Just Do It Because I Say So

I was 12 years old, and there was no way one could "get out of" the eighth grade at the Francis W. Parker School of Chicago without memorizing and reciting the poem. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment," to be precise.
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If I remember correctly, the poem comprised 61 lines.

I was 12 years old, and there was no way one could "get out of" the eighth grade at the Francis W. Parker School of Chicago without memorizing and reciting the poem. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan: or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment," to be precise.

Just thinking about the poem today (and I am 60 and 5'6" in my stockinged feet), makes me break out in a cold sweat. A light one, to be sure, but a cold one. Still.

Thinking back (and I obviously do that a lot), I'm stunned that, even at 12, I didn't at least ask: "Why? Why do we have to memorize this poem to graduate from the eighth grade? Why do we have to memorize 61 lines of some 18th-century opium-smoker's verse? AND, what does memorizing it have to do with passing the eighth grade?"

I believe my home-room teacher back then in Chicago was Mrs. Johnson. I had just returned from three years in Greece, and was trying to adjust to America again, Chicago, a new school and much, much else, at 12. I was also, as ever, on full scholarship: Those on full scholarship do not fail to pass, do not ask "Why?" often, and unhesitatingly defer to those at the head of the classroom.

And, true, I'd been an all-but-straight-A scholarship student from nursery school on through post-graduate work. I was compliant much, much of the time. I did my homework. I showed up for tests. I even studied logarithms and Flatland under Mr. Barr McCutcheon (and went home and threw up afterwards).

And, when my time came to recite "Kubla Khan," I stood, held on to the edge of my formica-topped desk, and intoned: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree:/Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea..." And there I stopped, full-stop.

On the stairs between the first and second floors of our Chicago brownstone, where my mother and I habitually sat, books in hand, while I memorized things ("The Messiah," daily lists of Latin vocabulary words, anatomical parts, etc., etc.), I had at long last gotten to the point where I could rip straight through Coleridge's completely (well, almost completely) unintelligible rant, without missing a word. I no longer needed cuing. I had it down.

But the stairs on Belden Avenue were not the classroom at F.W. Parker; and my mother was, patently, not the small sea of eighth-graders with whom I parried and thrusted and rubbed elbows every weekday. And when I stood before them, and their faces turned to me, expectantly, "So twice five miles of fertile ground/With walls and towers were girdled round:/And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,/Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree. . ." and everything thereafter went slap out of my head.

Mrs. Johnson cuing me, I limped through the rest of the poem, line by line, my face blazing, but I was a marked woman from there on out: give me anything at all to memorize (the lead in Love's Labours Lost, South Pacific, the phone book) and, with my mother's help, I could do it... on our stairs at home. But performance anxiety, or stage fright, or just simple why-do-I-have-to-do-this?-cussedness would short-circuit me if ever I had to perform anything solo in front of a group. I spent quite some (required) time "on the boards" at F.W. Parker, in plays and in skits, but I was always, always, always as uncomfortable on stage as I was in Mr. McCutcheon's math classes, always just a breath away from throwing up.

Moving forward now, like the Ghost of Christmas Future, I ask you to envision me recently, in my Iyengar Yoga Teachers' Class. I am a fairly sane late-middle-aged woman now, and I have been studying Iyengar Yoga, steadily and fruitfully, for some 10 years. I've been compelled to memorize quite a number of Sanskrit terms, and I have participated in chanting Sanskrit prayers and invocations en masse. I also, regularly, get up in front of groups of yoga students and teach.

So, you'd think that when my yoga teacher asked me to lead the "Invocation to Patanjali," a prayer honoring the founding-sage of yoga and Ayurveda, a chant consisting of some eight, just eight lines of poetry, I could rise to the occasion. (The audience would be made up of about six to ten of my fellow students; people I'd known for over a year, and not a snotty eighth-grader among them.)

Reader, will it surprise you to learn that I can make it through "Yogena cittasya padena vacam..." but no further?

I took up "the issue" with both my psychoanalyst (oh, don't ask!) and with my best friend, who happens to be an Aikido Sensei.


Jerry, my friend the Sensei's response was: "Why don't you just stand up and sing, 'I'm an old cowhand, from the Rio Grande...'??"

Well, I can answer Dr. B's question: as student-teachers of Iyengar Yoga, we're asked to memorize just this one chant, as the Sanskrit sounds themselves are believed to be part and parcel of the prayer: The medium is, largely, the message (just as "Aum," or "Om," which we also chant, would also lose most of its oomph, its mystery, its incantatory weight, in any sort of "translation").

And I can't sing, "I'm an old cowhand," either, as I'd have the same problem with that, or "The Twelve Days of Christmas": I'd freeze, just as surely, singing an old standard in front of my class as chanting the "Yogena..."

So, I've done an end-run around my predicament. My teacher will not, I believe, wholeheartedly "approve" (some requirements are just that: required), but it's the best I can do. Girl and woman, I am unable to sing something memorized before an audience.

So, I'm tearing a page from my uber-Guru's book, my uber-Guru being B.K.S. Iyengar, himself. And what Iyengar teaches us is that some asana, some yoga postures, may be beyond our bodies' abilities to assume, for the time being. Thus I may never, in this particular body of mine, be able to perform one of Iyengar's trademark poses, Natarajasana, or The King Of The Dance. But, given some "props" -- a ballet bar, a belt, a few years -- I may yet get to a reasonable facsimile thereof.

But Iyengar's like that: if a student's body won't quite assume the asana, well, bring a prop to the rescue. BLESS YOU, B.K.S.!

So, by the appointed date, I will not have "The Invocation to Patanjali" down, in Sanskrit, for my class. And I will never, now, I believe, make it from, "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan" all the way down to "And close your eyes with holy dread,/For he on honey-dew hath fed,/And drunk the milk of Paradise." Nor do I really want to.

I do do what I can, though, and so I have written an English translation, my own version, of the "Invocation," which I plan to read to my teacher and my class, for the first time, and very soon. Wish me, and that eighth-grader I still am on some level, luck.

"Prayer to Patanjali"
-- transl. by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Om . . .
Yoga, for stilling disturbances of mind;
Grammar, for bringing us unity through sound;
Healing, for banishing frailty and fear:
He who bestows all these benisons and gifts
Patanjali, brightest of all the souls I know,
Before thee, I bow here, in reverence and grace;
Oh spirit, incarnate, among us once as man;
With conch, wheel, and discus, and great two-bladed sword,
A symbol of victory, eventual but sure,
With wisdom, awakening, knowing what is real.
Ananta, your avatar, while among us here:
The serpent that, turning, makes everything appear.
Aum, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, Om...

For more by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, click here

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