Mary Oliver, her beautiful animalistic imagery, the Yoga Sutras on Presence, and Agnes Martin on the Dragon.

Museo Del Prado 2016. El Bosco

Museo Del Prado 2016. El Bosco

Alligator Poem

By Mary Oliver

I have included this poem in my yoga classes since the beginning. It speaks of the constant flux, flow, and anxiety that can arise in the practice and in life. It speaks of our ability to rise up from the heavy ground born anew. Shivering with sensation, alive, alive, surprisingly alive.

From the perspective of presence.

“I knelt down
At the edge of the water
And if the white birds standing in the tops of the trees whistled any warning
I didn’t understand.”

In the yoga Sutras, Patanjalis reminds us that yoga begins Now, in the present moment but what does it mean to be present, what does it mean to actually drink the water while we aware of our surroundings, including the whistled warnings of the birds? In the second sutra Patanjali says that yoga happens when one ceases to identify with the every changing fluctuations of the mind, happy sad, happy sad.

Iyengar call this evolution a disciplined mind which is cultured and matured.

Krista Tippet, host of ON Being once said, “Presence is the existence of an inner world so strong, imagined, and experienced that we are fortified.”

To me  this notion means we do not have to play the mental records of our childhood. We do not have to worry, plot, plan and scheme for our future. We can build a world through practice that is inside us, that is our home. This container, like an alchemical cauldron, is strong and can withstand the transformation of lead into gold.

in Oliver’s words,

“…I rose from the ground
 and saw the world as if for the second time,
the way it really is.
The water, that circle of shattered glass,
healed itself with a slow whisper
and lay back
with the back lit light of polished steel,
and the birds in the endless waterfall of the trees,
shook open the snowy pleats of their wings and drifted

Patanjali calls presence standing free in our own form. He says that this happens when we are liberated from the identification with the fluctuations of the mind, the ever-turning carousel of our worries and wants. Iyengar says that initially yoga acts as the means of restraint, yogic discipline is accomplished and the end is reached. The consciousness remains pure. Thus, yoga is both the means and the end.

We witness the world with its ordinary detail. We see the miracle in the mundane. We observe nature, perfect in form and function. We see ourselves as a seer noticing the world.

The poetry and the metaphors that arise from her mind-sight is what I love about Mary Oliver's work in general.

Many of her poems are filled with presence.

Thich Nhat Hahn defines presence as compassionate understanding, an intelligent, sometimes fierce manner of love.

In Some Questions You Might Ask, Oliver wonders:

“if the soul is solid like iron or breakable like the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl
….does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?”

In another poem she describes the heron as a blue preacher and in yet another the heron is an old Chinese poet, clear bright and truthful.

In the Alligator Poem Oliver sees the waterfall of trees.

And in A Meeting, the animal,  perhaps a deer,

“… drops a slippery package into the weeds and tongues it between breaths, slack with exhaustion.”

Sometimes, as in the Alligator poem. we are shaken violently and the present moment appears.

Other times, we have to practice. This is what Patanjali tells us in the second sutra when he speaks of nirodaha: practice produces a state of consciousness where we release ourself from the grip of our thought patterns. The patterns begin to quiet as we stand in our own form free from ideas and notions. We are capable of marveling at what is. We are present; we are liberated.

Every time we go to practice we have the chance to stand on the mat as if for the first time. We may feel fear. We may feel excitement.

“the cradle shaped mouth gaping and rimmed with teeth,”

But we can allow what is. Then as we continue.... breathe:

“blue stars and blood red trumpets on long stems, glittering in our hands for hours like fires.”

Agnes Martin takes the animal metaphor seriously in the form of the Dragon. She explores obstacles to presence and has a fierce commitment to maintaining long periods of solitude, which she deems necessary for the creation of real works of art. 

“Worse than the terror of fear is the Dragon. The dragon really pounds through the inner streets shaking everything and breathing fire. The fire of his breath destroys and disintegrates everything. The Dragon is undiscriminating and leaves absolutely nothing in his wake. The solitary person is in great danger from the Dragon because without an outside enemy the Dragon turns on the self. In fact self-destructiveness is the first of human weaknesses. When we know all the ways in which we can be self destructive that will be very valuable knowledge indeed.”

This paragraph is an apt illustration of the second sutra and its message. One must stand free from the turnings of the mind. One must first perceive the Dragon, and then liberate oneself from it’s illusory hold. She advocates practice and recognizes the fluid nature of the path:

“Sometimes through hard work the Dragon is weakened. The resulting quiet is shocking. The work proceeds quickly and without effort.” 

 “But at anytime the Dragon may rouse himself and then one is driven from the studio.”

I.K. Taimni’s commentatry in The Science of Yoga, this is a dense translation of the yoga sutras. It’s aim to dispel the ignorance surrounding some of the mystery associated with yoga is lofty but for me the fact that the book offers the transliteration (the phoenetic English of each word) allows for my own exploration with the Sanskrit-English dictionary and that is a real plus.

I also enjoy Taimnis choice of translation, his understanding seems kind and compassionate. It is intellectual yet accessible

1.3 Then, the seer is established in his own essential and fundamental nature.

“ the broader aspects can be understood by the serious student”

Taimni, like Patanjali in chapter 2, says that yoga can only be realized through practice.

 “It is only through practice we can
bring about fundamental change in our nature
 and hope to gain real insight into
the problems of yoga and their solution.”


Isn’t that amazing? The problems of yoga and their solution?


 I am reminded of a teaching Richard always gives, that Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, is really the obstacle. For example, the pain in your side at the beginning of practice could actually (metaphorically) be Ganesh's big elephant tusk, pointing your awareness to a part of the body that needs to be seen, held in awareness, noticed…and therefore healed.

Agnes Martin goes on from a similar perspective.

“We cannot and do not slay the Dragon that is a medieval idea, I guess. We have to become completely familiar with him and hope that he sleeps. The way things are most of the time is that he is awake and we are asleep. What we hope is the opposite.”


Taimni describes the 9 obstacles of the practice as follows: Disease, languor, doubt, carelessness, laziness, worldly-mindedness, delusion, non-achievement of a stage, and instability.

I am always comforted by the fact that no matter what the translation, Patanjali says there are only nine obstacles. In addition, when I read the list I am comforted by the teaching that meeting the obstacle Is the practice because they seem so pervasive.

Oh the irony and paradox of this practice, you just have to laugh. You just have to keep practicing, reading, and trying to talk about the silence which is so unspeakable and..... this is the only thing worth doing.

Other readings that offer great strategies for meeting life’s challenges from the perspective pf presence include"

Austin Kleons, Get you work out there.

Anything written by Maria Popova, my personal hero.

Anne Dillard, The Abundance.

If you are buying your first copy of the Yoga Sutras, try Satchindananda’s translation and commentary. If you are buying your second translation and commentary, try Iyengar’s, Light on the Yoga Sutra. After that get every copy you can get your hands on.

If you are buying your first Mary Oliver book, try New and Selected Poems, then buy everything you can get your hands on. 

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