There are many reasons for embracing yoga and getting back on the mat. Stay away too long and you feel the urge to return. One reason may be surprising; to be a better writer. This is not everyone’s goal, but writing brings you back to your self when you have strayed; and yoga clears the mind in readiness. Writing might not seem easily paired with yoga but it is worth exploring how and in what ways these two seemingly different pursuits neatly align.
Yoga is a huge topic and asana positions are only at one end of the spectrum but they are the ‘handle’ for eventual mastery over the mind. If writing is 90% thinking and only 10% writing, then all the nervous energy is centered in the body as a whole, not just the brain. Yoga is an ancient practice that brings together the body and the mind, compelling an inter-dependency of the two. By definition, yogis ought to be good thinkers and can put their thoughts into words that come direct from the heart as the mental process is more rooted in the body. Both yoga and writing require being in a state of relaxed, energized tension. They benefit from a clear intention, which in yoga parlance is a San Kalpa or dedication, at the onset. Both yoga and writing are methods of self application requiring long-standing effort leading to a more coherent expressive behaviour that is full of grace, wisdom and light.
What makes yoga fun to do is that it is sprinkled with animal names: Rabbit, Camel, Crow, Peacock, Cat-Cow, Down Dog, Cobra, Frog, Turtle, Butterfly, Crane and more- it’s a friendly menagerie well attuned to nature- well, perhaps not Scorpion pose. But it goes beyond that by adding fantastic creatures: the Dragon, Garuda, the mythical bird of Indonesia, and the awesome Sphinx, one of the most relaxing poses for the spine. These add a mythical fantasy aspect and more than a little of the magic ingredient of imagination and the inhabiting of animal characters.
Asanas and sequences recognise and honour natural cycles: the Sun Salutation, Moon Salutation, and earth bound structures- Mountain pose, Tadasana, the Plough and grounding you to the earth by sitting in Lotus pose. The lotus flower has roots that go deep into the mud. But there are playful poses too – Child’s pose, and Happy Baby. Kids can do yoga no problem. Their spines are more bendable. We are conditioned into stiffness from an early age and accept cranky joints not realising they could be oiled and lubricated into a graceful old age through good diet, awareness, and consistent practice of yoga. Yoga poses even resemble a kind of alphabet and an asana sequence can have its own grammar going from warm up salutations, standing, balancing, back-bending, core, floor series towards the final slow down. The whole class becomes a definitive ‘statement’. Yoga is sometimes also called ‘meditation in motion’; writing is also a meditation- the writer ponders on a topic, and uses words to arrive at a contemplation of the themes involved.
For the more Saturnian among us we get to practise death in Savasana, the Corpse pose. Just so that we may be ready for that day, but Corpse pose induces the deepest of all relaxation for the body-mind as anyone who does yoga Nidra will tell you. But above all people practise yoga because it makes them feel good. First it works on the level of fitness, but then quickly deepens to changing your basic habits. Despite requiring a struggle and repetition, it makes them feel more at ease in their bodies, more familiar with their anatomical and system design. It performs internal massage of these organs, and a whole heap of benefits from enhanced breathing, clearer eyes, better complexion more openness, increased flexibility, strength and its popularity is in no way decreasing. While writing is not the same as yoga – it operates a different domain, yet can have a major impact as James Pennebaker established, writing about trauma in a particular way can relieve stress and bring about a state of inner poise and integration.
As with yoga so in writing: there are metaphors about natural cycles where writers must establish a routine often going in rhythm, circadian or just the morning or evening. They describe a process that involves a struggle of some sort. An essay is an ‘attempt’ to express a topic. It is a foray into new territory – not necessarily the finished piece. Wrestling with the ideas in a push-and-pull with what is within to emerge and for a concept to be ‘born’ out of the ether. Tension that is held in the body can be released when the idea comes. You need to let it out. First, you might have ‘page fright’ where a blank page paralyses any creative ideas from finding their voice. Then there is ‘free writing’ where you must limber up, take your pen for a walk, or allow your fingers to glide over the keys. Loosening up to get in gear.
