As some of you already know, I am a spoken word poet, which means, generally speaking, that I talk about my feelings in front of half-drunk audiences on Monday nights at a neighborhood cafe.
Poetry slams are competitive events in which poets sign up to battle with each other. Random members of the audience hold up scores, much like at the Olympics, and the highest scoring poets go forward to win money or chances to compete at larger venues.
Yes, it’s terrifying every time, and I do sometimes ask myself why I continue to tell my deepest darkest secrets in public in exchange for a number on a stick. There are amazing highs and incredible lows. It really is an extreme sport.
It’s just like teaching yoga.
In both cases, I stand up in front of a bunch of people, often strangers, allow myself to be deeply, humbling-ly vulnerable, and try to use my words to get them to think and, ideally, feel something. Sometimes it goes well, and I feel really connected and excited about life. Other times it lands flat, and my self-worth gets a little poke in the ribs (or a complete, soul-crushing blow). The only difference, really, is that poetry slams are officially judged. And my yoga students aren’t usually half-drunk, unless it’s from a few too many rounds of kapalabhati.
A poet friend of mine was telling me about a revelation she had about the practice of performing her poems. Some theater students took her aside after a slam and said to her:
Pitch, pace, pause.
Vary your pitch, vary your pace, and use pauses so that your words get absorbed. Your poem might be the best thing anyone’s ever written, but if you speak it in a monotone, no one will understand a thing. This technique means your poem actually gets heard by the rabble, for better or for worse.
So, too, in teaching yoga: Pitch, pace, pause. Vary your pitch and pace in your words, for sure, but also be aware of the pace of your breath, how quickly you are transitioning through poses, and how long you are holding those poses. Your body understands this principle the same as your mind does: It needs a varied experience so it can follow the story your words are trying to tell your body.
So, pause: for the love of God, stop talking every now and then so your students can have their own experience. It can be a real practice to learn how to stand in front of people who are listening to you and hold space for silence. Sometimes that pause is the moment of revelation, both in a poem or in a yoga class.
And we discover another great metaphor for life:
Pitch is a perceptual quality in music that can feel higher or lower. We need times of high vibrations in our lives, excitement, crowds (poetry slams)—even anxiety and stress have their place. To balance this, though, we need moments of lower vibrations: spending time with friends and honoring routines. We need also to vary our pace: sometimes we need to act, and make decisions quickly; at other times we must slow down and go the way of the tortoise.
Finally, pause: whatever is going on in your life, however fast the pace may seem and however intense the pitch, we must occasionally hold space for silence, quiet, and being alone, even when we are in the middle of a huge storm. On stage, in the studio, and alone in your bedroom, this takes courage: but in all cases, it can be incredibly powerful.
I turn back once again to the Tao Te Ching, which repeatedly reminds us that life is constantly shifting. Nothing natural in our universe is monotone, and we can release the anxiety of how we “should” be behaving when we let go into the constant changing-ness of things. I think about this passage a lot:
There is a time for being ahead,
a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion,
a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous,
a time for being exhausted;
a time for being safe,
a time for being in danger.
Pitch, pace, pause. Got it?