Poetry, like yoga, can be a great source of joy revealed over time. In fact, poetry and yoga have more than their ability to elicit joy in common. If you think of a poem as a pose or even a series of poses, what happens inside them is a current of subtle shifts, one triggering and informing the next, that resonate in different ways depending on the reader/practitioner.
Including poetry in a yoga class can infuse the practice with more depth and texture. People rarely hear poetry read, let alone slowly and intentionally, so you’re offering your students a gift when you take the time to select a poem that’s just right for your class and share it with them in a considered way. And you’ll find that some of your students derive real pleasure from hearing poetry; they will want to know more about the poet/poem you’ve chosen and so forth. It also lets your students know a little more about you and where you’re coming from, thus creating a connection based on sharing.
I’ve selected the poems below because, like tree, or child’s pose, or bridge, they offer me something immediate, yet different, every time I engage with them. On a given day I might be focused on finding more length through my trunk in tree, and on another I might actually visualize an oak I like, and on another I might be unusually aware of sensation in the foot of my standing leg.
Similarly, with a poem I might let the sounds of one whose meaning is somewhat elusive wash over me, gleaning meaning from the aural experience. On another day, I might take a more cerebral approach as I parse each line for meaning, and on another I might just spend time with one line, feeling its personal application to my life.
These poems can be used in a variety of ways; I’ve suggested just a few. My hope is that you’ll sit with them and find ways to use them that really sync with your teaching. And maybe they’ll inspire you to discover other poems that matter so much to you that you’ll want to share them with others.
I’ve consciously chosen a mix of poets in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity so as to represent the wide range of voices available for our exploration, and I encourage you to do the same. One of my happy discoveries is the book Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry, which lovingly and wisely brings to light a tradition that has long been invisible to many.
1. “Eagle Poem” by Joy Harjo, 1990
Joy Harjo is a poet and a member of the Mvskoke Nation, whose work generally lends itself to yogic exploration. Her book How We Became Human is a great place to start, and it contains many poems that would work well in a yoga or meditation class.
This poem could be used at different junctures in a wide range of classes because its themes—gratitude, the mystery of nature, and the brevity of life—are universal. I like reading it once students are settled in savasana. Including it in a dharma talk during a bird-themed class (eagle, crow, side crow, etc.) would also work well. Note the direction to breathe, which could be used in an intentional way in your class.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed...
2. “Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon, 1990
Kenyon’s poems are filled with rural images and are often described as spare and emotionally evocative. Many of them have a soothing, melancholic tone that works well in gentler classes.
“Let Evening Come” has a quietness that works well in setting the tone before, during, or after savasana. It’s also a great way to open up a late afternoon or evening class or workshop. Let your students bask in the imagery of the waning day offered here.
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
3. “Reverie in Open Air” by Rita Dove, 2003
There’s a humor and joy in many of Rita Dove’s poems that many people will find relatable. There’s also a certain quirkiness. She’s aware of her humanness and takes real pleasure in it.
The following poem has a wryness and discomfort that may appeal to your students. It offers a straightforward acknowledgment of the difficulties of the mind and a way of being with those difficulties. Tying it into a dharma talk on the fluctuations of the mind that can occur during meditation practice would be an accessible way to explore it. On the other end of the spectrum, you could also highlight the line “My feet are the primitives here” at the beginning of class as you invite your students to explore the essence of their feet in whatever pose makes sense to you.
This one could also be read at the beginning or end of a class in which individual expression and movement are emphasized. You could also play the wonderful recording of Dove reading it, which you’ll find on the Poetry Foundation’s website if you follow the link above.
I admit I don’t know how
To sit still or move without purpose.
I prefer books to moonlight, statuary to trees.
But this lawn has been leveled for looking,
So I kick off my sandals and walk its cool green.
Who claims we’re mere muscle and fluids?
My feet are the primitives here.
As for the rest—ah, the air now
Is a tonic of absence, bearing nothing.
4. “Corpse Pose: Shavasana” by Irene McKinney (no link available)
West Virginian poet Irene McKinney’s poems have a rawness and visual immediacy that work well in a group class. Indeed, she once remarked, “I’m a hillbilly, a woman, and a poet, and I understood early on that nobody was going to listen to anything I had to say anyway, so I might as well just say what I want to.” Right on!
