Yoga as Process and Presence, not Prescription: (and what i don't like about yoga 😉)

Reach by Mary Oliver.jpg

FYI: Self disclosure time on what I don’t like about yoga. 😉

Since poet Mary Oliver’s passing in January, you might have noticed a surge of her poems showering social media. Her poetry has spoken to me for years because of her presence in life, in nature. She makes words out of her process of living, not of a “one day”, trite, dreamy, Pinterest-like magazine spread. She’s in it for noticing the sunshine and the unruly weeds.

Years ago when my older child was a baby, I began a nightly poetry practice where I gave myself 15 minutes to jot down specific sensory details of my day, and I allowed it to turn into a poem. I pushed away perfection by setting a timer. (Done is better than perfect - thanks, Mom). But the richness I enjoyed and what really steered the poem were the specific details of what I noticed:

  • swollen ankle where my boy accidentally rammed a monster truck into me

  • doctor handing my my warm and damp second born

  • my boy asking me “how do planets move?” while his feet wedge between my calves in bed

  • painful knees, bone-on-bone, leading me back to my slow center

Writing or journaling about my own unruly weeds, pains in my body or heart, has continuously opened a path of “okayness” and wisdom for me. It has led me to ask for support, to reach not only for support through my own therapy but also for what I want. Opening the lid on my own pot of dark has gently, gradually, led me to my truths revealing my deepest hungers. And they come to fruition organically, in due time, sometimes with bittersweet growth but always with deep satisfaction.

Now what is it that I don’t like about yoga? And how does it relate to a Mary Oliver poem? I believe in the practices of yoga - from meditation, to self-inquiry and self-knowledge, to service, to an asana/posture practice, etc. Yes, I do. I believe whether they are performed in Lululemon or in dusty basements, the practices are gateways to noticing, to tolerating distress, to strength, to learning (or being subjected to) surrendering.

But I also believe yoga practices can be applied like prescriptions of bypass. Wear this, look like this, meditate like this, act like this, eat only that, detest that, buy this, do this sequence, learn from this teacher, perfect that pose…. Sometimes yoga culture can feel like diet culture. Lots of promises, lots of quick fixes, and some rigidity that tastes stale, suffocating and slimy. And that makes me — and many people I know and care for — run like the wind. And we should run.

Because yoga should be about connection. About process. About compassion. About effort with loving discernment. About noticing the reach, noticing how we react when we can’t have what we want, noticing how we project onto others, noticing how our bodies are shaped differently and can’t be forced into a certain shape, or sometimes are too watery and bendy and need to push away a too intense practice and say “no more.” It’s about discernment for what works for you. For what gives you energy, for what takes you to your truth, for what lights you up and gives you your spark back. It’s not about restriction and getting smaller in your body, your mind, your experience or your heart.

In the process of reaching for strength (literal and figurative), awareness, stillness, bliss, flexibility, truth, wanderlust, one has to taste the process along the way. Not only the warmth of the sun salutations but also wrestling with wanting something you can’t have, noticing the fidgety feelings in a yin pose, seeking support for trauma or sensations that get stuck or scarily activated. The dark, the shadow, the part you don’t want to see about or for yourself, has just as much value — if not more — than the light.

“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” (Carl Jung)

This Mary Oliver poem talks about reaching, opening with “there are things you can’t reach,” but her own rapture and digesting of life shows up in the process, the richness of living, the journey of wakefulness (and I might add “bliss”) shows up in the process of everyday living. In noticing the details. And she starts closing with “Everything in the world comes. At least, closer.”

This takes me back to my last blog post where I wrote about the embodiment process of YIELD, PUSH, REACH, GRASP, PULL. Check it out and notice where you need to go. If you’re a yogi, think of a shape that is a parallel to one of those patterns. Stay in it. Be in it. It’s not about “getting to a pose”. Yes, it is about “reaching” for a pose, but it might not be time. There might be more interesting and healing fish and snakes to notice and digest along the way. 🌞🦋🌞

Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End? 
By Mary Oliver

There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.

And thinking: maybe something will come, some
shining coil of wind,
or a few leaves from any old tree–
they are all in this too.

And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of goldfluttering around the corner of the sky

of God, the blue air.