Mountain pose

Bringing a single student or a roomful into tadasana, mountain pose, is one of the simple joys of teaching yoga.

Every mountain pose, from moment to moment and person to person, differs, the way an earth mountain appears to change in shifting weather and light.

I love how a group of mountains is called a “range.” In yoga we talk about “range of motion.” The word, “range,” implies both ordering and movement, includes both time and space.

In California, I lived in, beside and at the base of the Sierra and explored other mountain ranges. Here in Harpers Ferry, I rest my eyes on the Blue Ridge as I think and type.

Thank you, mountains! Thank you mountain pose!

Thomas Gainsborough, British, 1783/1784, Mountain Landscape with Bridge, National Gallery of Art

Tadasana is the reference point for all other poses because it establishes our physical alignment. But it also helps us to deepen our understanding of the alignment between body and mind, the middle path between intention and action. – from Cyndi Lee’s, Yoga Body, Buddha Mind

Poem: Clare Bonsall

Because I have come to the fence at night,
the horses arrive also from their ancient stable.
 – Robert Wrigley

In a Meditation, Movement and Verse class, we spent time with Robert Wrigley’s After a Rainstorm. Clare Bonsall shares the beautiful poem she wrote that morning.

Endings or Blue’s Last Breath

The whoosh of air
left its old
grey body

And traveled
into the
ether –

I carried that
old Blue cat
home

And knew what
spirit looked
like

And was relieved
to see that
wind exit

To be drawn in
by another
and another

– Clare Bonsall

 

With MMV, we enter a poem with the assistance of breath and movement. On this day, we practiced mountain pose and ocean breath. We brought flowing movement into the arms and awakened the legs. In a quadruped position (also called “table-top” or “hands and knees”) we practiced a pelvic tilt and imagined having an animal tail. We also moved through some heart opening poses, breathed in a resting crocodile and sat quietly  in thunderbolt pose.

The prompt: Write about what happens after an event, in the human or animal realms; include, if desired, an insight that occurs. Use stanzas of three or four lines, depending on the desired effect.

 

Beyond the mat’s parameters

War’s on my mind. I’ve been reading the newspapers this weekend.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” has also been on my mind. The poem contains the essence of what it means to hold simultaneously the awareness that the world is full of both suffering and beauty. This ability to hold contradiction fuels poets and fires up yogis.

Since it includes elements of despair, I deliberated over reciting Dover Beach to my yoga students. When sharing poems I tend  toward themes of possibility like Rita Dove’s Geometry, or humor like Auden’s The More Loving One, or awareness like Joy Harjo’s Perhaps the World End Here. “Dover Beach” wouldn’t quit, though, accompanying me on my walk to teach at the studio. When class started, I pushed thoughts of the poem down like a floating ball into water and spoke instead of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, how he seeks clarity within the chaos of battle in order to choose a reasoned course of action. 

For the next 80 minutes, we sat with the stream of our breath, explored how the arms create outlines of the shapes our bodies make, built up heat with the flow of modified sun salutations. I asked them to approach half-moon pose as a moving breath meditation, descending down and out into the unknown as the forward arm finds the waiting ground, with a long exhalation and the pause that follows. Tadasana served as a neutral place where we could rest into the tides of breathing.

As a student, I relish savasana. As a teacher, I do, too. It’s a privilege to gaze at students resting into the ground who have trustingly entered into a composition of poses they could not have predicted, stepping again and again into the unknown. The twitches and quivers of their settling bodies are like contented shivers of horses alive in the sun.

Photo By Joan Cristescu
Photo By Joan Cristescu

The practice of asana is just that–practice. By challenging ourselves physically and mentally within the parameters of  a rubber mat we learn to accept limitations and tease possibilities. Knowing ourselves, accepting our bodies and emotions does strengthen us. And then? The Yoga is taking what we discover inside the studio out into the world. Meeting unpredictability and the discomfort–as well as joy–of real life  with as much integrity and grace as we can muster. In the end, I shared the poem, including its final stanza,

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

followed by a wish for peace, within and without. It’s not enough to practice yoga to feel good, we have to energetically share goodness–however that’s defined by the individual (hope? love? charity? kindness? patience?)  in any way we can.

