The Poetry of Yoga

Or maybe I should say, “the yoga of poetry.” Maybe it’s both.

My new writing class has started, and I’m once again positioned to ponder the intersection of the body and the mind, and what it means to teach. My students are young, full of energy, and eager to learn. After reading just two chapters of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita, they’re full of questions: “Why is Krishna encouraging Arjuna to kill?” “Why is sorrow a delusion?” “What does Krishna mean, that our smallest actions can change us?” “What does it mean to be attached to the senses?”

Already, discussion in class is intense. Intense enough that I’ve come to realize I have given myself a huge responsibility. I walk out of class thinking, “Whoa.”

This afternoon, a former teacher of mine (and Steve’s), Robert Hass, was interviewed on the radio, and he said this: “Wordsworth read the German Romantics. Thoreau read Wordsworth, Teddy Roosevelt read Thoreau, and we got the national parks. It took a hundred years, but it happened. People read poetry and have their eyes opened.”

He was describing, as all poets must do these days, why poetry is important. Percy Shelley said something similar almost 200 years ago: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

I’ve realized this may be the only contact these 20 minds have with this or any poem, with this “song of God,” with yoga. If we define yoga as “spiritual discipline,” and/or as Krishna himself does, as “skill in action,” it gives me pause. I pause to consider I’m using this as tool to teach them to write, and that the skills I teach them will, ideally, carry them through the rest of their lives.

Then there is practice, the practice I mean when I say, “I do yoga.” I have my own teachers, Maria Zavala and Tim Miller. They are guiding me. I am guiding my students. Suddenly my asana practice has extra heft. The condition of my body becomes my method of equipping my mind for the spiritual discipline of my writing, and my teaching of writing.

I am, myself, a writer—a writer of poetry, of these words. It never occurred to me that my yoga practice (as I’m defining it above—and as an integrated spiritual discipline) holds me responsible for the words I’m writing to you now, and the poetry I will write in the future. And that I must, like Arjuna, practice skill in action when I write, teach, and do Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. This is why we use this word yoga and don’t translate it, the complex poetry of union.

Posted by Bobbie

Mercury Day Poetry: The Bhagavad Gita

This week’s poem was an easy choice. I’ve been busy preparing to teach a new, revised version of my writing class this fall, and I’ve decided to use Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita as my main text. Although there are many English translations of the Gita, I chose Mitchell’s because, well, because he keeps it in verse form (trimeter quatrains, actually). Also, I’ll be teaching college freshmen–new writers–and Mitchell takes care not to burden his text with commentary and notes. It’s user-friendly.

For me, the most awesome parts of the Gita are the moments when God describes His own nature to Arjuna. This passage (somewhere around 7.7-12) is one of my favorites.


There is nothing more fundamental

than I, Arjuna; all worlds,

all beings, are strung upon me

like pearls on a single thread.


I am the taste in the water,

the light in the moon and sun,

the sacred syllable Om

in the Vedas, the sound in air.


I am the fragrance of the earth,

the manliness in men, the brilliance

in fire, the life in the living,

and the abstinence in ascetics.


I am the primal seed

within all beings, Arjuna:

the wisdom of those who know,

the splendor of the high and mighty.


I am the strength of the strong man

who is free of desire and attachment;

I am desire itself

when desire is consistent with duty.


All states of being, whether

marked by sattva or rajas

or tamas, proceed from me;

they are in me, not I in them.


Posted by Bobbie

The poetry of Ashtanga

Before I fell in love with the asana practice of Ashtanga, I was seduced by its sound.

It seemed a total mystery of the best kind. The teacher would call out a word I did not know, and tell me to inhale with it, then another and to exhale with it. Certain words would make me move in very specific ways, and I understood none of them. It was like a spell.

What’s more, the words themselves had beats made for poetry. The word Ashtanga is a strong dactyl. “Yoga” is a trochee. Together, what a weird beat: “Ashtanga yoga.” How many times during a led class do we get reminded of its meaning? “Ashto exhale” as we move our limbs to the eighth breath.

The first pose name I learned has this curious rhythmic quality: “triang mukha eka pada paschimottanasana.” I suspect I learned it first because it sounds as off-center as it felt.

The Bhagavad Gita in beautiful Sanskrit

Sanskrit is on my mind because I’m teaching new students, and new students often express a kind of awe at the Sanskrit. It causes some intimidation. Sometimes even distrust (one Venice yoga studio proudly proclaims, “NO SANSKRIT” on its exterior). There’s a lot of burying of Sanskrit in other forms of yoga, even banning. I think that removes the heart of the pose, its lineage.

Maybe it’s because I write poetry myself, and read a lot of poetry, but it seems to me like the Sanskrit is part of the purpose of the practice. The word evokes the pose, makes it complete. Sanskrit philosophy contends there is no distinction between the word and the thing it signifies, something of a point of contention in contemporary Western philosophy, called “the myth of original language.” A “myth,” and so, in Western eyes, not true.

One Sanskrit word for “poet” (“kavi”–but there are many) translates as “one who has supreme knowledge.” Perhaps this is the thing the poets know, the magic of language is in its evocative power. It seems to me that’s what I’m striving to do in the pose, anyway: to know.

Is this why Ashtanga uses Sanskrit so much? Perhaps Tim Miller’s explanation is the best, elegantly true: “The English just sounds stupid.”

Posted by Bobbie