Although yoga practitioners have always harbored a strong affinity for poetry, with many teachers inclined to break out a poem either at the beginning or end of class, the current state of the world practically insists that we all wave our poetry flags high. Poetry, in these uncertain times, can be the words our souls clamor for.
Here, a poem that we hope will broaden your horizons from Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish poet and essayist who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, coupled with commentary from yoga teacher Claire Copersino, founder of North Folk Yoga Shala in Greenport, New York.
A Little Bit About the Soul
By Wisława Szymborska
A soul is something we have every now and then.
Nobody has one all the time
Day after day,
year after year,
can go by without one.
Only sometimes in rapture
or in the fears of childhood
it nests a little longer.
Only sometimes in the wonderment
that we are old.
It rarely assists us
during tiresome tasks,
such as moving furniture,
or traveling on foot in shoes too tight.
When we're filling out questionnaires
or chopping meat
it's usually given time off.
Out of our thousand conversations
it participates in one,
and even that isn't a given,
for it prefers silence.
When the body starts to ache and ache
it quietly steals from its post.
not happy to see us in crowds,
sickened by our struggle for any old advantage
and the drone of business dealings.
It doesn't see joy and sorrow
as two different feelings.
It is with us
only in their union.
We can count on it
when we're not sure of anything
and curious about everything.
Of all material objects
it likes grandfather clocks
and mirrors, which work diligently
even when no one is looking.
It doesn't state where it comes from
or when it will vanish again,
but clearly it awaits such questions.
just as we need it,
it can also use us
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Trzeciak.
A Little Bit About the Soul, interpreted by Claire Copersino
For me, coming to my practice of yoga is fundamentally an invitation to plug in and renew my connection with the unmanifest aspect of myself, what some call the soul, divine, inner self. All these different words describing a similar experience.
My very first yoga teacher read poems and inspirational quotes during class (usually at the beginning and/or end) as did my first yoga teacher training. We made a ritual out of reading an inevitably provocative and inspiring poem at the end of class. These initial experiences were deeply formative in my relationship with, and endless journey into, the yoga practices and sharing yoga with others. At the beginning of class, it is such an important role of the yogic usher (instructor) to set a tone to create and hold space. Language, cadence and tone of voice are implicit in that undertaking. These days I let it stream through me, after getting myself into a receptive state prior to class. In the early days I would read something inspirational just before we chanted to gather our collective energies into a conducive field.
At the junction where Savasana ends, and the bridge out into the world is offered by the instructor, a poem that resonates with the reader (ie: instructor) can be particularly fertile. Students are usually in a very receptive state. I’ve gone through so many stages over the past 20 years of teaching yoga in terms of what I’ve read at the end of class (passages from ancient texts or books by illumined teachers, as well as favorite poets (there was a run of several years where I exclusively read Mary Oliver). These days it’s usually poetry, and those poems seem to be finding me more than me finding them. This trend speaks to my overall journey in life, as I’ve thankfully come to the understanding that whatever it is I am seeking, is seeking me, and will find me effortlessly. It would be impossible to overstate the role that my 25 years of practicing yoga has had in this regard.
A consistent and enduring yoga practice offers us the opportunity to progressively diminish our preferences and conditional way of relating to life and ourselves and open up to the unconditional fertile ground of the soul. As Syzmborska states, “it doesn’t see joy and sorrow as two different feelings. It is with us only in their union.” It is in this accepting, receptive, non-judgmental state that the veil lifts and the soul reveals itself to us. We can experience tension, resistance, pain, the mundane and so much more from the detached state of pure awareness. This is the generative ground from which we can transform these seeming limitations. The blending of inspired language, mindfulness and yoga serves as a profoundly uplifting tool conducive to a union of the inner landscape with outer circumstances. Taken together, poetry, stillness and movement facilitate a “conversation” inside of us that our soul may be inclined to participate in. That conversation draws us into the wholeness of life. It may even ask us to take our fully realized selves out into the world to be used, as Szymborska says, for something that is ours alone to discover.
See also 15 Poses to Open Your Heart Again After Grief, from Claire Copersino