Mercury Day poetry: Kabir’s ‘He’s That Rasically Kind of Yogi’

This poem by Banaras’ Kabir is, in a word, awesome.

He’s that rascally kind of yogi
who has no sky or earth,
no hand, foot,
form or shape.
Where there’s no market
he sets up shop,
weighs things
and keeps the accounts.
No deeds, no creeds,
no yogic powers,
not even a horn or gourd,
so how can he
go begging?

‘I know you
and you know me
and I’m inside of you.’

When there isn’t a trace
of creation or destruction,
what do you meditate on?
That yogi built a house
brimful of Ram.
He has no healing herbs,
his root-of-life
is Ram.

He looks and looks
at the juggler’s tricks,
the magician’s sleight-of-hand –
Kabir says, saints, he’s made it
to the King’s land.

Posted by Steve

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Mercury Day poetry: Kabir’s ‘Do Not Go to the Garden of Flowers’

Kabir was one of India’s great poets during the five or so centuries that Muslims ruled the northern part of the country. He was from a low-caste family in Banaras — where we are now. Here is a translation of a short devotional poem of his:

Do not go to the garden of flowers!
Do not go to the garden of flowers!
O Friend! go not there;
In your body is the garden of flowers.

Take your seat on the thousand petals of the lotus,
and there gaze on the Infinite Beauty.

Posted by Steve

Mercury Day poetry: The Idea of Order at Key West

Today’s poet is one of America’s best: Wallace Stevens. To find out more about him, check this link or just enjoy “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask.  No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard.
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this?  we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone.  But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
                      It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.  And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.  Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Posted by Steve

Mercury Day Poetry: ‘Harlem’

Inspired by events in Los Angeles since the weekend, here’s a Langston Hughes poem still all-too relevant 60 some years after it was written. It’s titled, “Harlem.”

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

These days, sometimes it ends with a Blake Griffin dunk, which I suppose we all can agree is some progress. More on Hughes here.

Posted by Steve

Equinox poem: Lines Written in Early Spring

In honor of spring’s arrival. One by William Wordsworth.

***

Lines Written in Early Spring

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

***

That question feels timely.

Posted by Steve

Why does drishti work?

I was lucky enough to be introduced to Ashtanga by a teacher, Shayna Liebbe, who really didn’t talk about asana all that much (Shayna was Steve’s first teacher, too). After my first class with her, Shayna handed me some homework: A packet of pages run off on a copier that contained, yes, that ubiquitous diagram of the Primary Series, but also the opening and closing prayers (translated and explained) the “syllabus”—a list of the asana names and translations with benefits—along with a detailed explanation of the tricolon of Ashtanga, what makes it different from all other forms: breath, bandhas, drishti.

The dynamic relationship among these three things was a great mystery for me for a very long time, but these three elements were where Shayna put her students’ attention in her led classes. And that focus led my attention away from the seemingly impossible nature of the poses I was being told to do, off of my surface and on to my inner life. That’s a good way to start.

The precise nature of the Ashtanga breath was difficult to get, of course. I’ve since heard its quality explained dozens of ways (with a closed-mouthed Darth Vader being my favorite). I’ve even practiced in rooms where it’s not taught at all. But Shayna would begin class once a week or so with her students sitting down at the top of their mats, practicing correct breath. Tim Miller does this, as does Maria Zavala. Still, I was asthmatic and confused, and didn’t have the endurance. Synchronizing breath with movement was tough, much less controlling its quality.

And bandhas—what a mystery. My early teachers talked about them constantly, in the hopes that one day, you’d be humming along, and voila! There they’d be. Oh, the metaphors and comparisons! The colorful language! (I’m thinking most particularly of David Swenson’s, if you know it.) Finding those took a while; keeping them, even longer.

But drishti, I got: I became obsessed with drishti.

If I didn’t know the drishti for a pose, or if Shayna forgot to remind us, I asked, right there in class. “Where’s the drishti?”

It was important to me, because in any given moment, I was usually in a lot of pain. Having a place to look gave me space enough to endure.

The method was simple: Toward the thumbs, the bellybutton, at the toe, down the nose, etc. (I learned the Sanskrit names for the drishti first, before the poses; it was so much more romantic)—or to a place as close to that direction as range of motion would allow. Focus, but not too hard: Don’t strain. Look. But don’t see. Slightly release that tension of the gaze. But stay there, where ever that is, five breaths.