The Mind and Body and BodyMind
There is a sheer physicality to writing that is often overlooked. The common assumption is we are brains on legs and it’s all about the brains. And don’t forget that books have a spine and sleeves operating like arms. If yoga is about union of body mind and breath then ‘putting pen to paper’ is about making that contact. Processes that exist separately fuse together and that draws on bodily energetics. Writing is also a ‘looping back process’ with lots of ‘re-vision’ a text can be ‘woven’ together calling on the intricate threading process of a loom and of fabricators and weavers.
When talking about the writing process, essays, articles and stories, I find myself using metaphors of cooking or gardening: the timing in the development is essential. When exactly do you mix the raisins in the cake mixture, and when do you add the seasoning? When do the seedlings grow best? In what soil? With writing as timing and patience and coordination of tasks is just as crucial. Academics of writing are not always the ones who know best as they intellectualise an otherwise dynamic ‘body-mind’ process and turn it into a dry exercise. But when they mention ‘cohesion’ pay attention as this is the invisible glue that knits all the words together. You need to master that glue.
The body is often taken for granted until something goes wrong- an accident, neck ache, or back ache, an injury, disability or stuckness, continual distraction preventing any concentration leading sometimes to a more serious block that is nervous paralysis. Listen closely and you will sense that the body is a finely-tuned feedback system giving us messages we would do well to heed.
Writing, like yoga, has a range of styles. One is the tight, the opaque style in a wide range from the rough and the loose even to street graffiti, the message and the meme more intertwined with imagery perhaps. Tight can be ultra-technical and academic, and therefore very dense. The looser style is less bound by rules and prefers to reorder them, and includes and the more free flowing essay style, the meandering, open ended mode of writing such as creative prose: the lyric essay, poetry and even songs. But even poetry can be loose or ultra tightly structured and formal. It really depends. Even in a disjointed jigsaw style, the omissions help join the dots every part together with the whole. Writing has a structure within a structure, and essays have a ‘head’ a ‘body’ and a ‘tail’ as in storytelling there is always a beginning, a middle and an end. With this, you cannot argue. Writers need to have both wits and nerve, maybe even a good deal of chutzpah to pull off feat of writing well and make it successful. The choice is uninviting: leap off the springboard and take a risk, or relish the anxiety of blankness that leads back to another so-called ‘block.’ It is as in yoga, a balance between strength and flexibility.
Yoga and Writing are both processes that require discipline that is regular. They do not respond well to a ‘hit-and-run’ strategy. “Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” said Sinclair Lewis, a maxim that is often trotted out for restless nervous writers who cannot focus on their task for long. Glue in other words, stickability- just substitute ‘mat’ for ‘chair and that works in yoga too. But another solution might be do a bit of yoga. Both processes are long, painstaking, require mental energy, control of the mind and need building over long periods of time to accumulate skill. Without practice, the skill and fluency diminishes. Your body can become like a muse.
Mind-Body and Body-Mind
Writing can hold tension and be a struggle to unravel thoughts which are ’embodied’ but staying with it helps find greater ease and psycho-physiological coherence. If you are full of tension, it is more difficult to write, more difficult to shift. Yoga poses can iron out those kinks. Flexibility of mind equals flexibility of body. But as to which one comes first the Smiths song ‘Still Ill’ laments that we don’t know “Does the body rule the mind, or the mind rule the body? I dunno.”
But perhaps it is not even about mechanistic causation anyway or that they are separate entities. Something more quantum is going on, which is why I prefer the hybrid and more holistic term body-mind. It is an intricate balance between Psyche and Soma as we know well from psychosomatic illnesses- the mind has a sneak emotional layering at the cellular level of the body.
Psychologists and yogis already know this but culture lags behind. Opinion is often locked in long-held paradigms of separation where the focus only on what the conscious mind can see, not all the much more important stuff it cannot. Use of the term ‘body-mind’ or ‘mind-body’ goes some way to subvert the old paradigm and thrust us into fresh ways of apprehending how all this works. Even using the term image-word to explain a new type of literacy that is less abstract than physically embodied and reestablishes words as having symbolic, energy-resonant function.
The old mind-body split- Cartesian dualism- is similar to the tendency to downgrade the image over the word as part of a major cultural shift towards left-brain thinking- from the Goddess to the Alphabet . The schism that has been perpetrated for centuries, but also the privileging of the so called left-brain functions of rationalism over right-brain functions of intuition when they actually work more coherently together just as a master and his emissary, like wave relates to particle in new physics.
