Ashtanga, Poetry, and Ganesha’s Eyebrow

On our home altar we have a murti of Ganesha that I got a number of years ago. This is the Ganesha who received Vyasa’s dictation of the Mahabharata. He is standing contrapposto with his notebook in one hand and his broken tusk in the other. If you don’t know the story, it’s Ganesha who wrote down the epic, and so inspired was Vyasa that when the pen broke, Ganesha snapped off his own tusk and used it instead so as not to interrupt the poet. His hand with tusk is poised lightly just above the page. His trunk hangs down in an elegantly relaxed “S.” He is looking at you, head tilted to one side, elephant ears perked, and something like a smile implied in his demeanor. Above one eye, his eyebrow is cocked, as if he is waiting for you to utter the next words…

I nearly emptied the bank account to buy this image of Ganesha. I loved it the instant I saw it, but I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, until today.

The summer means a break from teaching for me, and as a result I spend it writing as much poetry as I can. I try to make the most of each day. But here’s the thing about poetry writing. You can’t really clock in, sit down, crank out a bunch of words, and then clock out.

“If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree,” wrote John Keats, “it had better not come at all.”

That process is shrouded in mystery. In the West, it’s long been compared to demon possession (“daemons” in ancient Greece were in an intermediate state between god and human); or at the very least, to possession by the Muse, something poets ardently sought and tried to magically evoke at the start of their poems (“Sing, Muse…”). So, basically, I sit around and wait for inspiration. “Inspiration”: from the Latin inspirare, “divine guidance.” (Also, interestingly, another name for the inhalation breath.)

But I’m under a certain amount of pressure not to waste my time. To make the most of my leaf growing. When something magical doesn’t happen, I get pissed. Which in turn insures that something isn’t going to happen at all, and makes the whole non-process difficult. Which, as Keats noticed, it’s not supposed to be. But of course it is, in turn making me more pissed off.

This was not the case today, however. I sat down, and I waited without waiting, and something like poetry came. In the moments following that odd phenomenon of creation, there’s something like relief: “To me alone there came a thought of grief,” wrote Wordsworth, “A timely utterance gave that thought relief, / And again I am strong.”

When I was done, and the poetry pathways were clear, and the work of poetry was finished, I grumpily rolled out my mat to practice. Because, you know, that’s what we do.

Ashtanga, as has been noted, is also hard. Not particularly wanting to practice doesn’t make that any easier, and a deep-seated sense of insecurity about whether or not one should even be doing Ashtanga can make that difficulty…well, more difficult. Combine that with the fact that you know exactly what’s coming, and what’s coming is hard, and you encounter a lot of mental resistance. Which does not exactly get you ready for yoga in the greater sense of the word: The calm mind. I was not ready. But as I put my palms together for the opening mantra, I looked into Ganesha’s eye with its cocked eyebrow, and had a vision.

The vision took the form of a scene from the 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Sundance: [Cocking his gun for the fight.] “Ready?”

Butch: [Inspiration striking.] “No, we’ll jump.”

Sundance: [Looking down the cliff at the raging river below.] “Like hell we will.”

Butch: “No, we’ll be okay. If the water’s deep enough and we don’t get squished to death. They’ll never follow us.”

Sundance: “How do you know?”

Butch: “Would you make a jump like that if you didn’t have to?”

Sundance: “I have to and I’m not gunna.” [This is exactly the way I feel before I practice, by the way.] [Snip.]

Butch: “I’ll jump first.”

Sundance: “Nope.”

Butch: “Then you jump first.”

Sundance: “No I said!”

Butch: “What’s the matter with you?”

Sundance: “I CAN’T SWIM.” [Pause.]

Butch: [Laughing.] “Why, are you crazy? The fall’ll probably kill you!”

Unable to resist in the face of Paul Newman’s impeccable logic, Robert Redford shouts film’s most famous “Woooooah shiiiit!” as they jump together. End of vision.

Standing there on my mat, I was laughing. The very act of poetry writing is in essence impossible; the very act of trying to write a poem is in fact the very thing that will keep you from writing a poem, which suddenly seemed, in the eye of Ganesha, very much like the impossibility of Ashtanga. I laughed, and had a delirious practice. I fell into it, like I fall into a poem, because the fall will probably kill me. But it might not. There’s only one way to find out. This, I suppose, is what surrender feels like, and I’d been doing it all along as a poet.

My murti of Ganesha so captured my attention years ago because of course he embodies the perfect state of artistic surrender. He’s waiting to receive, without anticipation and without expectation. He’s prepared, but in no way suggesting that anything must be done with all that preparation. And it’s in the absence of all those things that inspiration comes.

Posted by Bobbie

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

Use the tools best fit for you

Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century and one in a line of wonderful, broadly audacious writers to come from Ireland, passed away on Friday.

Bobbie, who shared a few drinks with him 20-plus years ago, and I raised a small glass of Paddy’s to him last night, and we read a poem of his, “Remember Malibu”, given its geographic closeness to us.

The following poem, an early one, is generally recognized as his rumination on working with the tools best fit for him and in many ways set forth how he’d approach his life — via his art.

