Yoga is a good thing to have in your pocket.
I’m writing this from the hotel restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I’ve spent the past week at the National Poetry Slam competition, in which poets from all over the world come together to share their art and compete on world class stages. It’s basically Comicon for poets.
Here are some of the things that can happen at an event like this: All-night drinking, all-day drinking, elevator arguments, competition bouts that last til 1:00 am, discovering that you have made Haiku finals and that you need to write 44 new haikus during 10 hours, discovering that you have made team-piece finals and that you have to write two new team pieces over the same 10 hours, crying during poems about sexual assault, laughing during odes to cheese, cringing over jokes about domestic violence, crying in bathrooms, vomiting from nerves in bathrooms, homesickness, and hours-long searches in thunderstorms for any kind of food that is either gluten-free or vegetarian.
It’s been fun. And you can see why I needed the yoga.
Yoga comes to me in ways that I often don’t expect. Far away from my studio at home, and knowing a grand total of two other poets who do yoga that I can’t get in touch with because my phone doesn’t work in the states, I feel disconnected from all the stuff that surrounds my regular yoga practice—from the teachers to the organic mat cleanser—but it’s okay. It’s been in my pocket.
It was with me in the airport, when a 5 a.m. headstand cured persistent hiccups. It was with me on the roof, calming my anxiety and homesickness as I moved through Vinyasa with my iPod wedged into my bra. It was with me when I got on stage in our first bout, terrified, about to read a poem about God as Kali, the Hindu goddess of divine annihilation, in a roomful of deeply Christian judges, and knew that all I had to do was find my feet, breathe, and speak my truth.
The real lessons of yoga have nothing to do with achieving some impressive physical pose you can show off at parties (though I did do that, I’ll admit it). It’s not even really about (for me, anyway) reaching enlightenment in some way that divorces me from creating new art, collaborating with people I don’t always agree with, or crying in bathrooms. I want to experience all of this, I want to live inside the drama and also remember that none of this really matters, and that if I can get back into my breath and my feet I’m going to be just fine.
Yoga is a thing that’s been reinterpreted many times. Patanjali say that yoga is the path to escaping the limitations of your body, including its emotions and suffering. Buddha says the path is accepting the inevitability of pain without the layered-on suffering. Sharon Gannon and David Life, two yogis from New York who have studied with the classical teachers of India, say the path is that of the jivan-mukta, one whose soul has become free while living in this body, and Western teachers and practitioners, including you and me, will keep on reinterpreting it for the world we live in: in my case, over Holiday Inn breakfast in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Yoga has saved my life, over and over, and not because it in any way took me away from feeling things. In my life right now, yoga helps me to become aware of myself feeling things, whether it’s about sexual assault, odes to cheese, or a pot of coffee in a quiet hotel dining room. That means I get to choose my own path, in my own way, one day at a time: that’s the yoga in my pocket.