spring shadow

Walking on a late March morning, I could barely keep up with my shadow until I stopped it long enough to snap a photo.

shadow

The poem my mother recited when I was a child, “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson, popped into my head.

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, 
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
Is a shadow useful? Maybe so, maybe not. I love how Jane Hirshfield says that poetry is valuable precisely because it is not useful.
Richard Rosen talks about what a slow process the study of yoga is. Its benefits may not be apparent for years, if ever. More on that in this video interview with him.
Whenever I’m on a playground swing, I think of Stevenson, too. Swinging is a time to pick up momentum and go quietly fast, like a bird!

Yoga’s relevance

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’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,

He concludes,

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?

Karwat suggests,

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.

Try it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evidence of Why

A poem has an architecture to it. If you put on special reader x-ray vision glasses, you can see the skeleton of it, the internal organization of sound and sense. The typed letters that compose words are a visible manifestation.

Atop and throughout a poem’s skeleton or frame are the flesh and circulatory systems that give it life.

Influenced by Louise Rosenblatt’s reader response theory, I believe a new poem is created when a person breathes it; the artifact of poem reanimates. Like the performance of an actor’s role, each occurrence of shared words varies depending on day, time, events, audience, speaker.

The physical postures of yoga, the asana, are like poems. “Make a shape and breathe into it,” my teacher and friend Michelle instructs. We study diagrams, directions and images of a posture then make it in space. The shapes are molds, casts, patterns. Georg Feuerstein says the “postures are psychophysical templates promoting symmetry, balance, and harmony, as well as inner peace.”

“My” Paschimottanasana does not look like this. Not even close. But I appreciate the possibilities!

The infinite possibilities of creative expression in yoga keep me returning.

The venerable art never gets old. For example, seated forward bends do not come easily to me. For two years, I’ve made Paschimottanasana an almost daily practice. It feels like that pose has a zillion moving parts. Yesterday, I tried making the shape with the soles of my feet flush against the wall’s baseboard. That small “edit” changed the pose.

Breathing into the intensity (an “ohhh” not “ouch” sensation) called on as much courage as I had to give; the pose became brand-new for me.

That quote attributed to Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes”? It’s true. Even if your eyes are closed and you’re toughing it out alone on the floor of your apartment at four o’clock on a hot Saturday afternoon, calling on Breath to be your friend.

I’m a slow poem person. My poems are mostly lyrical observations on the quotidian. It can take 10 years or more to feel ready to share one. My yoga is slow, too. Even when practicing or teaching what might be considered a “flow,” I seek to make the hour a collection of minutes and seconds and moments strung together like water beads. Fully present. Nothing missed. All relational.

I’ve been rereading Jane Hirshfield. She suggests that a poem is itself a compound word, that linked together, in association, the letters and words that form the poem result in another thing.

What is poetry but an attempt at making meaning?

What is asana but an experiment in being? 

Walking last evening, Matt, Tucker and I stopped to rest on a bench and look up at the sky. A white bird flew overhead. After a moment, we recognized it as a barn owl, perhaps starting its dusk rounds. Around us, people were carrying bottles of wine to join friends for dinner, toting bags of groceries, walking dogs, hailing taxis, pushing strollers. Trucks, bikes, cars and motorcycles spun past.

Watching an owl’s soundless passage against the darkening sky invites stillness in the viewers, an opportunity to inhabit the shape of being.

I say, Hail the unhurried, quiet arts of poetry and yoga! They are evidence of Why.

 

 

 

Curious?

I’m speaking to high school students about curiosity as part of a workshop on Day Poems. Inside the word “curious” find “care” from cura. A dictionary treasure hunt leads to “souls” for cura, as a priest (“cura” in Spanish) ministers to others. The word associates with “cure” as well. Think of how a curator repairs and tends museum artifacts.

So what does it mean to be curious? When we are curious, we inquire, we gather information. We notice with the intention of learning through making connections.

Asana practice invites curiosity. When you start to extend in new ways, you may find range of motion that changes how you interact with the space around you. When you retract and rest, you may gain clarity on a question previously inscrutable.

Curiosity drives a poet. We are like cats and scientists that way. A poet starts each day receptive to noticing through her senses and her heart. A poet seeks to freshen the familiar. He spends time on a moment that others rush past.

“Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.”

Jane Hirshfield responded with those three phrases when asked how one makes a poem. In essence, be curious. Everything is always anew, especially in the non-human world that shifts in response to conditions outside of mechanical control, the movement of planets, the passage of time.

Could curiosity be the simplest cure for all that ails the world? Among a group of people creating poems in a classroom, in a yoga studio where a dozen bodies harmonize in versions of vrksasana, along a walk with a naturalist identifying signs of others’ lives for us to see…

I wonder.

Savasana + Jane Hirshfield

A yoga teacher  I studied with years ago said that you should spend as much time in savasana as you have on the entire rest of your yoga asana practice.  So, if you move through sun salutation for ten minutes you ought to rest in savasana for ten minutes. She was encouraging us, as in this poem by Jane Hirshfield,  to balance “this” with “that,” to occupy the space between “certainty” and “the real.”

Against Certainty

 

There is something out in the dark that wants to correct us.

Each time I think “this,” it answers “that.”

Answer’s hard, in the heart-grammar’s strictness.

 

If I then say “that,” it too is taken away.

 

Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity.

When the cat waits in the path-hedge,

no cell of her body is not waiting.

This is how she is able so completely to disappear.

 

I would like to enter the silence portion as she does.

 

To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,

one shadow fully at ease inside another.

 

Jane Hirshfield

 

published in  After (HarperCollins, 2006)

Note: poem used by permission of Steven Barclay Agency

 

Pair with: savasana

Speak: The title of this poem is “Against Certainty” and yet the poem  includes strong, declarative sentences.  Allow the periods at the end of the sentences to hold silence. Silence complements sound in a poem,  as stillness complements movement. The last stanza, not a complete sentence, is longer, picks up rhythm. Allow your breath to fully fill that final phrase, like wind in a sail.

Consider: Without trying to make sense of it, feel the effect of that final stanza, “To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,/one shadow fully at ease inside another.” With eyes closed, breathing, allow any meaning you make to rise, without needing  certainty.