The Moment of Contact is Where it Happens
In both yoga and writing what works well are remarkably similar. You should warm up first. In yoga this kicks off with a few breathing exercises, loosening limbs or a sun salutation sequence until you generate enough heat to do trickier poses. In writing, it might be to do your ‘morning pages’ as Julia Cameron recommends. This is a clearing process, preparing the way for deeper more concentrated work. Another way yoga and writing align is that they establish ‘flow’ consciousness. At your peak you enter the state of ‘Flow’ which is a meditation in motion for yoga, and is the balanced focus in writing. You have to be there when it happens. It is your presence of mind that counts. Channel your attention on the task however menial to the exclusion of all else.
Presence is just turning up but you have also to be there when it happens. “Is it connecting the thoughts to the words that come forth? Are you actually there when the magic happens? Is it driving the effort to move your body into a pose that challenges its limits? Has your mind floated away?
Seeing yourself in the mirror in a yoga room is like self-reflection writing the observing ‘I’ that witnesses your experience without judging. Eventually this awareness becomes less self-conscious or narcissistic, and it comes into its own. It uses this pure observing faculty to modify, adjust, correct, develop and improve alignment and coherence and homeostasis. Compare this with observing what you write as you write. Do you correct errors as you go or do you leave the rewrite until later? Reflection writing activates this this function of self-observation in order to extract the deeper meaning in the connection of learning, and ultimately like writing a diary, becomes a moral compass during the process of life this ‘one damn thing after another’ phenomenon. In this sense both yoga and writing bring us to this arena where the process itself can become the goal, and can be enjoyed for its own sake along all the modifications, fixing, adjusting, stabilising, deleting, recreating and all of it boosts your self development.
Yoga recognises that each body is different and can only go so far in any pose. This is not bad or good in itself, but what counts is the awareness you have of what challenges you in that pose. You pull back, or stay put. Good teachers give modifications to account for body shape, injury, or just energy level that day. The benefit of this adaptation is to make it okay to be where you are, it helps reduce that sense of competition with other who may be going further and helps to understand why a process like yoga needs to be repeated often, and is not so goal-oriented.
Writers find this hard when it is goal oriented, but when it is only the enjoyment of the process, the problem disappears. You do it for the sake of doing it, not to become famous. Editing is the self-modification process in the constant need to read back your work and edit, to accept that the first burst of words may have energy and inspiration, but lack accuracy and precision. So it is back to rewording again and again. There is much talk of being agile in the 21st century, but people lack patience and the two are at loggerheads. Being obliged to continually revise what you wrote is humbling, and reduces the fixation on being competitive and competition, brings focus back to you and where you are at and to learn to just accept that.
One takeaway from my own yoga practice is that it made me realise how it is cumulative. The slow painstaking repetition slowly builds into a fully developed practice which makes you better at it but oh so gradually. There are setbacks where if you have an injury, you have to do less, just more slowly and intentionally. Showing off and pushing into advanced poses is the wrong thing to do. Progress can be so slow you don’t notice week by week but only after months or years of doing it. This is the Stoical view that recognises all the limitations of your body-mind. All the things you cannot do. But without the endurance in the pose, or sticking with the idea long enough to unravel the thoughts, and allow the words to flow, none of this progress wold happen. Doing that through thick and thin, without judgement, develops skill.
Writers may be unaware they are holding energy in wrists and shoulders as they write. Tension between strength and flexibility very interesting as that is a see-saw – those who are stronger may be less flexible and those who are too flexible are less strong. This fine balance is essential in good writing too.
Finally, just to remind ourselves of the most obvious point, Yoga helps with the whole of life, not just writing: it helps improve deeper breathing, concentration, resilience, connection to feelings and to the body, acceptance of problems, but the more I think about the parallels with writing and yoga, the more it takes on depth and substance. You don’t have to bring them together but if you do, it can expand your understanding a hundred fold. It counters the mind which is ‘the most corrupted agent’ as the yogis say in the trance-inducing film Agniyoganda. Similarly with Yoga and Astrology the links are fundamental, but not often made fully clear. I will cover astrology in a separate Part 2 article. These parallels across practices offer intuitive pointers to reshaping your life more in line with what you want.
© Kieron Devlin, Proteus Astrology, November 3rd, 2020.
All rights reserved.
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