Let’s read poetry to our yoga students this April…because it is National Poetry Month, certainly. But also because poetry, like yoga, can deliver a shift in perspective, pointing out connections we did not see before and reconceptualizing our experiences as human beings.
Of course, yoga class isn’t English class; we don’t have to teach the analysis of poetry. But I think what we are well positioned to teach is the love of poetry. Through the course of daily life, poetry might not get past the bulwark of our busyness and distraction, but in savasana, or other restorative poses, when guards are down, poetry can go in and affect us deeply.
In fact, I’ve often wished that students in my English classes were as open to being moved by poetry as are the students in my yoga classes. (To which my English students may well retort that they’d probably be more receptive if they only had to read one or two poems, did not have to write essays about them, and could lie down in class.)
For those teachers who would like to include poetry, but aren’t sure how to find the right poems—or how to read them—here are ten tips for your investigations and recitations!
1. Check out a wide sampling of poetry.
In a Rumi and Mary Oliver rut? While these inspiring poets no doubt deserve their status as mainstays of yoga class, there may also be a few others out there worth checking out! Instead of relying on the poets you’ve heard read by other yoga teachers, check out treasure-troves like the websites of the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets. In addition to extensive libraries, both offer “poems of the day” and resources for educators. They also allow you to search poems by keyword, so that you can find a bevy of poems that fit your class themes—everything from “peace” to “hands.” Or pick up (or dust off) a poetry anthology.
In a Rumi and Mary Oliver rut? While these inspiring poets no doubt deserve their status as mainstays of yoga class, there may also be a few others out there worth checking out!
Of course, in the process of looking, you will stumble over dozens of poems that aren’t right for yoga class, but you may still be glad you read.
2. Read as an act of meditation.
Just as you wouldn’t “hurry” meditation, there’s no point in hurrying through a poem. If you go too fast, you’ll miss it: You won’t feel anything. If you instead forget about getting anywhere—breathe and relax, trying to both hear and visualize each word—you may just spring the trap and fall through the trapdoor that will chute you down into the belly of the poem.
3. Prioritize mood.
What are we really looking for in a “yoga poem”? I think it’s mood. I’d even suggest that mood trumps subject matter. What feeling do you want your students to leave class with—lightheartedness, joy, appreciation, connection to other human beings, or a sense of having brushed up against the numinous? Look for a poem that embodies these characteristics.
For instance, I like to read “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Walt Whitman. Its schooners and sailors may not relate to yoga topically, but what I hope students get from it is a sense of Whitman’s tender, almost godly, way of anticipating our existence. He seems to see each of us among future disembarking crowds: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.” The distance between centuries collapses in this poem, as do the differences between human beings—Whitman remarks only “similitudes”: "Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.”
Maybe Whitman’s words serve to make students feel seen and treasured, help them to see themselves as part of a continuum of humanity, and to look at each other, and toward future generations with a hint of the poet’s knowing affection.
4. Pick a poem that means something to you.
Why not make a practice of sharing only the poems—and poses—that are valuable to us, and that we believe could hold something of value for others? There are some pretty popular poses I don’t teach because I don’t entirely “get them.” Until I do, I’ll choose to share the poses whose points are clear to me, whose virtues I can extol to my students. There are plenty! Similarly, given the abundance of poems in the world, I’m going to skip the famous poems that don’t grab me.
If I can’t find a new poem that grabs me in time for class, I’ll read one I’ve already read, or forego reading entirely. I think it is better not to share a poem at all than to share a poem we don’t love, just because we feel we have to (after all, we don’t have to!). If what we are aiming for is to cultivate appreciation in others, chances are we won’t do that with a poem (or a pose) we share unenthusiastically.
5. Understand what you are saying.
It’s not cheating to look up an interpretation of the poem you’ve chosen. (This needn’t be onerous: Googling “analysis” and then the name of the poem you’ve chosen will often get you off to a good start.) Being clear on the meaning of the trickier lines will not only prepare you for conversation—after all, someone in class may know and love the poem you’ve chosen—but it will also change how you read the poem.
