Every April, National Poetry Month offers an opportunity for us to include more poetry in our daily lives…and perhaps in our yoga practices! Yoga class is fertile ground for us to implant a love of poetry: Our students, who have made the choice to step away from the exigencies of daily life and tune in to the subtlest of sensations and sounds, may be uniquely receptive to a poem or two.
I’ve found the project of sharing poems in class over the course of the month doesn’t just broaden the poetic horizons of my students—it also broadens my own. In searching for one perfect poem for class, I may discover a dozen new poems I can’t believe I lived without. And, by reading my old favorites aloud, I often discover new meaning in them. (You can find more tips on finding and sharing poems here.) I tend to look for “yoga poems” over breakfast. This kicks my days off to a good start; poetry refreshes not only my vocabulary but my perspective, catapulting me into a rich world of analogies that primes me for noticing connections where I saw none before.
Here are thirteen favorite poems of mine that “rhyme” neatly with some aspects of yoga class, along with a few suggestions as to when (and how) you might “enjamb” them.
1. “The Sound of the Sun” by George Bradley, 1986
If you listen closely some morning, when the sun swells
Over the horizon and the world is still and still asleep,
You might hear it, a faint noise so far inside your mind
That it must come from somewhere, from light rushing to darkness,
Energy burning towards entropy, towards a peaceful solution,
Burning brilliantly, spontaneously, in the middle of nowhere,
And you, too, must make a sound that is somewhat like it,
Though that, of course, you have no way of hearing at all.
When: Before the introductory or valedictory Om.
Why: When read before Om, this poem has the power to redefine the syllable, transforming it into the sound of the sun.
How: Notice that Bradley’s poem includes several o sounds—“the most sonorous vowel” according to Edgar Allen Poe—which echo the Om. Don’t rush them!
2. “Gitanjali 35” by Rabindranath Tagore, 1910
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
When: After suggesting that your students set an intention.
Why: Gitanjali, or “Song Offerings,” is a collection of prose poetry translated by Tagore from his native Benjali. Tagore’s devotional poems express spiritual longing while admitting to human weaknesses and frustrations. Though he was writing over a century ago under the chafe of British colonialism, his words may seem apropos to many of us today.
How: As you would read a prayer.
3. “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1879
The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
When: During or after pranayama practice. It’s particularly effective with a practice that focuses on the kumbaka, the interruption or break in the breath.
Why: Western poets have known about the kumbaka for centuries, typically referred to in poetry as a “caesura”—an interruption or break in the middle of a line. This late poem of Longfellow’s is replete with caesurae, and the tide imagery seems to reflect the breath itself.
How: It is your exhale that carries each line; a comma in the middle of a line offers an opportunity to pause, briefly interrupting your exhale.
4. “You Begin” by Margaret Atwood, 1978
This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.
It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.
When: In savasana, or before the concluding Om, when your hands are pressed together in anjali mudra. Especially fitting after a class that has focused on hands.
Why: Atwood’s free verse poem hints at the mooring provided by our own bodies—and by words—within the complexity of the world (not so unlike what the practice of yoga provides). Additionally, her mention of endings and beginnings is a fitting accompaniment to savasana, which is both an end and something of a beginning. Since this poem also includes the long o sound, it prepares the way for the final Om.
How: Read this one with tenderness and assurance, as if speaking to a beloved child.
5. “Ode to My Socks” by Pablo Neruda, 1956
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
When: In savasana or any restorative pose. This poem is especially appropriate if the room is cool and you’ve encouraged relaxing students to put on their socks! (Or after a class that focuses on feet.)
Why: This is a poem that takes the intimidation factor out of poetry and puts the joy back in daily life. It is aglow with gratitude for the simplest of things: a pair of socks. If even a pair of socks deserves a paean, how can we do anything but move through our days singing?
How: With just the right seriocomic tone!
6. Sonnet 29, “When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” by William Shakespeare, 1609
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
When: Instead of an opening chant.
Why: Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter. The iamb (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, duh-DUM) is said to simulate the heartbeat, while pentameter (a ten syllable line) is a line that can be comfortably recited on one long exhale. Just as chanting can encourage us to lengthen our exhales—potentially relaxing us—so can reading a pentametric line aloud! (And just as chanting can catapult us out of our daily mode of speech and into a realm where things are a bit less intelligible but a little more magical, so can Elizabethan English!)
