Putting movement into your life

Joy is when another writer puts into words what you’ve not quite been able to grasp. A yoga student loaned me Putting Movement into Your Life by dancer and scholar Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, a nothing-fancy self-published book with piles of gems inside.

Lines are clearly spatial entities, whether actually drawn on paper and perceived or whether imaginatively constituted and followed. When imaginatively brought to life, however that is, when experienced as a linear design or pattern created by movement, they are not purely and solely spatial entities. When we apprehend any moving body–our own or that of another person–as creating linear design and pattern, whether in stirring a cake batter, hammering a nail, kicking a ball, or zigzagging to avoid colliding with someone, we temporize a spatial dimension of movement in the course of imaginatively spatializing the directional line or lines themselves. In other words, being essentially kinetic spatial phenomena, the lines created by moving bodies are inherently temporal in character.

Experience this. Put movement into your life right now.

Sit in a chair, toward the front edge of the bottom. Lift a foot. Gently point the toes. With the foot, write the alphabet in the air, toes leading. Try cursive, capital letters or lower case. Move through both feet.

In so doing, we experience the imaginatively drawn line as a temporal as well as spatial phenomenon, a temporal phenomenon not simply in terms of its duration, but in terms of its pauses, quicknesses, attenuations, and so on. Indeed, lines have an intricate dynamic structure.

Sheets-Johnstone points out the impermanence of movement.

This is why I love teaching yoga, one-on-one and in small groups: How we move, what I say–the very action of my breath and lips in speaking–is unrecorded. We glide through moments in time, tracing imaginary lines, even stealing into imagined spaces in the body and the room and it’s all impermanent.

We are fully present for what is until what is becomes what was and we’re in the is. Union.

This is the magic of live performance. The sublimity of a kiss. This is what I was getting at with my collage postcards. Ephemerality. Letting be and letting go.


Ask me

Sheets-Johnstone quotes the poet Antonio Machado as describing us as “wayfarers” and “wanderers.”

…the source of our path is unknown or not remembered and has no goal….What humans do to make up for the impermanence of their movement through life as a whole is draw figuratively on their imaginative consciousness of movement. We humans indeed dynamically recreate lines along which we have travelled, the paths of our lives once followed; and we dynamically create the paths along which we are now moving and might move in the future, the path of the moment and the paths along which life might take us.

In a recent workshop, a student commented, “I wish I were a movement person, but I’m not.” We paused the discussion and moved the palms of the hands with the breath like this.

“We’re all movement people,” I told her afterward. “We’re alive.”

Art of Stillness

Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. – Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness

Matt at river
Matt Weiser of Lodestar Knife & Tool working out a new design along Sacramento’s American River. Photo by Alexa Mergen

Hands & breath (meditation)

This is a simple meditation you can do anywhere, even at the table.

Seated, rest the palms face up on your thighs. Close the eyes. Inhaling, let the fingers expand and fan open gently. Exhaling, let the fingers draw toward the center of the hands, closing. Breath guides movement. Continue for 12.


Beauty, presence, home

Theatre director Tazewell Thompson calls emotional responses to spirituals a “bone memory. A recognition that you may not be going through the exact thing the song talks about, but we’ve all been through something.”

Spellbound is how I felt as soprano Anastasia Talley sang “Listen to the Lambs” during Saturday night’s Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual, at the University of the District of Columbia. The program wove together video, still photos, historic recordings and live voices, flute and piano.

Listen to the lambs, literal and metaphorical. No need to eat them! Just listen.

The songs tell of sorrow, longing and joy, and overarchingly call for a safe and loving home. In “Goin’ Home,” the speaker follows a morning star through an open door where family and friends are waiting. “Deep River” promises a campground where all is peace.

Tazewell explains in the Washington Post,

When we hear these spirituals today, they have a way–an almost Zen-like quality–to transport us. It comes to us with an idea. In case you didn’t get it, it repeats. You still don’t hear it, it repeats again. I think today with all the turmoil going on with race in this country, I think it’s time to return to spirituals.

“Deep River” is based on the song of the same name arranged by Harry Burleigh, who studied with and influenced Antonin Dvorak. Burleigh learned songs while accompanying his father on his lamp lighting route through Erie, Pennsylvania evenings.

Stanley Thurston, artistic director of Washington Performing Arts’ gospel choirs and one of the show’s conductors, says in the Post that spirituals preceded the gospel songs that arose in church worship.

“These are plantation songs, songs in the field. Something to help you feel better about what was going on.”

Moving and breathing. Moving and singing. Prayers in motion. Compassion extended. Temporal gestures of kindness.

“The body comes first,” writes Sarah L. Kaufman in The Art of Grace: On Moving Well through Life. “Grace is the transference of ease from one body to another.”

Like the swinging chariot coming for to carry one home, beauty sweeps us up in sound, movement, presence and sense.

In beauty’s presence, we are present to ourselves and others.