This poem is from a series of five poems called “Five Asanas” (from the book Unthinkable: Selected Poems 1976-2004) that should be on every yoga teacher’s reading list. They are all surprising, funny, and deep. This one is perhaps the most accessible and could be read before or during savasana.
You’ve put yourself through everything
You could think of, deliberately,
Though at the time it just seemed to happen.
You’ve pitched and twisted, tripped,
And grimaced. You’ve run after,
And been pursued. You’ve been ugly
And frightened and murderous and dull.
Now you lie on your back with your palms
Turned up and say: I give it up.
Whatever falls out of my hands
Falls out of my hands. My eyelids
Slip down and my mouth falls open.
Whoever cares can go on
Caring, someone will step into place
And take it over, I do not care.
Finally, my back is lying exactly
on the ground, with no kinks.
The loops are all unwound.
5. “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke, 1954
If you like the poem below, check out Roethke’s collected poems. He’s considered one of America’s finest poets. In the words of one critic, he was “a human poet in a world that threatens to turn man into an object.” As yoga teachers, we want our students to experience themselves as themselves. Roethke’s poems can help. (He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book with the same title.)
This poem is a villanelle (a 19-line poem consisting of five three-line stanzas and a final quatrain, with the first and third lines of the first stanza repeating alternately in the following stanzas) and has a strong iambic rhythm. In terms of reading it, say, at the end of savasana, you’ll want to do so slowly, so it doesn’t sound too jaunty.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
6. “Remember” by Joy Harjo, 1983
Back to Harjo for an even broader look at life, language, and movement. This one embodies what yoga is all about: union—how we’re connected to who we came from, each other, and the natural world. You could read it during a centering practice while students are seated at the beginning of class. Its echo of “remember” lends well to bookending the day: an early morning or dusk class are lovely times to reflect.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe.
Remember you are all people and all people
Remember you are this universe and this
universe is you.
Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember language comes from this.
Remember the dance language is, that life is.
7. “Turning” by W. S. Merwin, 2014
Former Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner W. S. Merwin died on March 15 this year. He wrote many poems that appeal to yogis, nature lovers, and anyone who appreciates the metaphysical.
This would work well in a class where a pose (perhaps a challenging one) is taught a few times throughout the practice so as to give the students a second and third chance. It could also be used to explore self-forgiveness.
Going too fast for myself I missed
more than I think I can remember
almost everything it seems sometimes
and yet there are chances that come back
that I did not notice when they stood
where I could have reached out and touched them
this morning the black shepherd dog
still young looking up and saying
Are you ready this time
8. “Thank You” by Ross Gay, 2006
Gay’s wonderful book called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude contains many generous and thrilling poems, like “becoming a horse,” “sharing with ants,” and “ode to drinking water from my hands.” If you’re a fan of the sensory, Ross Gay will not disappoint.
This one is perfect for a gratitude-centered practice or at the end of class, before or after savasana. It’s funny and quiet and lush all at the same time, so read and savor it slowly. It’s anthologized in Black Nature: Four Centuries of African-American Nature Poetry.
If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
9. “Language” by Camille T. Dungy (no link available), 2006
More and more it seems yoga classes are completely filled with directions; there is very little time spent in silence other than savasana, which frequently gets treated hastily like a guest who showed up late: Hello! Good night!
This poem by Camille T. Dungy, the editor of Black Nature, can be read during any quiet section of class or while students are holding a yin or restorative pose. You might experiment with silence before and after it. Among other things, it invites the reader/listener to consider how they experience silence.
Silence is one part of speech, the war cry
of wind down a mountain pass another.
A stranger’s voice echoing through lonely
valleys, a lover’s voice rising so close
it’s your own tongue: these are keys to cipher,
the way the high hawk’s key unlocks the throat
of the sky and the coyote’s yip knocks
it shut, the way the aspens’ bells conform
to the breeze while the rapid’s drum defines
resistance. Sage speaks with one voice, pinyon
I’m just getting to know Dungy’s work, but I also want to offer her poem “First Fire,” which could be woven into a dharma talk about struggle and change.
As I said at the beginning of this article, the important thing is to find poems you love and to be open to a wide range of poets when selecting poems for yoga class...and in Joy Harjo’s words, to “Remember the dance language is, that life is.”