Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves. 
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


This poem provides such wonderful insights which we can apply in our yoga practice as well as our lives.

Just the first line… “You do not have to be good”… gives us permission to stop forcing and to let go of expectations. Mary Oliver suggests that any sorrow or shame that we might feel about ourselves is fruitless. By letting go of this kind of self-harm she encourages ahimsa and then invites us to move right out of our headspace, the mental anguish, and connect with our gut feeling, our intuition. She invites us into a place of joy within ourselves. The repenting part is action that is motivated by an external reference system – what others think. If we can find a way of connecting with our own internal reference system we may be able to what she suggests in the next line of the poem.

‘You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves’

It sounds so simple and yet that ‘only’ lingers with a sense of mockery. I guess because this seemingly straightforward instruction is in reality a difficult step for many of us. In our lives of continual ‘doing’, such an invitation into ‘being’ irequires a huge letting go.

But what a relief once we allow it.
By reminding us of the bigger picture of Nature, the sun and the ongoing rhythms and cycles such as the migrating Wild Geese we are reminded of our place in this ’family of things’.

In yoga this concept is known as Ishvara Pranidhana.

Ishvara is the organising principle of life. By understanding our own small selves within the bigger picture of life perhaps we are able to surrender our will to be in control and our habit to let the mind maintain the sense of ego. We are not the centre of all things. But the life force or prana in all things is in us as it is in all things. That’s how we are all interconnected!

So connect with the soft animal of your body and move with intuitive joy into your practice and out into the day.

Listen here to Mary Olivers own voice read her masterpiece out below.