Amid fluid sound, inhabiting fluid movement, breathing within the space of community–be it inside with other people or outside with trees and other beings–we can be at home.

The elegance of beauty is simple: the plain auditorium stage, wood floors in a neighborhood zendo, a tattered wing chair set on a front porch with an overturned bucket holding a mug, a beach towel spread on the sand just above tideline, the two-foot width of an unrolled yoga mat.

Find a home. Be at home. Make space for others to find theirs.

In Georgetown yesterday, amid full streets of Sunday shoppers, pedestrians, photographers, bicyclists and joggers, people on corners with belongings bundled beside them requested money and food while volunteers soothed dogs in need of adoption at an event in front of the Safeway.

On a walk last week among branches of a tree that has already lost its leaves, a tidy nest.

Homes are all around and homes are needed all around.

The speaker in Anna Akhmatova’s poem “I Taught Myself to Live Simply,” (transl. Richard McKane) returns after “wander[ing] long before evening to tire [her] useless sadness,” and says,

I come back. The fluffy cat

licks my palm, purrs so sweetly,

and the fire flares bright

on the saw-mill turret by the lake.

We go away. We come back. We are welcomed. We welcome. What more is there?




Inspiration. Expiration.

Walking along the C & O Canal towpath in Maryland above Great Falls yesterday, I heard grackles gathering. Bringing my hands to my low back, extending the spine, lifting the chin to look up at the treetops, hundreds of birds could be seen gathering in branches. It feels good to connect soles of the feet with earth, even through tennis shoes. The ground took my weight so I could stretch farther. Rooting and lifting.

There wasn’t much to see, glossy black birds with long tails darting about, autumn light on green leaves edged with brown. On one side, the flat canal water; beyond the patch of forest, swift-flowing Potomac. Stillness and movement.

Bird pause.

A new student is discovering breath. She’s exploring her range of motion in the shoulders. She’s taking the shapes of mountains and trees.
This morning we traced the breath with a simple arm flow. We identified the origin of the motion and investigated how the palms of the hands reference the rotation of the arms.

We imagined birds.

Michael Stone writes in Awake in the World,

Just as we read the sky for signs of weather and read books for helpful insights, the yogi begins in the body, combing through the knots and flows of the body as a way to ground the movements of mind and breath. To give attention to the birds, I also have to be fully in my body. Beginning with the breath, we drop down into the pelvis, flow as we exhale, and then become aware up across the collarbones as we inhale and the roof of the mouth domes up. The collarbones lift and spread horizontally, like the lintel of the throat, and the hollow mouth quiets any clamoring in the nerves.

In day-to-day life the arms so often reach reach reach out and away to hold on or take hold at the mind’s behest. To notice how their movement can unify with breath brings a person back to his or her body’s fullness.

When we watch birds, and other animals, we can learn about coherence. Stanley Plumly says yoga allows us to see with the insight of quiet light.

Birds must breathe very efficiently.


Do they, like us, have a sense of returning with each cycle of respiration? Do they feel at home in their bodies?

Stone continues,

Like returning to the same flowerbeds in your backyard, season after season, following the breath is a return to the familiar though always changing Earth. Of course, the ground changes, yet there are enough features for us to recognize something secure. When we breathe down to the end of every exhalation, sensation appears in the pelvic floor, and then a natural pause appears before the inhalation shows up.

The simple process of human breathing is pretty astounding, too. Take a look.

Marvel at your inspiration. And expiration. 

Sensing, feeling

During my 10 years in Sacramento, The Book Collector revealed many gems. One is Move and Be Moved published in 1980. I’m glad I brought the book along to D.C.

In poem-like descriptions Anne Lief Barlin and Tamara Robbin Greenberg suggest ways to move, alone and with others. Black and white photographs celebrate making shapes.

move and be moved

Stanley Keleman‘s introduction explains the difference between sensing and feeling. Rereading it yesterday reminded me of why I find teaching yoga one-on-one or in small groups effective and exciting. The personal attention allows for awareness of feeling, what Keleman calls “the whole action.”

Though Keleman does not use the word, I think of “empathy.”

In my experience, the three braids of imaginative engagement that yoga requires–mental, physical and emotional–provide an experience of empathy with the self that transfers to fellow humans, pets and the natural world. 

So often people confuse feeling and sensing. Sensing includes specific stimuli that provide information about a situation. The brain senses pressure, light, temperature and movement to position the body in space. Feeling, on the other hand, is a response from the cells. This visceral state involves the muscles, tissues, blood and nervous system in rhythmic and pulsating patterns and speaks the language of emotional expression….

The distinction between sensing and feeling opens the door to the two facets of contact: contact from the senses (objective reality) and contact from internal metabolism (subjective reality). These are ways of connecting with self and others. We make contact with ourselves through sensing where we are in space, by sensing the relationship of one part of ourselves to another part. The senses provide the images for patterns of movement. The other form of contact is the direct upwelling of warmth, liquidity and visceral motility which is expressed as tenderness, rage, anger, etc. This is emotional connection.

