When yoga is art

I’d like to share a little story with you about the value of the arts, infidelity, svadhyaya and yoga.

William Herring, Painter

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I step into Bookpeople to buy a book on entrepreneurship, but once inside the business section, I decide I’d much rather pay full price for books of poetry instead and I walk to that corner of the store.  I pull out my iphone to reserve the e-myth from the library to assuage any lingering guilt, then I pick out two books of poetry, purchase them with the remains of my birthday gift card, tuck the slim volumes into my purse and go on with the afternoon.

On the car ride home, I pull out the books and give a little poetry reading for Dave who is driving.  I start with Mary Oliver’s New and Selected Poems, volume II and I flip open, landing on page 57.

What I Have Learned so Far

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I

not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,

looking into the shining world? Because, proper-

ly attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is sug-


The poem goes on (so nice…so nice) and then finishes with this line:

Be ignited, or be gone.

Dave and I admire the poem and I decide I am happy with this addition to my poetry collection: meditation, nature, a call to action…all things I appreciate.

For comparison, I open to the same page, page 57, in the second book of poetry: Sharon Old’s, The Stag’s Leap. “Tiny Siren” is the title, written at the top of the page.  The words below describe a moment when the poet discovers a photo of a woman in a bathing suit floating at the top of her washing machine.  Her husband acts surprised when she asks him about it and then later he reveals that the woman, a woman they both know, had given him the photo when they went running together. The poem continues…

…He smiled at me,

and took my hand, and turned to me,

and said, it seemed not by rote,

but as if it were a physical law

of the earth, I love you.  And we made love,

and I felt so close to him—I had not

known he knew how to lie, and his telling me

touched my heart.  Just once, later

in the day, I felt a touch seasick, as if

a deck were tilting under me—

a run he’d taken, not mentioned in our home,

a fisher of men in the washing machine.

Just for a few minutes I had felt a little nervous.

The poem ends there.  Dave and I are silent.

I forget how intense Sharon Olds’ poetry is.  That lady is a truth. speaker.  She speaks her truth. Certainly a poet such as Ms. Olds has a profound practice of svadhyaya, of self-inquiry.  I have two of her other books, The Gold Cell and The Wellspring.  They have been on my shelf for years.  You can’t pick those up for a casual read, which is why I haven’t picked them up lately, I guess.  Dave reminds me of the poem about her sexual experiences with her college professor—it’s one he claims is burned into his mind as quintessential Sharon Olds.

Back at home, I read the rest of the 89 pages. I can’t put it down.  The poetry reads like a novel but because it’s poetry, I fill in the open spaces at the ends of the lines with feelings from my own gut.  To feel the stirring again, the deck tilting under me, as I read the poems about the end of this woman’s 30-year marriage I couldn’t help but recall my end-of-marriage experience. This profoundly changed the way I see myself in the world, gave me a need for yoga that I hadn’t realized before, and as a result of the experiences and the work that came afterwards, I like my life a lot more than I used to.  I sometimes feel like I have resolution, but reading this, I see that things aren’t really resolved. There isn’t a conclusion.  It is all still inside of me…ongoing.  Even with the healing and the counseling and being together again with Dave, “every experience leaves a residue.”  There is a residue from my experience that I’m still experiencing and this poetry helps me to see that it is still able to come right back to the surface…to my surface.  Maybe the difference is that now, I have my sea-legs.   That, and I have meditation and this opportunity with Dave to have new experiences that help to shape my memory of it all.

We need the arts.  They are a form of svadhyaya. Sharon Olds puts words to her discoveries and reflections and translates these into poetry that is so very personal and so human, so sublime.  Her words help us to better understand ourselves, ourselves in love, and ourselves in relationship to others. We can understand ourselves better through this work of art. This ability to feel deeply and to know what is inside (even when it is painful) is very important. It shapes our behavior whether we are conscious of it or not.   If we do know going on, we might influence the direction it heads.  So make art, write, dance if you feel called. Uncover what’s inside and listen to the creative voice inside of you, even if it comes through someone else’s work.  Read, look for and support artists in your community and learn from this. The poem, the painting, or the object that lets you feel something unknown or untouchable inside of yourself is part of your practice of yoga.   Find it and then stay with it for a while.

11 thoughts on “When yoga is art

  1. You wrote: “There isn’t a conclusion. It is all still inside of me…” I think it’s because you aren’t made of glass, nor am I. We can’t Windex our lives. Our experiences are like smudges, fingerprints, and collective dirt that serves as the muck for nurturing the lotus… maybe.

