photograph from mayaangelou.com
This week, Maya Angelou passed, but only in the most literal sense of dying. When someone creates such a lasting, pervasive legacy, they die less as their work lives on more.
Today, I took a class at my beloved Laughing Lotus with a fantastic teacher of mine, Ali Cramer. One of the aspects of Laughing Lotus that I began to incorporate into my own classes this year has been their use of poetry, of reading poems during dharma talks, while students lie in savasana, and before OM is chanted at the end. Today, Ali read us two Maya Angelou poems and though she did not read it, I was reminded of my favorite.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s sizeBut when I start to tell them,They think I’m telling lies.I say,It’s in the reach of my arms,The span of my hips,The stride of my step,The curl of my lips.I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.I walk into a roomJust as cool as you please,And to a man,The fellows stand orFall down on their knees.Then they swarm around me,A hive of honey bees.I say,It’s the fire in my eyes,And the flash of my teeth,The swing in my waist,And the joy in my feet.I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.Men themselves have wonderedWhat they see in me.They try so muchBut they can’t touchMy inner mystery.When I try to show them,They say they still can’t see.I say,It’s in the arch of my back,The sun of my smile,The ride of my breasts,The grace of my style.I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.Now you understandJust why my head’s not bowed.I don’t shout or jump aboutOr have to talk real loud.When you see me passing,It ought to make you proud.I say,It’s in the click of my heels,The bend of my hair,the palm of my hand,The need for my care.’Cause I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.
Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Woman” from And Still I Rise. Copyright © 1978 by Maya Angelou. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.
I read this poem first in a time of serious need. I would never and absolutely have never labeled yoga as a cure-all for any kind of social, psychological, or physical ailment. However, if someone forced me to pinpoint the moment I started loving my body, I would have to say that it was during a yoga class. I do not know which yoga class, but I know that the asana practice enabled me to love my body in all its “phenomenal woman[ness]” because it taught me to love what it could do while it moved…the shapes I could transform into. Eventually, the more subtle aspects of the yoga practice, of sadhana, enabled me to love my body in both stillness and in movement, while I practiced on and off the mat. It made me feel more attractive and, as I felt more attractive, I became more attractive, as Maya Angelou wrote.
Today, in Ali’s class, I gracefully moved into pigeon pose. I “reached my arms” out and appreciated the “span of my hips.” Now, in reflection, I think of what that means, what confidence means, and how much Maya Angelou, a phenomenal woman, has taught me to embody it.
Thank you, Maya, for teaching girls to love their bodies with your words.
Om Shanti Om. Rest in peace.