When I worked as a poetry teacher in a maximum security prison, one of the inmates pointedly asked me, “What’s the responsibility of a poet?”
While mulling a response over the next few months, I admitted to myself that as compelled as one feels to write poems, no one is obligated to read them. In an increasingly time-pressed world, it is a bit of an imposition to expect them to.
Jane Hirshfield has said that poetry is not practical. This is true.
A man approached me one night after a poetry reading and said my poems were nice enough, but I should acquire a real skill, like being auto mechanic. I’d been a school teacher so I knew about practical jobs: teaching children to add and subtract and to read and write is very practical. So, though it stung, I saw his point.
As a former teaching artist, traveling to bring poetry to students of all ages, I can also gin up a convincing argument on the value of poetry. Through reading, writing and speaking poems, one learns about rhythm and rhetoric, language and longing, sound and self.
These days, though, I teach yoga and meditation. I’m lately asking a version of the inmate’s question,
What’s the point of yoga in 21st-century America?
In Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga, Richard Rosen clarifies the question without providing an answer.
Yoga was born, nurtured, and cultivated in India, but it’s been passed along to the West like a baton in a relay race. For all intents and purposes, over the last six decades, we’ve refined the original foundation practice–asana–far beyond the wildest imaginings of the old yogis. But although we are asana adults, the rest of our practice is still in its infancy. So now it’s time to turn our attention to other matters, using the traditional practice as our model but shaping the practice to suit Western needs.
After pondering all this for some time, I think I have an answer.
It’s yoga as a return to a process-oriented approach to life. A right view that acknowledges that the fact of change and the truth of interconnection mean that the only end game is the one we investigate at the conclusion of a yoga class — death — in corpse pose, savasana.
In a U.S.-centric version of this illustration, the asana leaf would be enormous.
Our yoga teachers come primarily from performance backgrounds — athletes, gymnasts and dancers — who gravitate to yoga as full-time employment or part-time hobby. The emphasis in their teaching subsequently falls on “peak poses” as well as long inversions, vigorous flows, arm balances and “deep” anything: forward bend, backbend, twists.
Nuance is lost.
So much energy goes into production of a giant asana leaf that the flower of American yoga can’t bloom.
I’ve seen yoga teachers take and post selfies while taking and teaching classes and during meditation. Performance and presentation in the form of picture or a post tips a person into the future, away from self-study, concentration, steadying of the mind.
Yoga’s physical component of asana is to prepare the body for sitting on the ground in sustained meditation, I have heard. In the Zen tradition that I practice, fidgeting is frowned upon. We sit. Still. Crisp posture and physical strength support this.
Karen Armstrong writes in Buddha:
Yoga can be described as the systematic dismantling of the egotism which distorts our view of the world and impedes our spiritual progress….Those who practice yoga in America and Europe do not always have that objective. They often use the disciplines of yoga to improve their health….Certainly, the yogic exercises can enhance our control and induce a serenity if properly practiced, but the original yogins did not embark on this path in order to feel better and to live a more normal life. They wanted to abolish normality and wipe out their mundane selves.
Scrap the power yoga, the peak poses, the pressure to do this or that.
Move gently and notice what you feel. Build strength through attention to alignment, detail, fluid movement and longer holds. Practice right effort, bringing enthusiasm, maybe joy.
Taking action without expectation of result: This is what yoga contributes to modern America.
Yoga offers a model for the trinity of mind, body and breath. Mind, body, breath — three sturdy legs for the seat of the stool of a contented life.
Says Patanjali’s 19th sutra as translated by T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga:
There will be some who are born into a state of Yoga. They need not practice or discipline themselves.
Does that sound like you? It’s not me either.
In our vernacular, “discipline” is loaded, no matter how much we remind ourselves the word derives from disciple, related to knowledge. Most of us modern Americans — especially those of us with the freedom (time, money, health) to practice yoga — benefit from discipline. This might be the discipline to refrain from eating a second slice of carrot cake or to bite the tongue against gossip.