My father, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps (and of three wars), used to call this “the bulkhead stare”: the blank gaze someone got when they looked like they were gazing intently at something (a “bulkhead” is the wall of ship), but were actually focused internally, on a thought. So I had prior training, a name and understanding; it was easy for me, and, to some extent, even necessary to get through the practice.

Guruji, it should be noted, says nothing about drishti in Yoga Mala. Drishti came later, part of the research. But what a revelation.

Drishti is only possible because of the sequence itself, the requirement of memorizing a series of poses. It’s the sequence that makes it possible for both the teacher and the student to become invisible. In all other forms of yoga—even the other sequence-based form, Bikram—the students’ gaze must be on the teacher (or, gasp!, a mirror).  You learn, essentially, by imitating what you see. In Ashtanga, you may never (or rarely) see the teacher do the pose at all (depending on how you learn). (Guruji did not demonstrate.) You must learn the pose from the inside out. It seems to me like this is a very fundamental philosophical difference with all other American yoga classes, one that might reflect a fundamental philosophical difference on what a “gaze” is.

Early occidental philosophy believed in the concept of the “eye beam”—an invisible ray that emanated from the seer, and struck the seen with a palpable force. Sometimes, in the case of the basilisk or the famous Gorgon Medusa, deadly force. But when eye beams of lovers met…well, poetry happened:

Our hands were firmly cemented

With fast balm, which thence did spring;

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread

Our eyes upon one double string… (John Donne, “The Ecstasy”)

The eye beam was the pathway to the soul and from the soul, a way for the outside to get in and the inside to get out: the senses were tools of measurement and reason the way we verify reality. “Your senses five,” said William Blake (somewhat ironically), “the chief inlets of soul in this age.”

But with drishti, something different happens. Drishti is a way to practice pratyahara—sense withdrawal—and if you think for a second about what you’re doing when you’re being asked to practice drishti. . .Well, be amazed.

It’s almost as if the entire design of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is to present you with a never-ending series of difficulties to constantly challenge your ability to inwardly focus, so that the external can disappear, dissolve.

It’s important, it seems to me, to have a sense of dissolving with drishti—also very different from Western ideas of vision, of seeing. For that to occur, the pose has to be challenging—like rock climbing, it will require your full attention. Wander, and you fall. But once you have a certain facility with a pose, you’re in danger of not needing to focus, really. So: next pose.

You are being watched in the Mysore room, you might be thinking. There is a teacher. But even the gaze of the best teachers has a certain softness too it. You know they see you, and you may even—consciously or unconsciously—adjust yourself as they approach (I’ve heard this called by teachers the “magic adjustment,” and I’ve seen it happen). But as soon as that gaze has gone, your own drishti returns and the teacher disappears once again. You’ve probably been surprised by an adjustment, by what seems like a disembodied pair of hands. It’s like magic. And I think it originates in the practitioner’s drishti, in the room.

Let me explain: If you have ever practiced next to someone who is not practicing drishti correctly, it can often interfere with your own, and totally mess up your practice. You become aware of them not looking at themselves: Who just came in, where the teacher is, something out the window, or (worst case) at you. It’s a human thing. They are looking, and like a meerkat, you have to look, too. There might be a lion! Poof. There goes your focus, and your system’s all in an uproar: Where’s the emergency? What are we looking for? Where’s the lion?

But when drishti is plugged in, and the whole room is invisible, that’s when Ashtanga happens. Nothing stands out, nothing is thought, and there is peace.

Drishti works because it presents us with the opportunity to overcome what we see, and see everything. I see “nothing at all,” wrote Shakespeare, “yet all that is I see.”

Posted by Bobbie

A poem for Saturn’s day: ‘The Fall of Hyperion’

I’ll trust we all know the Hindu stories involving Saturn and his maleficent gaze. Today, to help earn his favor and ward off any problems, we’ll encourage you to dive into a poem that involves a different Saturn. We bring you The Fall of Hyperion — A Dream by John Keats. From Canto I (and it isn’t very long because he abandoned it):

CANTO I

Fanatics have their dreams, wherewith they weave
A paradise for a sect; the savage too
From forth the loftiest fashion of his sleep
Guesses at Heaven; pity these have not
Trac’d upon vellum or wild Indian leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance.
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die;
For Poesy alone can tell her dreams,
With the fine spell of words alone can save
Imagination from the sable charm
And dumb enchantment. Who alive can say,
‘Thou art no Poet may’st not tell thy dreams?’
Since every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.
Whether the dream now purpos’d to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.

It ends with these evocative words: “On he flared.”

Would that all our asana practice ended so dramatically.

Posted by Steve