The Yoga-Poetic Nexus

Note: This post is not advocating a new distraction yoga mashup of the type that I’ve been known to rant about, but is merely a discussion of the synergy to be found in practicing both yoga and poetry.

In Patanjali’s conception, the problem for which yoga presents a solution is the mind’s tendency to run amok. One would like to be able to hold the awareness on a given object, effortlessly and for extended periods of time, but the mind is insistent in its desire to roam. This roaming can be to many different ends, but often it’s ultimately about eliminating uncertainty. The mind wants a plan against the unexpected. It seeks solutions to problems — existing, anticipated, or imagined. It wants to replay entertaining stories, which is really a way to learn and store general solutions for later surprise problems that might otherwise catch one off-guard. The more anxious or emotionally charged the mind, the more turbulent it will be.

Poetry is the use of metaphor, imagery, and sound to strike an emotional chord. I don’t mean “emotional” exclusively in the sense of displaying strong, behavior-driving emotions. I mean all sorts of internal, subjective feelings, including nostalgia and the residue of memories and dreams.

Sometimes, the feelings a poem seeks to generate are primal emotions. For example, consider Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” [1096] (about a snake, if you didn’t make that connection) that concludes:

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

 

Or, from Poe’s “The Raven:”

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

 

Just to show that poetry isn’t all fear and melancholy, let’s look at a stanza from Whitman, from his aptly named “Poems of Joy:”

 

O to go back to the place where I was born!
To hear the birds sing once more!
To ramble about the house and barn, and over the
fields, once more,
And through the orchard and along the old lanes
once more.

 
So, emotion is the connection. Poetry helps one form, shape, and refine emotional content, and yoga helps one to experience that emotion without applying value judgments or allowing the motive force of emotion to drive one into endless cycles of destructive feedback. That is, one feels the need to think about an emotionally charged situation, and the more one thinks about it, the more intense the emotion becomes, and the more intense the emotion, the more one thinks about it. I’ll just call this process “wallowing” — wallowing in emotion.
 
The word “emotion” carries with it a lot of baggage. Emotion is often juxtaposed with rationality / reason, which isn’t accurate. (Reason works great for making decisions when there is adequate information, emotion forces one to move one’s ass when there isn’t sufficient information. So they are not so much opposites as complimentary systems supporting decision and behavior.)
 
In the common conception, emotion also tends to be more linked to the expression of emotion rather than the experience of emotion — which are necessarily related. (Some people very readily express intense emotion despite an easy life and others are non-expressive despite constant uncertainty or even challenges to survival.) When one imagines someone unburdened of emotion — e.g. fearless — one might picture a hero — bold and courageous — but what one sees among people who suffer afflictions (e.g. brain damage) that prevents them from feeling emotion is often paralysis by analysis. Without emotion to make decisions under uncertainty, such individuals simply get bogged down. Individuals who don’t feel fear, in particular, are also prone to carelessness.
 
The key to making one’s yoga and poetry practices simpatico is avoiding that very popular form of poetry — the wallowing poem. If one’s poems constantly spiral into ever greater depths of angst (as many a famous — and, sadly, suicidal — poet’s work has been known to) you might want reevaluate. And, perhaps, start with haiku and that forms Zen distaste for hyperbole or analysis.

POEM: On Travelers and Tribesmen

 

The traveler grasps nothing he can’t hold
against buffeting gales or changing fates.
He favors not the heat above the cold,
and eats one night on leaf, the next on plates.

The tribesman signals, calling to his own.
Travelers left that luxury behind.
Clubs aren’t fairer from this than that one’s bone.
One’s universe isn’t so tightly aligned.

Socrates knew the danger of the tribe.
Just as Emerson preached against the sect.
Clan primacy and justice cannot jibe,
and thinking and joining are mates suspect.

If you can’t see yourself tied to one land,
best thin those creeds on which you take a stand.

POEM: Maitreya

Future Buddha, sitting in the valley,
peering over low dunes, in the waning sun.
Oh, those low dunes recall peace gone badly.
Tanks in columns, aiming their big guns.



Will they? Won’t they? Run them toward lowlands.
Speed them down the valley, til they hit the pass?
What’s your future, if they charge the homeland?
Huge peace icons seldom deter the brass.



But I suppose being a peace symbol
cannot work at the size of a thimble.

POEM: Judgment Day

two eye whites through a slit
shifting from side to side
standing in this alley
no sounds heard far or wide

it’s quiet out tonight
it never was before
this silent mode of flight
mute rumble in my core

if I should die before
I sleep, I pray, this day,
not for a one to mourn,
but, please, carry me away

Wu Wei Haiku

don’t debate dolts
they’ll remain half-wits
after you’re spent

flex in wind
and rebound in calm
all in time

glide to dive
the hawk’s fearsome show?
gravity’s work

wise farmers
wait to do watering
eyes to clouds

mute traders
get extra carrots
for silence

POEM: Black Kite Over Bangalore

The predator commands a post atop a monolithic chimney, which it defends from swooping competitors with a hop, a wing flare, all while going talons up. Its trilling whistle call signals I know not what to I know not whom, but it’s persistent. Its head swivel-snaps around in precise jerks — a clockwork motion. The kite is peering more across the building tops toward the incoming weather than down into the urban valley where it might find a meal. Monsoon season is coming, and it intends to get in some preemptive showers — just to make certain all know that Mother Nature consults no calendars. When a gust hits, the kite beak aligns on the wind direction, but wind shear catches its back feathers, giving it a shabby look.

In the background, I watch its comrades in flight. To say “circling” would be to impose more order than these birds’ chaotic aerial dance warrants. Mostly they glide, each to its own flight plan — occasionally flapping for altitude or making a brief, awkward plummet.

POEM: Garden of the Strange

Garden of the strange, you’ve grown quite a crop.
I look up, feel my heart thrum, and dead stop.
Surrounded by a thousand eyes and feet,
I feel a prickle of nerves more than of heat.

It’s madness to halt before this army
who are armed with stance, and grins etched smarmy.
Fine. You say I’ve read too much King and Poe,
but I’m backing out of your horror show.

POEM: Olfactory Teleportation

sitting in a Thai food joint,

couched in the atrium of a Bavarian-themed mall

in Bangalore, India

I smelt a scent —

obviously not fish sauce or coconut curry —

rather some kind of plastic, maybe in the menu lamination,

that transported me back to elementary school,

a parochial school in the Midwest in the 1970’s,

it was a plastic I’d have guessed had long ago ceased being made, 

given the lack of such spontaneous dislocation,

I squeezed my eyes shut because travel is expensive,

but olfactory teleportation is free.

POEM: Gazing Abyss

I rode out to the land that lay beyond.
Past the forest of dense, dark canopy.
I saw a rippled reflection in the pond,
but knew the eyes below were not of me.

Impostor in the water peering back?
Maybe Nietzsche’s abyss seeking my mind?
But how? Those eyes were blind as they were black.
The abyss and I were somehow entwined.

I felt the lull as time began to fail.
Quiet panic rose deep within my soul,
but paralyzed panic allowed no wail.
How’d I find myself out beyond the shoal?

And, as I submerged into that abyss,
the final flicker was a spark of bliss.