For instance, if I’m reading from Carolyn Forché’s “Museum of Stones,” and I’m approaching the line “with hope that this assemblage of rubble, taken together, would become / a shrine or holy place, an ossuary, immoveable and sacred / like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn,” I may intone “ossuary” a little differently if I know it is a container for bones. (While I’m looking things up, I usually double-check the pronunciation of critical words, like osh-uary, and the poet’s name, four-shay.)
6. Cut when necessary.
No one said you had to read the whole poem. I admit that if I think a poem is perfect for class, but is way too long—or if it conjures just the right mood, at least up until that mention of “rage,” or that frank sexual reference—I do some trimming. I love reading the first part of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Spring”:
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
But the second half, with its talk of brain-eating maggots and “babbling idiots” won’t do for yoga class.
Maybe with these cuts, I’m sending Millay rolling back and forth all night in her grave, but I tend to think that one of the goals of yoga is to pitch students out of patterns of worry, anger, and despair. Yoga, I think, is time for Something Else. So sometimes I take the thorns off the rose.
To be fair, if I truncate a poem, I try to point students in the direction of the poem, and announce that I’m about to read “an excerpt from” this or that.
7. Practice reading slowly and clearly.
Of course, if you’ve never read aloud the poem you’re about to share with class, you may stumble. Read it aloud to yourself first. And as you read, appreciate the words. Frank McCourt wrote in Angela’s Ashes about having read Shakespeare aloud at an age when he didn’t yet understand his poetry: “It's like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words.” Savor the diamonds and the rubies, carefully cut and set by the poet. Practice enunciating with Cynthia Zarin’s “Song,” a list that is part witch’s brew and part lullaby, making the phonetic most of each word:
nutmeg, quince, tea leaf and bone, zither,
cymbal, xylophone; paper, scissors, then
there’s stone—Who doesn’t come through the door
to get home?
8. Consider settings beyond savasana.
Admittedly, savasana—or any pose in a restorative class—is when students may appreciate poetry most. But there are other times when you might include a poem: before the opening or valedictory om, in place of a chant, as part of a meditation or pranayama practice, or even to give students a focal point while holding a challenging pose.
9. Repeat the poem.
Poems can be dense; they reward re-reading. If you’ve chosen a particularly short poem or excerpt, you might read it to us not once but twice while we relax in savasana. You might even find that if you repeat the poem—or the lines you’ve chosen—at various times during class, its meaning will change. After all, Hamlet’s assertion that “there is nothing / either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” will have take on one cast when inviting students to hold a difficult pose, and another when inviting them to relax in savasana.
This haiku by Matsuo Basho, translated by Alan Watts, might gain, or change in significance if you repeat it throughout class: “The old pond, / A frog jumps in: / Plop!”
10. Include poems in your playlist.
Why not throw in a few songs that have been made out of poems? For example, Else Torpe made a haunting rendition of Robert Burns’ “My Heart’s in the Highlands”; Leonard Cohen transformed Federico García Lorca’s “Pequeño vals vienés” (“Little Viennese Waltz”) into his song “Take This Waltz”; and the Waterboys bluesified Yeats. And just try not to get goosebumps when Luke Kelly gets to this line in Patrick Kavanagh’s “On Raglan Road”: “I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way, / And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.”
Through these methods, we may gently foster a positive association with poetry, as we have with yoga.
Our students may not remember the exact details of our yoga class, at least not for long, but what they may take from us is our appreciation of the precise sequence of movement we shared. They may retain a sense of the miracle that a physical practice can have a calming effect on the mind. They may know that yoga isn’t something intended for someone else, way back when, but something relevant to their lives.
Similarly, maybe what students will take from our reading of poetry is our appreciation for the precise sequence of words we shared. They may retain a sense of the miracle that a mental pursuit—like the careful arrangement of syllables and sounds—can have a real physical effect, resulting in an intake of breath; a sigh; goosebumps. They may know poetry isn’t something only for someone else, long ago, but something for them, now.