I held a workshop on two of my favorite topics at Butler University last week. I’ve always suspected a connection between yoga and writing, but never formally explored it until Mindy, the MFA in Creative Writing program administrator at Butler, invited me to kick off this semester’s Conversations@Efro series.
Let me make one thing clear: I am not a fan of making a combo-pack out of yoga and something else. Chocolate Yoga, Wine and Yoga, PiYo/Yogalates, YogaFit, etc., are all classes that are probably great, but just not for me. I believe in both the purity of the Ashtanga lineage and the importance of time-honored traditions in writing (the writing workshop, learning to read like a writer, the process of editing and publishing). So why would I want to combine yoga and writing?
Because really, they’re not that different.
Writing, done mindfully, can be part of a yoga practice just like asanas are. Writing is the process of quieting and focusing the mind enough that meaningful language can be produced. According to Yoga Sutra 1.2-1.3, “Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind. Then the seer rests in its true nature.” Sounds similar, no?
Writing is also an act of self-study (svadhyaya). And it requires concentration and awareness (dharana). And it can be meditative (dhyana). It’s also all about telling the truth (satya), whether that truth is literal or emotional.
Honestly, my event last week was more of an experiment than a workshop. What happens if you do a little light asana (Surya Namaskar A and the three closing lotuses) to help writers focus, then give them some prompts? They write. And, unless they were lying to me, they write usefully. Whether or not they’ll ever use what they wrote in a poem, essay, or story doesn’t matter. What matters is that each of the participants gained some insight or processed an idea that had been circulating in the brain.
Interested in trying it? The handout I created for the workshop is below. It includes a step-by-step process for practicing mindfulness while writing, but if you’re an Ashtangi (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably are), do some sun salutations and the three closing lotuses before you try it. Following those instructions are some writing prompts that ask the writer to delve deep into the well of the self.
Wordbending: The Yoga of Writing
Yoga is mastery of the activities of the mind. Then the seer rests in its true nature.
Yoga Sutra 1.2-1.3
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga is the process of finding the focus necessary to master the chattering mind and arrive at a steady truth, which is exactly what we do when we write. When your brain is simultaneously planning dinner, checking Twitter alerts, writing the next great American novel, and figuring out whether or not that spot on your arm is a Sharpie mark or a cancerous mole, it probably isn’t going to be successful at any of those items.
Yoga ignites a mind-body connection that cultivates mindfulness and produces a clutter-free mental landscape. Have you ever lost yourself in your own writing? That unbroken focus and loss of self is part of yoga. If we consider the act of creation to be divine, and many cultures do, then when we lose ourselves in the creative process we are achieving an outcome of yoga: union with the divine.
Consciously practicing mindfulness can help make a creative flow arrive when you want it to, rather than waiting until the Muse stops in, which she usually does only at 2:00 a.m. or while you’re in the shower. Try turning your writing practice into a mindfulness practice by doing the following:
- Put away all other distractions. Yes, including your iPad.
- Before you sit down to write, take time to notice your body and consciously connect with it.
- Before you write a word, take note of the sensations you’re experiencing: the hardness of the chair, the smoothness of the keyboard, the feeling of your wrists against your desk.
- Hopefully you’re doing this anyways, but do it deeply, and pay attention to what it feels like as you’re breathing. Take five deep breaths, then begin your writing practice.
- When you get distracted, return to 3-5 and repeat as often as necessary.
One of yoga’s principles is Svadhyaya, which means self-study. Practice some Svadhyaya using one or more of the following prompts, which all focus on delving into the inner self.
- Write about a fitting punishment. -Sarah Frye
- What is the worst thing you’ve ever done, and never been caught? -Heidi Czerwiec
- Write a story or essay that undermines something you believe in. -Alex Madison
- Write about a challenging moment you faced this week and what insights you took away from it. -Clare Meeker
- Write about a memory that you (the real or a fictive you) carry alone. -Elizabeth Alexander
- What did you always know, or sense, without ever having learned? -Elizabeth Alexander
- When working with students who are trying to create narratives out of something very traumatic I give the prompt to write instead about the before or the after. Often times it’s through context and who we’ve become since that helps us find the story. Before the event I: looked like, walked like, thought things like; After the event I: looked like, walked like, thought things like. -Corinne Manning
Writing prompts were borrowed and slightly adapted from the fabulous Ploughshares blog. Find more of them here: http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/all-time-favorite-writing-prompts/