow, somewhere on the journey from the perfection within us to the ever-changing world things appear to go wrong. But we don’t have to torture ourselves needlessly about these failures. We should learn from our mistakes and act skillfully and with compassion.

We can have confidence, śraddhā, that there is a treasure of wonder within each of us, at times feeling like a sacred spring, or honey or the sun at the centre of our Being.

It can take poetry to convey what lies ahead of us on the pathways of yoga.

In Antonio Machado poem, translated by Robert Bly, Last Night As I Was Sleeping, we getting a stunning glimpse of this inner perfection.

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a spring was breaking

out in my heart.

I said: Along which secret aqueduct,

Oh water, are you coming to me,

water of a new life

that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that a fiery sun was giving

light inside my heart.

It was fiery because I felt

warmth as from a hearth,

and sun because it gave light

and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that it was God I had

here inside my heart.

For the bhakti yogi the last few lines hint at the Yoga – or union – of the personal ‘spirit’ with the ‘divine’. For those like me who are drawn more to the ideas of sāṃkhya yoga, this poem also brings out the idea of Yoga as being the separation of consciousness, puruṣa, from matter, prakṛti, or, putting it another way: awaking from the daytime sleep we think of as normal wakefulness.

These poems – and others like them – have the power to jolt us into finding connections with yoga wisdom and insights. They also remind us that the yogi, like the poet, is a keen observer of Life. I have given you a few possible connections. There are many more to be discovered.



[2] T Krishnamacharya’s commentary on Yoga Sūtra I.12

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