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The Yoga of Poetry / Poetry of Yoga

by Laura Didyk

You are gazing past your fingertips to the ceiling during Triangle pose. At first, you wait anxiously for the moment when the teacher will tell you to inhale and slowly raise yourself up and out of the pose. You concentrate on your breath, the expansion and contraction of your rib cage, the comforting and focusing sound of the full ocean ujjayi breath in the back of your throat. You notice places you are holding—your jaw is clenched, for example, and your left shoulder is slowly creeping up toward your ear. You inhale, exhale, relax. Inhale, exhale, relax, deeper and deeper into the pose, no longer waiting for relief but enjoying the sensations, the opening, the quiet balance between forcing and giving up. You have forgotten everything except your inhale and your exhale, your breath, the pose, your body, this moment.

Yoga in Sanskrit means to yoke, unite, or connect, which is exactly what we do when we breathe through a Sun Salutation or press skyward into a full Bridge or maintain a blissful state of concentration during a simple balancing pose like Tree—we are connecting with our bodies, ourselves, and with the divine, uniting with our deepest, highest, and most expansive nature.

Just as with yoga, the practice of poetry requires we write through the moments when wed rather put our pens down and walk away. Maybe our inner critic is so loud we cant hear ourselves through its noise. Maybe we simply go blank—no images present themselves, or words abandon us entirely. When we write, breathe, and ride into and out of the mentally claustrophobic moments, the breakthroughs reward is unsurpassed: we find words, gems, images, and music that we never would have found had we given up at the first sign of frustration. We also learn, just as we carry our yoga off the mat and into our lives, how to carry our resolve and determination beyond the page and into the day, long after we’ve put our pens down. For many of us, poetry, like yoga, is a journey of discovery and self-strengthening—the present moment offers up its spiritual, transformative power, and we rest in the fertile still point between inertia and striving.

Timeless Moments

If you are a regular yoga practitioner or if you have ever immersed yourself in the timelessness of any creative endeavor—writing a poem, making a collage, painting an image from your mind’s eye, bringing together a gourmet meal—you know what its like to exist, however momentarily, in that silent, peaceful gap between past and future, where the only thing that exists is a kind of here-ness, no you or me, no time or place. In his poem “Visions and Interpretations,” Li-Young Lee writes about one such moment: “And it was here, one summer day, / I sat down to read an old book. When I looked up / from the noon-lit page, I saw a vision / of a world about to come, and a world about to go.” (1986, Boa Editions, Ltd.) Moments like this, pregnant with silence and possibility, absent of mind-chatter and self-criticism and self-consciousness, are where truth is born and revealed, and where some of us meet our real selves for the first time.

Yoga practitioners offer physical posture, or asana, as an expression of, or container for, the world of Spirit. Poets offer their poems, their language asanas. Although poetry has physicality to it—we often write and read with our whole bodies—and yoga has an innate poetic quality, they are different vessels. The journey, however, is the same: an acceptance and embracing of the journey itself rather than reaching toward a perfect idea of form. What’s happening inside, what is changing inside, how you are talking to yourself inside, are what yoga and poetry help us take notice of, and how, ultimately, they help us transform.

Embracing the Mystery

Danna Faulds, a practitioner and teacher of Kripalu Yoga, credits the potent combination of yoga and writing with transforming her life; she writes in her book Go In and In: Poems from the Heart of Yoga, "Writing became my way of accessing the spark of divine that I believe resides within each one of us. That spark with its wisdom, energy, and truth was always within reach. It was the fuel for poems, life decisions, consciousness, and being fully alive." The practice of poetry on its own is a profound and significant practice indeed. "When were working on a poem," Li-Young says in an interview with Carolyn Alterio, "we’re connecting, or linking, or yoking ourselves to our most complete nature." Poetry and writing connect us to ourselves, acquaint us with the vast internal universe of our humanness. When we are connected to our humanness, we are kinder and gentler people’firstly to ourselves, and then to others. The yoga of poetry helps us maintain metaphor in our daily lives by pushing us to articulate in language and image what we see, feel, and know, and by encouraging us to embrace the mystery of the unknown, the unwritten line, the blank page.

By using posture and stanza, the breath and the poetic line, to find our way "in," we access the spiritual fuel we need in order to live a full and vibrant life. The companioning of yoga and poetry helps slow us down, ease our pain, and bring us to that wordless, familiar, homelike place within that we spend our lives longing for. Experiencing this great return even once, however subtle and understated, is enough to motivate and inspire many of us to practice yoga and to go the extra mile by balancing our physical practice with a writing practice.

Writing Your Yoga

The symbiotic relationship of poetry and yoga carries us from the personality of the self into the deeper, sacred realm of truth and self-knowledge. In yoga, our hope is to expand, through the wisdom of the body, our awareness outward from the small ego-self toward a greater sense of wholeness. As a result, we hope to lessen our suffering. In conjunction with an asana practice, writing will, over time, increase your ability to access the wise guidance of your higher self. It will help you turn your bodymind in the direction of metaphor and image in order to establish a healing conversation with your unconscious.

Often during pranayama and the holding of postures, potent emotions can arise and a poem’s images, like asanas, can be more accurate carriers of truth than straightforward literal descriptions. “The sun on the face / of the wall / is God” writes Li-Young in his poem “This Room and Everything In It,” “the face / I can’t see, my soul” (1990, Boa Editions, Ltd.). Whether you are being transformed by its timelessness through reading it or expanding the timelessness of your inner home by writing it, poetry is another entryway into the grace so freely offered from the deep well of yoga.

There are many ways you can embrace poetry and incorporate it into your yoga practice. Here are some suggestions for how to get started:

1. Dialogue with Self and Spirit. Try the exercise that helped change Danna’s life. She gradually integrated a daily practice of free writing into her yoga time. "Each morning," she says, "I would pick up my journal and write the words ’This is what I have to say to you’ then let the words flow in any direction they chose."

2. Write from your yoga. Keep a journal by your yoga mat during your practice. Staying connected to your breath, stop and jot down images, feelings, phrases, anything that surfaces (if nothing comes up, just write "nothing is coming up"). Then return to your mat. Practice this seamless dance between posture and page, body and word. Honor the strange, the unexplainable, the negative, the dark, the nonsensical, the humorous, the sensual. Let your mind be itself, and let yoga move the language of the mind.

We each have our own story of how we first found our way to the yoga mat. Some are quiet, undramatic stories involving everything from chronic pain to spiritual lethargy. Others are stories of crisis ranging from serious illness to acute emotional despair. Most lie somewhere in between. No matter how we got to the mat, and no matter how we’ve managed to stay, it is because on some level we have found ourselves standing at the threshold of readiness, prepared to face and heal our inner and outer selves, however serious or subtle the wounds may be.

Our spirit, at its essence, yearns for connection, and yoga is the already-open door to a connection with our true selves. Writing is simply another kind of yoga, another mirror for the beautiful complexity of our inner lives. If we are willing to walk through the doorway, the gifts of yoga, in all its forms, are ours for the taking.

Read more exercises and explore resources.

Laura Didyk, MFA, former Special Projects Editor at Kripalu Center, is an essayist, poet, and a former athlete with a lifelong passion for nutritional health and optimal living.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.