November 15, 2013

Words to Breathe By: 10 Poems to Ignite Your Yoga Practice. ~ Liz Huntly

I often think of yoga as a practice which moves beyond the boundaries of the spoken word.

I did my first teacher training in Cologne, Germany—at a time that I didn’t speak more than a handful of German words. The training was half in English, half in German. We were a mixed group of multilingual, unilingual and somewhere-int-between yogis. But we got by.

During anatomy and philosophy, when we really needed a translator, we buddied up. But mostly, as we practiced together, as we shared the process of learning together, we communicated through movement, through touch, through listening to one another’s breath.

Sometimes not being able to fill a space with empty words made us see each other more clearly. It brought us closer to each other, closer to ourselves. In the years since, I’ve taken many classes in languages I don’t quite speak, I’ve taught countless students who are not native speakers of English, and I’ve found over and over that the practice of yoga transcends whatever barriers a language difference presents.

However, sometimes words are a powerful means of carrying us into the language of the body. The right words become the river guide that ferries us from this world of intellectualizing and analytical thinking across to the shadowy world of feeling.

A poem is a bridge between the language of the mind and the language of the soul.

These are 10 of my favorite poems for shaping a yoga class. Sometimes, I briefly introduce the theme before reading the poem. Sometimes, I feel it’s enough to lead students to awareness of breath and then simply read the poem, letting the words speak for themselves.

Sometimes, I choose a poem as a contemplative focus in my own self-practice.

Use these words in whatever way moves you.


1. Perfection

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.”

You are perfect in your wholeness. Your wholeness includes your scars, your weaknesses, your mood swings, the days of your life you’d rather pull the covers up over your head and stay in bed.

Yoga is a practice of peeling away labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and embracing whatever form of beauty you bring to your mat each day.

2. Movement

We Have Come to Be Danced by Jewel Mathieson

“We have come to be danced

not the pretty dance

not the pretty pretty, pick me, pick me dance

but the claw our way back into the belly 

of the sacred, sensual animal dance

the unhinged, unplugged, cat is out of its box dance

the holding the precious moment in the palms 

of our hands and feet dance”

As long as we are alive, we are in motion. The transition between asanas, the care with which we move in and out of a pose, are as important as the poses themselves. Even within the held space of an asana, we find the dance of the breath, the constant subtleties of tuning that align the body more harmoniously.

3. Awareness

The Laughing Heart by Charles Bukowski

“your life is your life

don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.

be on the watch.”

Through practice, we move from unknowing into knowing, from darkness to illumination. When we follow the breath into the body, when we focus our gaze inwards, we invite light into the shadows. With practice, this process often becomes a journey that surprises us, that delights us.

4. Compassion

Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye

“Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.”

Yoga is a practice of non-violence, of love. We start by learning kindness towards ourselves. We learn to take all our sorrows and our hurt and wrap them in the blanket of our own self-love. And then we learn to be compassionate, we take that blanket of love and drape it across the world.


5. Trust

Desiderata by Max Ehrmann

“You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Endeavor, in your practice (and your life), to do what you intuit is best, or to follow the sound advice of others. And know, still, that you will make mistakes and that good fortune will not always appear to be on your side.

An injury, a pose that is eternally frustrating, an experience with a teacher that irritates you, are lessons that become threads in the strong weave of your practice. In yoga (in life), we do our best to stay the course, but we also trust the wind to carry us home.

6. Gratitude

So Many Gifts by Hafiz

“Please forgive Hafiz and the Friend

if we break into sweet laughter 

when your heart complains of being thirsty

when ages ago

every cell in your soul 

capsized forever

into this infinite golden sea.”

I know. It’s not all rainbows and lollipops out there. But it’s also pretty easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of worries and to-do lists and lists of things-that-pissed-me-off-today. We lose sight of the miracles. We forget to be astonished that you and I even exist.

Let your practice be an appreciation of your body, your ability to move. Celebrate that you have the time and resources to attend a class or to make space for your self-practice. Perhaps, as you turn your attention inwards, give yourself a few moments to observe the facts of your life for which you are grateful.

7. Devotion

The Religion of Love by Ibn Arabi

“My heart holds within it every form,

it contains a pasture for gazelles,
a monastery for Christian monks.
There is a temple for idol-worshippers,
a holy shrine for pilgrims;
There is the table of the Torah,
and the Book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love
and go whichever way His camel leads me.
This is the true faith;
This is the true religion.”

Bhakti—devotion—can be a sensitive issue for modern day yogis. Are we practicing a Hinduism? Do I have to believe in Krishna? I like this poem because it reminds me that faith is not contingent on religious affiliation. If you want to keep your practice strictly physical, that’s ok (you could probably skip this whole poem thing altogether then), but if you’re going for the deep questions you might consider using your practice as a vehicle to observing your core values.

What do you believe, or believe in? How does your practice honor those beliefs? How do your beliefs bring meaning to your life?

And yet, there is a physical, tangible element too. Through devotion we learn commitment. We learn to step on the mat and go through the ritual of practice consistently, whether we feel like it or not. There’s nothing to achieve, no particular goal, and yet transformation creeps up on us.

Our bodies change—become stronger, lither, more resilient. And our attitudes change—we change the way we react to discomfort and pain, the way we perceive our lives, the way we see world we live in.


8. Balance

 Paradox by Jeff Dickson

“These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships.

These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes.

These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill.”

Yoga helps us find slower, fewer, but deeper breaths. Less overall muscle tension but more specific muscle engagement. Less diffuse mental energy but more laser-like concentration. Less wanting, more acceptance; less doing more being.

If you, like me, live in the quick pulse of a busy city; if you enjoy its modern conveniences and hate its noisy chaos, then your yoga practice is largely about balance. Rather than making yoga your time out, use your practice to prepare yourself for the world out there.

Yoga brings the body into stressful positions, challenges the muscles to hold longer, to stretch deeper. We create situations of tension. And then we learn to soften into that discomfort, to find stillness at the centre of a self-imposed vortex. The ability to maintain equanimity in a yoga pose is (in my personal experience) directly related to the ability to maintain sanity in a high-speed, low-connection culture.

9. Possibiility

The Fragile Vial by Rumi

“Be a spot of ground where nothing is growing,
where something might be planted,
a seed, possibly, from the Absolute.”

Yoga shows us the temporality of everything. We watch as our bodies change—the day-to-day fluctuations; the steady transformation over the years as we get stronger, as we get older. We learn to accept that nothing is permanent, that each practice will be different. We learn to let go of preconceived ideas of what we can or cannot do. We welcome every possibility.


10. Surrender

In Blackwater Woods by Mary Oliver

To live in this world

you must be able 

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and where the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.

This is a poem for savasana.

Savasana—corpse pose—is the dress rehearsal for death. We drop the solidity of our physical bodies, the heaviness of our mental space into the mat. We surrender all the bits of ourselves and our lives that we love and hold dear into the earth that holds us.

And then we come back to life, rejuvenated. Savasana allows us to appreciate the weight of everything that we have; it allows us—for a moment—to lay that weight to rest.

When we pick it up again, we are refreshed.

We know it’s a weight we carry willingly, until the time comes to let it go.


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Staying Inspired.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise






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