This is yoga as a structured system, one way to think about being in the world. That does not mean co-opting religious underpinnings from the earliest yogis millennia ago, but considering the notion of integration as an ongoing coming into wholeness.
A process is a progression. “Progress” derives from the Latin for walking forward.
Patanjali’s second sutra reads,
Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.
Sustain. Direct. Focus. Yoga helps us with that. And helps us prepare for other forms of concentration, mindfulness and meditation.
Says computer coder Jonathan Harris in the Washington Post’s How the Internet’s most earnest evangelist became its fiercest critic:
We’re losing agency over our own minds while big companies make money….It’s not all bad, but there are different ways of seeing,
We have become slaves to devices that addict us. But everyone is the custodian of his own mind. We all have the potential to be the steward of our own consciousness.
Simply discovering one’s own sense of internal organization through aligned posture shifts one’s perspective on the world. Using the body as a personal 24/7 laboratory of inquiry, a yoga student embodies change and interconnection; his or her relationship to the body changes and the parts of the body change in relationship. Morphing.
The yoga student who practices meditation and identifies some sort of ethical guidelines, with the resources of Patanjali, Buddha or another teacher, transforms intellectually and emotionally, too. Compassion unfolds, for oneself and others. Interest in the world develops. Curiosity leads to more curiosity. And ultimately to contentment as one learns, as Rilke says, to love questions.
Thinking about garbage, Energy Department science and technology policy fellow Darshan Karwat reduced his waste stream to a trickle one year. In writing about the project in the Washington Post, he says,
The hardest part was figuring out the best way to talk about what I was doing. It is important to speak to people in a language they understand — a language that respects where they come from, their motivations, their upbringings…..Also, big issues such as trash and recycling are intimately tied to other big issues such as economic growth, globalization and climate change. So, as I wrote about the experiment on my blog, what began as a discussion of trash and consumption quickly became a discussion of governance, economy, peace and pillage of the Earth, poverty, the limits of human knowledge, complexity and simplicity.
Karwat says the overarching issue is how to live more gently on Earth. How can we practice ahimsa, non-injury, that little leaflet of self-restraint on the flower of wholehearted living?
We need to talk more about how collective change is possible by experimentation in individual lives.
By broadening beyond performance, yoga can give us know-how in being with life. I tell my students that I do the work I do — teaching yoga — so they can do the work they do — lawyers, doctors, mechanics, teachers, lobbyists, drivers, CEOs, journalists, parent, painter, or what have you.
The Latin origin of the word “perfect” means completed.
There’s no perfect in yoga, no gold medal, no checklist of poses to tick.
After years and years of meditation practice, off and on, mostly on, I sat on the cushion in the zendo recently and discovered that for a moment I’d had no thoughts. I’d been walking in meditation, then sat down, and briefly felt amazed to be in my body as I simultaneously recognized I was an “I.” Sounds weird? It was a little, but I’d studied enough to know what was going on. And it was but a moment.
In meditation instructions in The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, scholar-yogi Sayadaw U Silananda writes:
Do not have any expectations at this time of practice, do not expect to experience anything strange or to see visions or whatever. Expectation is a mild form of greed or attachment that is a hindrance to concentration and has to be eliminated.
That samadhi, the bliss gracing the flower-top of the diagram? It’s unlikely for most of us living as ordinary householders.
But that ongoing unfolding of leaves and petals? Oh, yeah! That’s available.
In grade school, I learned squash, climbing beans, and corn were the three sisters of traditional intercropping agriculture. The mind, breath and body are the intercrops of yoga. They’re cultivated by, among other means, ongoing study, investigation, observation, being helped and helping.
Yoga in 21st-century America can offer a practical approach to healthy interdependence, to being in process with other people and the environment.
The language is cumbersome, the practice is not.