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poetry and pose.



It’s World Poetry Day! Those of you who know me and follow this blog, know that I am an unashamed word ho. Fat words, thin words, wordy words, those more tight-lipped, those explicit and those that shimmer in the liminal. I pretty much love them all. It's when they coalesce into something called "literature" that I often tear out my hair. The fault doesn't lie with the words themselves, no. It lies with us, the readers, and our untiring need to strip the heart's musicality from our stories.


See, I follow a number of literature-loving blogs, channels and websites because I ... well, yes. That. Obviously. And time again, I come across the same thing, whether in the articles themselves or the comments they incubate and hatch: this ghastly tendency to reduce stories to nothing more than an academic autopsy, a veneration of a book's bone and gristle, its mechanics, rather than an act of devotion for its (now vacated) soul.


Oh, how we praise the structure, the postmodern love affair for the non-linear and fragmented, how we pat ourselves on the back for recognising a metaphysical aphorism when it threatens to bite us on the arse of our literary pretensions. How we love to bring Joyce, Faulkner, Baudrillard or Kafka (ideally all four) into any discussion, so-called "difficult" authors for others but not for us and our learnt-by-rote understanding that became set in amber the moment the ink dried on a long-ago scroll.


Urgh. I could, and do, yawn with boredom.


Now, hands up, maybe it's cos I'm thick. Or, rather, I lack a formal education. (For those with a formal education, it's one and the same.) I'll admit, I do envy those who had the good fortune to attend university, who had the potential of their worldview being challenged and expanded through stockpiled knowledge from all the great thinkers and authors through the years. What a privilege! What an opportunity!


Yet I wonder. Because I notice in these bookish chats and blogs ~ and perhaps it's because any interest-based forum inevitably becomes an echo chamber ~ a depressing, higher-educated groupthink that seems, to my mind at least, to view reading literature as a purely cognitive exercise through which to flex their intellectual credentials and establish status.


Overt demonstrations of obscure knowledge accompanied by carefully rehearsed textual analysis that considers lofty implications not at first apparent, prompt swift replies referencing other similarly impenetrable authors or, at the very least, a Goodreads quote from Nietzche.


Yes! I shout. Very well done! But tell me, how did that book or poem make you feel? How did the words lie, stand or dance in your mouth? How did your heart respond, your guts? How did the whole of it fit around you, within you?


I'm not interested in the corpse, a skeleton of typeset lines that can articulate but is unable to move. I'm interested in what lived first. The dreams and spirit that sparked its existence into being, the vibration that plays between the strings of its sinews, that came before them, the combustion not the engine. If I were an author, I would weep if my attempts to communicate my soul were lost in the bardo forever because nobody noticed that the book or article or poem, the clever word play or unusual structure ~ all of it was beside the point.


O! my poor heart—doom’d, thou shalt remain the soft-shod servant to the soaring glory of my ribcage for all slow eternity.

Keats said that. I imagine ... *


Mad innit tho? Which brings me to yoga. Not obviously, I admit. Bear with.


Social media is awash with yoga "experts", some of them with no qualifications other than a Moon in Aquarius and an Etsy toe ring. You would think that yoga ~ as we see it on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc, ~ is nothing but asana, the physical poses. Asana is visual, a natural bedfellow for socials. We are visual creatures. Fair enough.


But if reducing yoga to merely asana in the public consciousness isn't enough, asana itself is being divvyed up into even smaller and meaner portions of so-called expertise by teachers trying to find intellectual elbow room ~ their edge, USP ~ in the crush of an optic-obsessed yoga industry. There are yoga experts building their brand on inversions, fascia release, spirality, body proportions, pelvic floor health, hormonal regulation ... each drawing on the hard sciences to win over Western sceptisim, yet each standing as a new religion proselytising to any would-be disciple with enough disposable income.


(As an aside, I blame the middle class. Too much of the wrong sort of education leading to too much of the right sort of career providing so much economic stability that they can take up a second career "just for fun" and spoil it for everybody else. Go me, class warrior!)


In the same way that literary snobs unwittingly bypass the beating heart of great verse by their colour-by-numbers intellectualism and forgetting to read aloud, these anatomists ~ because that's what they are ~ are stripping the musicality and magic from Yoga proper. You know, all Eight Limbs, not just the one photogenic one.


Can we pause here? Even rewind a bit, because this is important. Reading aloud. I love reading out loud. It’s a whole different experience to reading in your head. When we read in our head, the words remain muffled, patterns making up a line or verse go by unnoticed. Sure, we may see and understand the individual words themselves but they’re unable to vibrate, knock against their neighbours to produce something new. They remain charming but unstruck bells.


This means we only ever get the abridged version, stripped of richness and depriving ourselves of a deep, knowing somatic response. It’s the difference between speaking and singing. Thinking and feeling.