This poem is particularly relevant to yoga, since Shakespeare seems to be taking Patanjali’s advice about pratipaksha bhavana from Sutra 2.33: In this poem, the speaker practices “thinking the opposite.” When he is at his nadir, he has only to meditate upon the touchstone of a certain “you” to feel that he is on top of the world.
How: Here’s one idea: As you would if using a call-and-response chant to open class, have your students repeat each line of this sonnet after you!
7. “Eternity” by William Blake, 1853
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
When: This one is short enough to fit anywhere in practice. It may be especially apropos when moving students out of a pose they’ve been enjoying and are loathe to leave!
Why: In this fleeting poem, Blake accepts joy’s fleeting nature, as if voicing his version of the yama aparigraha: non-grasping or detachment.
How: This one flies by; read it twice (if you don’t feel that re-reading would run counter to point of accepting impermanence!).
8. “Paradise Lost” by John Milton, 1609
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
When: When you’re asking students to hold a pose longer than they might be inclined to!
Why: Milton credits our minds with the power to shape our experience of reality. How often do we, in our crankiness, make “hells” out of “heavens,” becoming blind to our own good fortune? In a challenging pose, a switch of perspective may be all that is needed in order to transform the intense sensations we’re feeling into something “heavenly.”
How: Point out to your students their good fortune in that you are holding them in a pose for just two lines of this 17th century epic blank verse poem—and not all 10,000! (You may choose to mention that Satan—far and away Milton’s most compelling and all-too-human character—was the speaker here. He was trying to make the best out of getting kicked out of Heaven.)
9. “Mental Health” by Yrsa Daley-Ward, 2014
If you have made it past thirty
and if you haven’t yet,
rejoice. Know that there is a time
coming in your life when dirt settles
and the patterns form a picture.
If you dream of the city but you live
in the country
milk the damn cows.
Sell the damn sheep.
When: As moral support, when students seem to be going through difficult times.
Why: “Mental Health,” which focuses on the work of self-care, is a not-your-typical pep talk. Daley-Ward does not tell us that life is going to be easy; instead, she reminds us that it comes with responsibilities that we ought not shirk (we might be able to sell the sheep, but, let’s face it, we’re stuck with those cows), and one of those responsibilities is to our own mental well-being.
How: Share the poet’s own spoken-word version, which you can find here, or consider musical accompaniment for your own reading.
10. “I Sing the Body Electric” by Walt Whitman, 1855
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone…
After his ecstatic inventory, he concludes this way: “O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,/ O I say now these are the soul!”
When: In any long-held savasana or restorative pose, or at the beginning of yoga nidra practice.
Why: This poem, like many of Whitman’s, points to the connection among all of humankind, and it celebrates the human body. Whitman’s philosophy of the union of body and soul seems downright tantric. (Tantra, the vein of yoga from which much of modern yoga derives, sees the body not as an obstacle to enlightenment, but rather a gateway to it.)
How: Read very slowly, encouraging students to locate and then relax each part of the body mentioned therein. (Caution: You may want to edit out a few frank anatomical references that could disrupt relaxation!)
11. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats, 1890
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
When: In any restorative pose.
Why: We often encourage our students to think of a place that is relaxing to them in order to sink deeper into a restorative pose. Does thinking about Yeats’ lake isle, from this early poem of his, help your students to relax, or do they have another place that sounds “in the deep heart’s core”?
How: With attention to the soundscape Yeats evokes. Many of his words appeal to our sense of hearing, almost as though he wants us to hear Innisfree, too!
12. “Advice to Myself” by Louise Erdrich, 2004
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
When: In savasana, or any quiet pose in which our minds might reveal themselves to be on the cluttered side.
Why: Here, Erdrich advises herself (and us), in a wise and reassuring voice, to focus on what is most important, and let what is less important go. Being reminded of the possibility of making peace with untidiness and imperfection may be helpful to hear before meditation or relaxation.
How: Unfussily! Don’t worry about reading this one too perfectly.
13. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, 1954
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
When: In seated meditation.
Why: The thirteen stanzas of Stevens’ high-contrast poem are koan-like. Each is the sound of a hand clapping, each a small mystery that pries the mind from its workaday perspective and challenges its habits of logic. When the blackbird finally sits, can our own minds be still, even though there is much in this world we do not and cannot understand?
How: Take long pauses between each stanza; each stanza is a new idea.
Are there any poems you especially enjoy sharing in yoga class? Please share your favorites below!