The Yoga of Mary Oliver


The prolific poet Mary Oliver died on January 17th at her home in Hobe Sound, Florida, at the age of 83. Following her death, I slowly read, and savored, the numerous obituaries and tributes to her, many of which highlighted samplings of poems and other writings from her extraordinary work—a vast collection of more than 20 volumes. In truth, I also felt the homages were comforting, in a strangely personal way. Oliver was a reclusive writer who, in her own words, was “saved by poetry and saved by the beauty of the world.”

Her poems embody the wondrous—a solace derived from a devotional attention to nature, the intertwined suffering of human beings and the natural world, and the transcendent practice of utterance. For many yogis, their introduction to Oliver’s work began with “Wild Geese,” one of her poems that is often shared in the yoga room. The poem’s concluding lines establish directly our intimate connection with the world around us:

the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting— over and over announcing your place in the family of things.

For me—a yoga teacher and a writer—Oliver holds a unique place in my world of inner quiet. She was a poet of yogic integration,* merging mind, body, and the natural world over and again in her work, her short lyrical lines evoking our connection to each other and to all things. Poems like “The Fish,” “At Blackwater Pond,” and “White Flowers” are among the many that blur the line between the poet’s body and the natural world. This is evident in her closing of “The White Flowers”:

Never in my life had I felt myself so near that porous line where my own body was done with and the roots and the stems and the flowers began.

Flip through any of her books and you’ll find one image or many of familiar animals and places in the natural world that can burnish themselves inside of your being. You need not be a nature lover—she’ll take you deeply into her creatured world with pure curiosity, fire, and love.

I first discovered Oliver’s work in the early nineties during a period of pivotal choices and transitions in my life: I started graduate school, got married, and took my first “real job.” It was at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 1992 that I first held her book American Primitive (the 1984 Pulitzer Prize winner in Poetry) in my hands. It was (and still is) a revelation. Her poems seem to leap off the page and through my mind. Did I know what she looked like then? I didn’t, and yet I could picture her “cramming the black honey of summer” into her mouth as she walks among the dark creeks of the Maine woods. Her awe and her joy became mine. I read her poems to my future husband and we sat in the humming silence that followed.

The next clear memory I have of an “Oliver moment” was picking up scissors to cut “Winter at Herring Cove” out of The New Yorker in 1999. The poem sat on my breakfast table until it was stained, and then hung on my fridge where it remained for years. I can remember standing there frequently, my anticipation building as I read the first few words. I see now that it was my first meditation, my first yoga. As with feeling the nuances of a familiar pose, like downward dog, over time, I needed to read that poem again and again—its flowing movement stilled my mind; those first five stanzas became a part of me.

Years go, in the bottle-green light of the cold January sea,

two seals suddenly appeared together in a single uplifting wave—

each in exactly the same relaxed position— each, like a large, black comma, upright and staring;

it was like a painting done twice and, twice, tenderly.

The wave hung, then it broke apart; its lip was lightning; its floor was the blow of sand.

“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.” Her work relished the claim, and I could revel in it through her writing.

At that point in my life I’d seen a few seals, but this poem made me realize that I had not looked at them long enough nor clearly enough. Anyway, I’d grown up in the city. Nature was at the zoo. Here, at the fridge, I was witnessing something it seemed I’d yearned for all along and simultaneously understood at an unconscious level. The two seals had been a part of me, it seemed, and Oliver brought them out. How? In reading her poems, I experienced the mystery of both myself and the seals. In her words: “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.” Her work relished the claim, and I could revel in it through her writing.

Now, lives later, and in the wake of her death, returning to her early work after so many years has a poignancy. I want to reach through the poems and tell my former self, once so captivated by them, what I know now: that further integration and a deeper sweetness awaited me. I want to tell myself to be patient, not to put down my pen. (I turned away from the writing of poetry as a young poet; it was too hard. Furthermore, I did not seem to have enough to write about with any sense of urgency.)

Yes, there is a certain regret. And yet, it’s Mary Oliver’s poems that have been grounding, soil-rich forces all along, allowing me to look back and let my old self vanish with those elusive shining seals.

To continue with “Winter at Herring Cove”:

over which the seals rose and twirled and were gone. Of all the reasons for gladness what could be foremost of this one,

that the mind can seize both the instant and the memory! Now the seals are no more than the salt of the sea. If they live, they’re more distant than Greenland.

In the winter of 2015, I participated in a mindfulness intensive at the Interdependence Project in New York City. It was another pivotal time for me, full of change and excitement as both a yoga teacher and a poet—my teaching schedule was filling out and my first and only book was being released. (I had returned to writing poetry after my father died suddenly in late 2008. The urgency was now present; I wrote to keep him close.) The work of the intensive helped me bring together and sit with the many pieces of my experience, just as poetry and asana had helped me assemble and understand them years earlier after periods of personal loss—including leaving the man with whom I shared Oliver’s blackberries. In short, being part of a meditation group helped me step into and share a strength I didn’t fully recognize.

For the final class we were asked to bring in something meaningful to share with the group. I knew I wanted to bring a poem. As fate would have it, I picked up Oliver’s 2014 book Blue Horses and stumbled on this one:

If I Wanted A Boat

I would want a boat, if I wanted a boat, that bounded hard on the waves, that didn’t know starboard from port and wouldn’t learn, that welcomed dolphins and headed straight for the whales, that, when rocks were close, would slide in for a touch or two, that wouldn’t keep land in sight and went fast, that leaped into the spray. What kind of life is it always to plan and do, to promise and finish, to wish for the near and safe? Yes, by the heavens, if I wanted a boat I would want a boat I couldn’t steer.

The poem speaks for itself, as all of hers do. Suffice it to say, I laughed a little, maybe with a touch of fear. But I loved the audacity. I wanted it. I read it out loud to the group, and we joked that it should be “the MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) poem.” We had spent eight weeks becoming better acquainted with being “comfortable with discomfort,” leaning in to difficulty, and most importantly, embracing it.

It’s a poem for all of us in yoga, isn’t it? Balancing on our hands may be an obvious and feel-good leap, but it’s the everyday steps toward interpersonal and personal balance that make the difference: Speaking about an uncomfortable topic. Deepening one’s breath to hold a pose three breaths longer. Being constantly curious. Calling your senator. (“Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.”**) Being unafraid of being disliked.

Winter at Herring Cove” ends this way:

But here’s the kingdom we call remembrance with its thousand iron doors through which I pass so easily,

switching on the old lights as I go— while the dead wind rises and the old rapture rewinds, the stiff waters once more begin to kick and flow.

So I am asking: Can we find energy and confidence in that tide, can we swim together to a brighter shore? I wonder.

But in the sands of dawn I’m full of gratitude. Thank you, Mary Oliver, for sharing with us so often your experience of bliss that we can deeply feel it and hold it in our hearts.

*Though not a regular practitioner of yoga, Mary Oliver wrote an entertaining poem called “First Yoga Lesson.” (Blue Horses 2014)

**From “What I’ve Learned,” New and Selected Poems, volume 2, 2017

About the Teacher

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Kathleen Kraft
Kathleen Kraft is an editor, writer, and yoga teacher at Yoga International. Her chapbook, Fairview Road,... Read more