    What a great post, Amanda. You rocked the stadium at my desk, this morning. 🙂 Thanks.


  2. This feeds right into something I came across the other day. I am not familiar with Joan Didion, but read a blog post that summarizes an essay she wrote called “On Keeping a Notebook.” The post contained an excerpt from the essay:

    “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

    To me, this echoes around what you wrote, and the same section that Meredith honed in on: ” I like my life a lot more than I used to. I sometimes feel like I have resolution, but reading this, I see that things aren’t really resolved. There isn’t a conclusion. It is all still inside of me…ongoing.” For me that feels true, it is ongoing and somewhat unpleasant and yet still necessary.

    Didion then continues:

    “It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.”

    And here I think you successfully prove a counterpoint–someone else’s art can and does help others. Even though our individual experiences may be very different, there are undercurrents in art that we can all relate to and make our own by viewing it through the lens of our unique experiences. I feel like Didion’s urging us to keep notebooks and your urging us to make and enjoy art is the same message at heart.

    1. Vickie, thanks so much for your comment. I’ve been thinking about it so much over the last few days and now have one of Joan Didion’s books on hold at the library and I’m excited to read it. I love your reflections on art and on this essay about coming to terms with who we used to be and notebooks.

      Notebooks, as she describes them, are so very personal. I have kept notebooks since I was in second grade. I remember my first entry ever was about the injustice at the swing set after school with Jeanette James. She did NOT follow the school-time rules and get off the swing after I counted to 60 so I could have my turn, and then my mom showed up and I had to leave. I was so mad. I needed to get it out…so I started my first journal and have kept it up since then.

      I’ll tell you what. This is the only notebook of mind that I’ve ever reread. The writing on those hundreds of pages was primarily a release of feelings inside of me but I never wrote so that it could be seen or read. But here’s where art or at least the kind we are talking about here is so very interesting. Art is giving expression to a feeling or experience and it asks for a witness. It is presented so that it can be seen. And it is in this relationship of artist and witness that something really magical happens. The connection and the humanity and the revelation (if it’s really good and relevant). Allowing ourselves to be seen– This is something good artists do well and we get so much from it.

  3. I’m right there with you Amanda …I never know where the next trigger of a memory, feeling or emotion will come from …and, what might bubble up. But I will say that (for me) when these little gems come to the surface, the experience is always useful doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad 🙂 The amazing thing is that we only see it when we are ready to see it …how perfect is that?! Laurie

    1. “the experience is always useful doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad”…spoken like a true yogini, Laurie! When I manage to have this perspective, then things are much more amazing, I agree. 🙂

  4. Agreed. A student asks me for a recommeded reading list and I admit that most of my inspiration comes from art as it is everywhere; in painting and nature, in novels, and thoughtful presentations….

  5. I’ve been offline for a couple of months with pneumonia. During that time I read some great blog posts and didn’t have the focus to reply. I’m feeling better now and am craving my blogging routine. You write so many great posts, Amanda, that I’m just randomly responding to this one.

    I think the “svadyaya” tag brought me in. The battleground is within and can’t be avoided forever – maybe for a few thousand lifetimes, but sooner or later we have to deal. In a real way, the inward journey is what we have. That’s where everything happens. Being a yoga teacher I want to communicate the lessons. I believe my lessons are relevant to others because I assume we all are in the same battle. Differences, of course, but we should be able to recognize each other out there on the field. But it can get beyond words. Artists like Oliver or Olds can look deeply – beyond words – and then put their insight into words. We learn from poetry what we could not learn from an essay, because we receive the poet’s experience. She brings us to her on the battlefield. As you say, this is svadyaya.

    On the subject of conclusions, I’ve stopped believing there is any such thing. I’m pretty sure I remember every screw-up I’ve ever made. I don’t take as much notice of the things I got right. Sound familiar? Anyway… conclusion is just another concept that we’ve come up with to try to impose enough order on the world to keep our egos comfortable. Like you say… those traces hang around.

    Thanks for the post, Amanda.

    1. ugh. pneumonia. Are you all better? I’m glad you are back in my blogosphere, Bharat.

      I’m finding that this inward journey really is where it’s at. Being attune to our inner self certainly facilitates the relationships and the interactions with the world, but it’s about this thing we do with what we’ve got…alone, isn’t it?

      And the artists and poets who take note and share are wonderful companions. Lately I’ve been reading Ann Sexton. Like Olds, her poetry is a biography of her life. Wonderful.

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