The Poetry of Yoga

by Jeanne Missey Osgood, MA on May 18, 2017

Inner IDEA

Fusing poetry with yoga can deepen students' appreciation of both.

Some 80 million Americans were expected to try yoga last year, according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study (Yoga Journal & Yoga Alliance 2016). Couple this statistic with the continuing effort to entice baby boomers with new and effective movement class designs, and you get a sense of the opportunity yoga provides for dedicated teachers with skill and creativity.

One way to change things up is by offering a fusion class that blends yoga and poetry. While some yoga instructors include poetry by playing background music with poetic lyrics or by reciting a single poem to “set the intention” of a class milieu, a true fusion class is unique in that the reception and integration of inspirational poetry into students’ consciousness are just as significant as the asana (physical posture) and pranayama (breath work) practices.

Spiritual development tends to increase in the second half of life (Wink & Dillon 2002). In a complex and divided age, many adults are seeking ways of living that resonate more genuinely with their innermost selves. Parker J. Palmer, in his book A Hidden Wholeness (Jossey-Bass 2004), used poetry to help readers understand “the journey toward the undivided life.” Together, poetry and yoga address this integrative journey by creating a two-pronged approach toward greater self-awareness, personal integrity, interest in the common good, and other heightened states of being.

Throughout this yoga-poetry fusion class, short segments of inspirational or thought-provoking poetry are repeated as mantras, acting in the same way as prayers or chants in religious settings or as the choruses of songs or the repetition in rap music. Using mantras places an emphasis on word phrases that help with the process of paying attention.

Let’s see how the class works.

Class Logistics

These guidelines will help your sessions succeed:

  • Be sensitive to new learners. Teach a style of hatha yoga appropriate to the fitness level of your participants. If they are new to yoga, a gentle yin-style class or “yoga for back care” is a great way to start. Adult motivation to learn is enhanced when you remove or eliminate components of the learning environment that lead to fear of failure (Wlodkowski 1993).
  • Choose poses that can be easily modified; use blankets and blocks for support.
  • Select poems in the public domain or poems you have obtained permission to use. .
  • When pairing poems with poses, let them complement each other. .
  • Use two speaker systems, so that you can simultaneously play poems and soft rhythmic music with no lyrics. I use the Beats™ Pill, which works really well as a second system. If you have only one system, you can omit the music. Pre-record short segments of poetry, and plan to repeat each one as a mantra two to four times. Poetry mantras should take 20–30 seconds, or approximately five to six slow, deep breaths, per (pain-free) asana—enough time for participants to release and relax into the postures (Vad 2004).

Class Design and Poetry Packet

When I first introduced this class at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, we gave participants a poetry packet with definitions of yoga and poetry terms; a brief biography of the poet(s); a set of complete poems, with the mantra portions highlighted; and class instructions, including questions to consider while meditating on the poetry.

Definitions

Poetry. The art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative or elevated thoughts.

Yoga. A mystic and ascetic Hindu discipline for achieving union with the supreme spirit through meditation, prescribed postures (asanas) and controlled breathing (pranayama).

Hatha yoga. A yoga system of physical exercises and breathing control. Originally from Sanskrit, hatha means determined effort; it also means ha (sun) and tha (moon) or the joining of opposites (sun and moon) to create a unified whole through effort.

Mantra (originally in Hinduism and Buddhism). A word sound or statement repeated frequently to aid in concentration during meditation.

Poet Biography

Introduce the featured poet or poetry genre with a one-paragraph biography or description, and distribute the poems you will be including in class. Because of space constraints, only the highlighted portions of the poems are included in the “Class Sequence” section, but as noted earlier, we gave students the full poems with the mantras highlighted. For a fusion class, short poetry segments are effective, and they can entice listeners to explore the entire poems after class. In our example, our featured poet is Emily Dickinson:

Emily Dickinson, a 19th century American poet, wrote more than 1,700 poems, all but a few published posthumously. Her poems, both daring and innovative for the age, offered a new brand of poetry that expressed her wide-ranging intellectual and emotional explorations. The popularity of her poetry continues to grow worldwide today.

Class Instructions

To help participants benefit fully from this class, give some instructions before you start, and repeat them as needed during the poses.

While practicing this hatha yoga class, let the music and deep breathing relax you toward a slower heart rate and more focused attention. We will be holding the poses (asanas) for 20–30 seconds each or approximately five to six cycles of breathing. As you breathe into each asana, you will hear a short poem or poem segment repeated two to four times (so that it becomes a mantra). Listen to the repetition. Repeat the poem silently to yourself in your mind’s ear. Notice how the poem informs the body-mind-spirit connection both within and without.

Suggest that students ask themselves these questions while practicing the poses:

  • Is the poem more vibrant or meaningful when spoken as a mantra?
  • Is the poem more vibrant or meaningful while you are engaging the physical body through the yoga asana?
  • Does the mantra of poetry help to move you toward a deeper state of concentration or meditation in the asana?
  • Does the yoga asana help or hinder the subjective value of the poem?