Actions and movements can be impersonal, a mechanical marvel wherein the body is an instrument for performance. But actions are incomplete unless they convey the meaningfulness of experience. Emotional knowledge liked to action is known as expression. The intent of internal movement and its expression is to arouse and generate response. Inner motility shapes the body, psyche and brain–one’s very life. Organismic movement reorganizes self-concept and self-image.

Life is a mobile, a pendulum, in which one is always trying to arrive at integration. We seek to maintain our uprightness, keeping the weight moving between two feet. Movement is not only muscular and cardiovascular but also gracefulness that comes from using oneself completely.


Try an experiment: Stand. Or sit on a chair. Sense your feet on the ground, bones and muscles holding the body. Place one palm on what we call the heart center, the area to the right of the beating heart. This motion may be familiar from reciting pledges. Let the hand linger. Notice the sensation of skin on cloth, the feet, the space above the crown of the head. Breathe, inhaling and exhaling for six full cycles. Return the hand to your side. Notice what you feel, inside. Choose one of the feelings and name it. Now replace the hand on the heart center, carrying with it that feeling, letting the movement be an expressive gesture of yourself. Pause. Return the hand to your side. Mentally let go of the named feelings and words. Stay present for a few more breaths.





Moments and meditations

        I have continued, for almost a year now, capturing a daily moment – mostly in quatrain form.  Thank you for introducing this practice to me; it has been life-altering!  I am still not a “good meditator,” but this practice seems to bring a meditative quality into my days.
Out of the blue, a Day Poems student shared these words with me last week. Of course her comments made this teacher’s day! And, curious, I found in the dictionary’s serene sanctuary that moment derives from the same word as momentum, having to do with movement.


Both poetry and yoga are localized, moment-by-moment endeavors. 

They rely on knowledge of community, the community of words and the body, the community of people who share these interests, the community of the natural world that is both companion and provider. Yesterday, I heard Gary Ferguson on West Virginia Public Radio saying that ancients believed that beauty, community and mystery are essential for health. In addition to being community activities, poetry and yoga tap beauty and mystery.

And meditation clears the heart and mind to receive mysteries of beauty and community. 


Meditate derives from the word for measure; we measure moments through meditation. With Day Poems, small poems accrue to form a log of a life lived. I devised the process as a way of attending to the world outside of ourselves while maintaining sensitivity to unique perspectives. It is a form of meditation.

Think also of walking meditation: steps measure a passage through time. If we start by counting the steps, often the numbers fall away. Similarly with swimming. It’s enough to be moving. Forward, yes, because that’s the way we face, but not necessarily toward a destination.

Purely for movement’s sake. As the tidal rise and fall of the breath is the movement of life.

Yoga can also be experienced as a moving meditation, inviting a sense of  flow or ease. This needn’t be elaborate. One motion loved by my students of all ages is a rhythmic combo of a gentle lean into the legs with arms along.

A technique I use to introduce people who are new to breath awareness is to track the breath by silently saying the word and on inhalation and 1 on exhalation, continuing to and2, and3….

Pause and try it for yourself now, counting to 12.

That practice was inspired by Martha Graham. In Blood Memory she mentions how a dance starts by landing on the and.  It makes sense to me in the dance of life: we are always in motion with the breath, even when we are sleeping.

In this way we are not so different from the shark that sways to keep from sinking.

With and, we join with all who’ve ever breathed. In counting the exhalation we intentionally link that precious breath.

We expend our breath as we pay attention. There’s no “good” or “bad” in that. It just is.

Earth Day Asana

We have spring clouds in Sacramento today. The breeze is fresh and cool.

The oak cast enough shade to make pulling weeds from the pebble patio in the backyard gratifying, a time for cogitation. A trip with the weed-filled pail to the green waste bin turned into a stretch break, then an impromptu asana practice. Barefoot on the rocks, I followed my body into standing poses: mountain, downward facing dog, warrior II, reverse warrior, extended side angle, pyramid, triangle, and a gentle standing backbend face-up to blue sky. My bare feet awakened to the uneven surface. When soles and toes protested in discomfort, I shifted a bit until flesh found ease on stone. Some forward bends, a wide-legged forward bend. Then down to the dust for reclining big-toe pose and a lazy bent-knee twist. The learned structures of the named poses became mere outlines to inspire what may. A seated forward bend on uneven surface held surprises.

Reclined bound-angle pose turned into a cloud meditation. Overhead, a grayish white mass resembled a giant jellyfish. As it drifted in the ocean of sky I breathed along with its slow rhythm. It’s a lovely feeling to be sandwiched between welkin and land, inhaling into the front body the light of April afternoon, exhaling to pull the earth’s steadiness through the back body. The flash of every passing bird sparkles like joy and their songs speak gratitude.

Informal movement in the present moment beside flowers being bent by wind. A celebration of being alive.

Two favorite cloud poems: Rossetti’s and Wordsworth’s.