Yoga and Poetry: The Inner Language of Change

As in all creative processes, sometimes something out-of-the-ordinary occurs: a kind of grace arrives.

Over the past two years, my love of poetry and literature has entered the heart of how I understand and teach yoga. In practice, this might be as simple as ending a class by reading a poem or passage in savasana. Sometimes, I might introduce a class theme with a poem or quote that expresses what we’re going to explore and offers a lens through which to view it.

Sometimes, I base a whole practice around a single poem. I weave words and images from it through the phrases of movement in a sequence - forming, as my teacher Julie Martin would put it, ‘a movement mantra.’

I like the way that phrases of a poem can become phrases or ‘refrains’ in movement: I’ll repeat a certain line a few times over, as students move through a ‘mini-flow’ (two or three poses linked together fluidly and repeating back and forth). Sometimes I pick-up on two words from a poem and ask students to embody and move between both.

I have seen individual students, without planning or forethought, produce things of great beauty from these deeply embodied states. This isn’t to say there isn’t also a beauty in the more functional, ordinary movements of a strong and stable practice; but as in all creative processes, sometimes something out-of-the-ordinary occurs. A kind of grace arrives in the body; and afterwards, there’s a peacefulness in the person and in the group, that is rich and deeply moving.

Poetry and yoga are forces for good, inspiring and inviting us to step into our bigger selves.

To me, yoga and poetry are about being moved: moved to cry, laugh, dance, speak, smile, sigh, gasp, yield; moved to act, change, re-work, imagine and become. Poetry and yoga are forces for good, inspiring and inviting us to step into our bigger selves, to find places in ourselves we had perhaps forgotten, left behind, or not yet realised. When we encounter these forces, a chemical change takes place in our bodies – a kind of alchemy which, if we allow it to happen, can change the way we inhabit our self and the world.

This change has happened for me, countless times, when experiencing both poetry and yoga. After a yoga practice, or looking up from the page of a book, I might suddenly find myself standing on the other side of a threshold I hadn’t even realised was there. It’s as if I’m standing in some new position or at a greater height, I look back at where I had been a moment before with fresh eyes.

And yet, in the moment, I have no way of know what kind of change has taken place or what it will come to mean. Sometimes this shifting of state is only temporary; a short-term release which, nonetheless, leaves me refreshed. But sometimes, the ripples of transformation reach out across days, weeks, or years.

Learning to headstand was about more than doing a cool trick. I wanted to do it because I knew I was afraid of going upside down. And isn’t that a statement that approaches metaphor?

In my yoga practice, learning to headstand (sirsasana) was about more than doing a cool trick. I wanted to do it because I knew I was afraid of going upside down. And isn’t that a statement that approaches metaphor? I was afraid of my world being turned upside down and, more importantly, what would happen if I lost control in the process and the whole thing came crashing down.

So for a very long time I played at the edges of the pose. This isn’t a bad thing: balancing on your head and hands is very challenging, and shouldn’t be attempted without guidance and patience. But I was stalling and I knew it. Many times over my teacher, who had seen me tentatively come towards it and back off for over a year, told me: ‘you have everything you need for this now: all you’re missing is trust.’

Trusting that I can do the things I want to do has been one of the biggest themes of my yoga practice; and this goes beyond standing on my head or balancing on my hands. It encompasses having the boldness to write and share my own poetry; starting a business and being self-employed, and living a creative life. And in poetry I’ve found the same encouragement to step into a larger life.

Reading poetry can be - and I would argue, should be - an embodied experience.

Discovering the poetry of William Wordsworth in my early twenties helped me realise that, far from being just an interesting intellectual pursuit, poetry can be a vital tool for living life well. As much as yoga, poetry is a physical experience, and can tell us just as much about ‘wellbeing’ as can, say, a meditation or mindfulness class.

Reading Wordsworth taught me that poetry exists not in images, but in the world, in our minds and bodies. Reading poetry can be – and, I would argue, should be – an embodied experience.

Like many western practitioners, I entered yoga via the physical route: in other words, when I came to do my yoga teacher training I wasn’t versed in the philosophy and literature of the tradition. But when I did start reading texts like the Upanishads, Vedas and Bhagavad Gita, I found that Wordsworth had already introduced me to many of the themes and concepts that underpinned yoga.

Wordsworth was radical in his time because his poetry expresses a belief that religious experience resides, not within the doctrines of a written scripture, but in the human experience of consciousness – a consciousness which is, more specifically, rooted in the natural world. It’s a theme that runs throughout his long autobiographical poem, The Prelude; and reading this poem was a pivotal moment for me.

I found that Wordsworth had already introduced me to many of the themes and concepts that underpinned yoga.

I read the following lines from The Prelude whilst undergoing counselling for an eating disorder which had tormented me through my late teens and early twenties:

The mind of man is framed even like the breath

And harmony of music; there is a dark

Invisible workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements, and makes them move

In one society. Ah me, that all

The terrors, all the early miseries,

Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, that all

The thoughts and feelings which have been infused

Into my mind, should ever have made up

The calm existence that is mine when I

Am worthy of myself.

Wordsworth, William, The Prelude: The Four Texts (Penguin Classics, 1995)

I felt, and still feel, when I read these lines that I’m being given some magical vision of a possible, potential wholeness. Even just reading that word ‘dark,’ and the declaration that ‘there is a dark / Invisible workmanship’ within our minds, made me feel less alone in my confusion.

But beyond that, this was the first time in my life I had the idea that I wasn’t just living in spite of my bad habits – but that they were a part of me, and must be accepted as such before I could make any change. This was clear to me through the lines of the poem, as the eventual ‘change’ – the ‘calm existence’ – only comes about once the poet has named the badness, the ‘thoughts and feelings’ which have caused him pain.

I knew that the eating disorder and the chaotic thoughts that gave rise to it were things I wanted to live without. These lines gave me a key to understand that change could not come about through bloody-minded denial or force, but by treating myself like someone who was still worthy of their life – and a good one at that.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

-Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

Both yoga and poetry aid us in recognising subtle feeling states which are, sometimes, the beginnings of more distinct or urgent inner events. Through yoga and poetry I was being sensitised to these inner signals, and in the process was learning to trust my instincts more and more.

This process is still unfolding in my life: it’s easier at some times than at others. But it’s a process that is becoming more and more important for us all amid the din of loud days, political and social turbulence, and urban environments.

Want to experience the benefits of yoga and poetry for yourself? You can dip your toe in by practicing my 'Begin Again' slow flow on YouTube, which is based around a poem by Susan Coolidge; or sign-up to my newsletter below and you'll receive a free 40 minute practice with accompanying poem by Ben Jonson. Let me know how you get on.

However your practice evolves - I wish you growth, joy and wisdom through the journey.

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