On the Effectiveness of Poetry

In yoga class last Saturday, I learned an interesting verbal cue while attempting (yet again) to do a pick-up. The cue went this way: “Cross your legs, bring your knees close to your chest, tuck your head in, ground your hands by your hips, lift your hips—and then spill over forward.

As eccentric as the instruction was, it conveyed its meaning surprisingly effectively—with the result that I actually accomplished an ungainly and aborted version of a pick-up.

As far as I’m concerned, this is probably one of the more amusing aspects of yoga. Yoga instructors can be a lyrical lot. Perhaps the hundreds of hours spent intoning the same succinct and banal instructions again and again can lead to unexpected bursts of literary creation, just one example of which is the aforementioned instruction to “spill over forward.”

Or maybe it’s not so much an instructor’s need for variety as it is a human inclination for poetry. Yoga instruction—like any form of physical instruction—depends heavily on verbal economy. The fewer and simpler the words used to convey a given amount of information, the better. (And there’s a massive amount of information involved given all the subtleties of the discipline—a master teacher can spend hours, maybe even days, deconstructing a complicated pose.) Hence, most yoga instructions will sound like a children’s reading primer sans the articles, prepositions and pronouns: “lift arms,” “palms together,” “look thumb,” “bend forward,”  “hands on mat,” “head in,” “head up,” “lengthen spine,” “jump back,” “press down,” “lift chest,” and so on and so forth.

Every so often though, the pithiest way to get a point across is to resort to poetry. By marshalling the constellations of meaning provided by metaphor, a properly formulated poetic cue can convey far more than a literal cue—and more effectively too. For example, telling students to “melt into your mat” during Savasana gets the point across far more quickly than the more verbose “relax your legs, your arms, your head and your neck and release all tension from your body.” For some reason, even people who have a hard time relaxing know what it means to just “melt.”

As for me, I’m going to spend the next few days just “spilling forward.” Let’s see where that takes me.

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