Sanskrit, as I've said before, is more than just an alphabet of letters from which to produce words and, from words, texts that we try to live a life by. Sanskrit is what's known as a phonocentric language ~ how it sounds is valued above how it is written. Each letter has a divine, universal resonance. An increasing number of Western yoga teachers eschew the use of Sanskrit in their lessons, decrying it as exclusive and elitist while at the same time deep-diving into the mitochondrial behaviour of muscle cells in a Seated Forward Fold and calling it a yoga retreat.


As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Maybe more than is healthy. But I like to think that I’ve come up with some sort of conclusion as to why modern postural yoga teachers and would-be literary critics seem to be on a shared path of asset-stripping their own home. Tis thusly (and you’ll be delighted that I’ve broken it down into three points because I’m nothing if not tedious value for money):


1. A need for certainty.

2. A fear of simplicity.

3. Status anxiety.


Put the kettle on, love, I’m feeling expansive.


Yoga is in essence a spiritual practice. You can argue all you want, but I’m not budging on this. It’s an inseparable part of a culture that is deeply comfortable with philosophy, tradition, mysticism, esotericism, allegory and universal questions of existence. Indian culture is one not afraid to inhabit a world without edges or existential grab rails, to bring a pantheon of deities and wild, mythic beasts into home and hearth, while our largely secular Western culture quakes at the very idea of this undomesticated not-knowing. Instead of embracing the great mysteries of life, we enter into a battle to slay them with reason, scientific excisions to save our fragile sense of place in the Universe from flatlining. (And yes, definitely, this is where claims of cultural appropriation are valid. If you don’t respect the origins of yoga and don’t refer to them as you teach, then have you considered pilates?)


Similarly, those who strip poetry and verse down to the nuts and bolts, who insist there is a “correct” interpretation of any text, are similarly disengaged from the bigger picture. Like yoga, poetry exists in the liminal, in what is not on the page (or mat), but what lies behind and beyond. Each is deeply experiential and therefore has a multiplicity of meaning, the unknown and ineffable an intrinsic essential.


Points 2 and 3 skip along hand-in-hand and, to be honest, I could just boil them down to snobbery but that would be lazy and harsh, even for me. So then:


A yoga teacher who expresses themselves with simplicity is a teacher who wants to gift knowledge to the widest audience possible. They are egalitarians. They realise that yoga is a complete system as it is. No need to paint the toe nails of the elephant. A teacher who dazzles with technical jargon, who presents asana only in terms of highly complex physiology or home-grown theories of movement is, sadly, more concerned about the pedicure, the elephant forgotten.


Whether referring to poetry, literature or yoga … simplicity seems to have become a dirty word. Simplicity conjures less-than, not good-enough, childish and, the big one, low status. And I understand it. Our culture is voracious; it consumes everything without tasting anything at all. It’s easy to feel anonymous, insignificant, chewed up and spat out. We want to feel special, noticed.


But what’s wrong with a bit of Pam Ayres, eh? Or Brian Bilston, Dan Brown or Maeve Binchy? What’s wrong with poetry that rhymes, books with pictures and a large typeface? How can the joy evoked by any of the above be sneered at as less than? Is delight or satisfaction with poetry or yoga acceptable only if it's sourced from a degree in English literature or a former career as a physiotherapist or Home Office pathologist? Of course not.


Right about now, you might be accusing me of hypocrisy. Yo, Trood, but what if some yoga teachers find their delight in the girdling structure of the thoracolumbar fascia? That's fair, I understand. And personally, I’m a double-threat ~ I’m an anatomy geek and love tinkering around under the hot bonnet of a chunk of well-crafted prose.


Listen. We can all pause for a moment to enjoy the beautiful pedicure provided by a traditional education or prompted by the drive to grow a brand or develop a second career. But it’s still missing the point.


Time to circle back then, to earlier in this article.

But tell me, how did that book or poem make you feel? How did the words lie, stand or dance in your mouth? How did your heart respond, your guts? How did the whole of it fit around you, within you?”

To be fully human, it’s not enough for us to know ~ or think we know ~ and stay tucked up safe in the warm folds of our certain brain. We need to drop down into our heart, to embrace the unknowable, the uncertain. Yoga and literature both allow us so much opportunity to do this if we just give them space to be exactly as they are.


If we can summon the courage to kick off and away from the shallow end of reason and analysis, would it be possible to move into more satisfying, joyful depths? Would it be possible to not only hear the musicality hiding in the white spaces of a word finally read out loud or understand the vast peace found in the negative space of a Forward Fold, but to feel them?


I believe so. But by westernising yoga, by trying to reimagine it through a scientific lens in order to broaden appeal and appease a target demographic, we’re stripping away its power, dismantling thousands of years of carefully gathered wisdom, stories, myths and archetypes, a system put together for the sole purpose of helping us understand our place in this mad, cosmic dance.


What sad irony then, how our intellectual hubris is taking us steadily away from meaning. If we're not careful, yoga will become like a great work of poetry so badly abridged that we're deprived of its song too.




*I so made that up.

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