Sentences

A poem may be a single sentence. Choices in imagery, word order, line endings, rhythm, punctuation and more transform the sentence from an organized idea to a spatial arrangement of sound and sense.

In poems and prose, sentences must be able to stand alone and link together; they have meaning in isolation and, when they are sequenced, expanded meaning through juxtaposition. An effective piece of writing changes the listener or reader, even for a moment. It’s often memorable.

Similarly, an effective asana sequence can be transformative and memorable. Composed of discrete parts linked by transitions, a yoga sequence is analogous to an essay. After all, “essay” originates from “assay,” to try or test. And through yoga practice we try new movements, investigate ranges of motion.  Like an essay, a yoga sequence can be built around a theme or build momentum to a “peak pose,” the equivalent of a key idea.

If a yoga sequence is an essay, each posture is a sentence. Sentence are of types: statements, questions, exclamations, commands. Some yoga postures feel like statements. For example, tadasana. Standing in mountain pose declares presence at the start of series. Tree pose, vrksasana, is a question; one wobbles and wavers, asking “Where is my equilibrium today?” Half-moon pose, ardha chandrasana, brings a smile, an exclamation of joy. What asana could be compared to a command? Savasana. A pose that tells the body unequivocally to relax.

Baddha konasana, cobbler’s pose, is a strong, simple one-sentence poem

like “Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost.

Natarajasana, dancer’s pose, is a longer, more

elaborate sentence like Wallace Stevens’s “The Snowman.”

Tadasana + Lalla

In tadasana, the body’s weight evenly distributed on heels and toes and between the two hips, we create an awareness of ourselves inhabiting a body. And that body fills a lacuna, a pool of being. Lalla’s poem suggests satisfaction can be found between up and down, here and there, this way and that way.

That one is blessed and at peace

who doesn’t hope, to whom

desire makes no more loans.

 

Nothing coming, nothing owed.

 

– Lalla, translated by Coleman Barks

 

Note: Poem previously published in Naked Song (Maypop, 1992); used by permission of  Coleman Barks

Pair with: tadasana

Speak: The commas play significant roles in this poem. Be aware of them.

Consider: What would it mean to sit on the fulcrum of that final sentence (marked by the comma) between the see-saw of expectation and debt?

Body as Poem

The word “posture” comes from ponere, “placed.” Among the dozen of us, each posture was unique. Just as  personality is shaped by personal history and circumstances, the body is.

I stood in tadasana along my central axis beside a plumb line.

The pose felt different from the tadasana I had been placed in by dozens of yoga teachers through two decades. There was no “lift the heart,” “roll the shoulders back,” or “tuck the pelvis.” Instead, my weight found an evenness supported by my bones. It turns out the spine continues into the skull and I do not need to “lift the chin,” but allow my gaze to be forward and steady.

The lesson: alignment ≠ internal organization.

How like a poem this is. Successful poems (which, like a “successful” body, are efficient and graceful) find their own internal organization using set rules merely as guidelines. A lovely poem breaks pattern with aplomb–perhaps a rhyme is slant or one stanza differs in length from the others.

A final thought: “organize” derives from organon meaning “tool” or “instrument.” We carry within us all that we need to move and to make, to stand and to be. Bodily intelligence, the poem of oneself.

 

Tadasana + Stephen Kessler

Inside the word “record” is cor, the Latin root for “heart.”  This short poem reminds us to be aware of what passes through us and what  moves us to notice. I’ve paired it with tadasana, mountain pose, from whence we start  standing poses,  the place we  pause to listen.

What Did You Lose

What did you lose that you never wrote–

only the music moving through your heart

when no need moved you to record its notes.

Stephen Kessler

Note: Poem first published in Scratch Pegasus, (Swan Scythe Press, 2013); used by permission of the poet

Pair with: tadasana

Speak: Like a mountain, this poem is sturdy (one sentence) and bold (an interrogative with no question mark). Open your voice to both wonder and strength.

Consider: What music moves through your heart?