It seems a fitting reminder of one of yoga’s lessons: harnessing your best attributes in order to extend yourself outward/inward/further. WordPress won’t get the formatting correct, so also check here:


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.


Posted by Steve

Why Ashtanga will never be “popular,” part 2

In short: Because it’s too hard.

The teenage son of a friend of mine was over the house the other day. Looking over the bookshelves in the living room, he said “I see you like poetry a lot.”

“Yes,” I said, “Do you?”

“No,” he replied. “I hate it.”

“Hate’s a strong word. Why do you hate it?”

He didn’t hesitate: “Because it’s hard and I don’t understand it.”

I hear this all the time about poetry. I hear it from my students. I hear it from friends. So I have a ready response:

“If you spend your life avoiding things that are hard and you don’t understand, you’ll never learn anything beyond the obvious.”

He looked at me thoughtfully and pulled one of the books off the shelf while I chatted with his dad.

The memory of this conversation came to mind as I was thinking out my response to David Garrigues, and his comments on pain. I also kept thinking, oddly, of  lines from poets on poetry; Keats, for one–about the way it makes you think in “branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain.” And Marianne Moore’s famous first line on “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it,” she wrote.

Ashtanga, like poetry, is a demanding thing, and true understanding of anything is painful. It’s why I’m always a little suspicious of people who say they “like” yoga in the exact same way I’m suspicious of people who tell me they “like” to write poetry. You have to give up so much that is familiar and comfortable. “Like” is really the wrong word for that.

The process of relinquishing to Ashtanga is slow and sometimes sneaky. I’ve noticed that it seems to happen in a fairly predictable order. Usually, you get an eyeful in your first few classes of someone who seems to be an otherwise ordinary person doing extraordinary things. You want. You want to do that. Your teacher seems to be asking you to do extraordinary things as if they were possible. You begin to believe. So you start practicing more.

More practice, more possibility. You start carving out more time for practice.

Then: Diet. Then: Life habits. Then: Sleep habit. Then: Study. Then: Everything else.

It’s definitely true that most people that try Ashtanga do not go through this process. A few who try it stay, and hover around the first few stages. They never venture into sadhana. I suspect that most of these practitioners eventually quit, because something that seemed amazing when they first started suddenly seems repetitive, prescriptive and limiting, or worse: demanding and dangerous. Pain has a lot to do with this.

And after a certain level of proficiency, the asanas of the Ashtanga system aren’t any harder than any other rigorous workout. But that kind of entropy usually leads to experimentation. “Maybe I’ll try Pilates,” they’ll say to themselves one day when they feel bored, “or go back to running more.” Ennui sets it.

I’m not deriding this; I’m just suggesting that eventually, practice of Ashtanga leads to study, and the practitioner at that point makes a choice. They either study, or quit.

I’m reminded (as usual) of a story Tim Miller tells about Guruji. “Practice, and all is coming,” they heard (as have we all). So they practiced. But one day they asked, “Guruji, what is coming?”

“Samadhi!” he said. Samadhi is not going to come from just practicing the third limb. You’ll need to know what those other six are all about to get to the seventh.

So this is another reason why Ashtanga will never be popular. Like poetry. There’s a lot of poetry out there. But the fact of the matter is a lot of it is bad. It’s bad, because it’s easy, and the poets that write it have not studied poetry. They haven’t studied poetry because it’s hard and they don’t understand it. It will never be popular—that is, true poetry will never be popular. Because it’s hard. Why read it? Why write it? Why do it? Dylan Tomas answers:

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

So when the Ashtanga practitioner gets to the point where the real work begins, when they must release the familiar—even familiar kinds of pain—and learn to distinguish the Real from the Unreal…Well, that is poetry. And it’s hard.

Posted by Bobbie

Mercury day poetry: Poe’s ‘A Dream’

Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday is just 10 days away, and that’s all the excuse we need to print a morbidly lovely poem of his today. It’s called “A Dream.” I’d say enjoy, but that’s not quite the right experience to seek:

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed-
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.

Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream- that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar-
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?

Posted by Steve


Mercury day poetry: ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’

In honor of the just past winter solstice, we have a poem that arguably refers to that night: Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The reference to the “darkest evening of the year” just may refer to the solstice.

Here you go:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: Rimbaud’s ‘Dawn’

For reasons I hope are extremely obvious, this poem seemed fitting to our little Ashtanga corner of the yoga world. Arthur Rimbaud’s “Dawn”:

I have kissed the summer dawn. Before the palaces, nothing moved. The water lay dead. Battalions of shadows still kept the forest road.

I walked, walking warm and vital breath, While stones watched, and wings rose soundlessly.

My first adventure, in a path already gleaming With a clear pale light, Was a flower who told me its name.

I laughted at the blond Wasserfall That threw its hair across the pines: On the silvered summit, I came upon the goddess.

Then one by one, I lifted her veils. In the long walk, waving my arms.

Across the meadow, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the heart of town she fled among the steeples and domes, And I hunted her, scrambling like a beggar on marble wharves.

Above the road, near a thicket of laurel, I caught her in her gathered veils, And smelled the scent of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell together at the bottom of the wood.

When I awoke, it was noon.

That’s what can happen if you nod off during savasana.

Posted by Steve