Class Sequence

Assist participants in finding a comfortable seated position, and begin the yoga class with sukhasana or virasana pranayama (easy seated pose or hero, three-part belly breath). This asana is an ideal warm-up for yoga practice. It helps participants become aware of the life force within them and the bandhas (internal locks) that will support the body during asana practice. Pranayama also helps participants move into a focused state of concentration or mindfulness that can ease them toward meditation, or the Zen experience of emptiness (“no-mind”) and insubstantiality (“no-self”). Here is the poem we used for the warm-up pose:

     I’M nobody! Who are you?
     Are you nobody, too?
     Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!
     They’d banish us, you know.

After the warm-up, lead participants through the following sequence. Use the poems suggested here or choose your own.

Balasana
(child’s pose, walking hands right and left)

     IT’s all I have to bring to-day,
     This, and my heart beside–
     This, and my heart, and all the fields,
     And all the meadows wide.

Marjaryasana/Bitilasana
(cat-cow)

     I MANY times thought peace had come,
     When peace was far away;
     As wrecked men deem they sight the land
     At centre of the sea . . .

Adho Mukha Svanasana, Anjaneyasana
(downward-facing dog into lunge, right and left)

     NOT knowing when the dawn will come
     I open every door,
     Or has it feathers like a bird,
     Or billows like a shore?

Bhujangasana
(cobra)

     THE soul should always stand ajar,
     That if the heaven inquire
     He will not be obliged to wait,
     Or shy of troubling her.

Tadasana, Urdhva Hastasana, Uttanasana
(mountain pose, upward hand pose and forward fold for modified sun salutation)

     I’LL tell you how the sun rose,–
     A ribbon at a time.
     The steeples swam in amethyst,
     The news like squirrels ran.

Virabhadrasana, Parsvakonasana
(warrior 1, 2, reverse; side-angle, right and left)

     What fortitude the soul contains,
     That it can so endure
     The accent of a coming foot,
     The opening of a door!

Vrksasana, Natarajasana
(tree, dancer, right and left)

     HOPE is the thing with feathers
     That perches in the soul,
     And sings the tune without the words,
     And never stops at all . . .

Bharadvajasana or Marichyasana
(seated twist, right and left)

     That I shall love alway,
     I offer thee
     That love is life,
     And life hath immortality.

Janu Sirsasana, Paschimottanasana
(knee to head, right and left; and westward stretch)

     LOOK back on time with kindly eyes,
     He doubtless did his best;
     How softly sinks his trembling sun
     In human nature’s West!

Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (bridge)

     IF I can stop one heart from breaking,
     I shall not live in vain;
     If I can ease one life the aching,
     Or cool one pain,
     Or help one fainting robin
     Unto his nest again,
     I shall not live in vain.

Salamba Sarvangasana
(supported shoulderstand)

     THIS is the land the sunset washes,
     These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;
     Where it rose, or whither it rushes,
     These are the western mystery!

Savasana
(corpse pose)

     And now, I’m different from before,
     As if I breathed superior air,
     Or brushed a royal gown;
     My feet, too, that had wandered so,
     My gypsy face transfigured now
     To tenderer renown.

Sukhasana, Siddhasana or Padmasana
(easy seated pose, inspired sage or lotus)

     In the name of the bee
     And of the butterfly
     And of the breeze, amen!

Namasté! Accompanied by a slight bow, with hands together in prayer position at the chest, this valediction for ending class means, “The Spirit within me bows to the Spirit within you.”

References

Iyengar, B.K.S. 1976. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken.

Palmer, P.J. 2004. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Poetry Foundation. Poetry foundation launches free POETRY iPhone app. Accessed Nov. 28, 2016. www.poetryfoundation.org/foundation/press/detail/71666.

The Academy of American Poets. 30 ways to celebrate national poetry month. Accessed Oct. 14, 2016. www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/30-ways-celebrate-national-poetry-month.

Vad, V. 2004. Back Rx: A 15 Minute-a-Day Yoga- & Pilates-Based Program to End Low Back Pain. New York: Gotham.

Wink, P., & Dillon, M. 2002. Spiritual development across the adult life course: Findings from a longitudinal study. Journal of Adult Development, 9 (1), 79–94.

Wlodkowski, R.J. 1993. Enhancing Adult Motivation To Learn: A Comprehensive Guide to Teaching All Adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Yoga Jounal & Yoga Alliance. 2016. Yoga in America Study. Accessed Nov. 28, 2016. www.yogaalliance.org/2016yogainamericastudy.

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About the Author

Jeanne Missey Osgood, MA

Jeanne Missey Osgood, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Hello fitness enthusiasts, I have been teaching fitness since the mid 80's and certified with ACE since 1987; so I have been around for a long time. I have owned several fitness businesses over the past 25 years, worked in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg as a fitness specialist, worked as the Fitness Director of Campus Recreation at the University of Arizona and as a contracted service developing fitness programing for The Academy Village, a retirement community. Currently, I write fitness/yoga/Pilates articles for Fitness Journal and am a continuing education provider for both the American Council on Exercise and the American Physical Therapy Association. I teach yoga and Pilates at the Pilates Station in Vail, Az and at Tucson Pilates Lab in the Blenman-Elm area of Tucson.