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The yoga of writing

Thursday, May 21, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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I wrote last week about the problem of getting ahead of myself in my writing, and about my decision to stop thinking about publication and simply focus on writing. I found it interesting, then, that literary agent Rachelle Gardener wrote an excellent blog post this week advising new writers along very similar line.

There are lots of good reasons for not putting the cart before the horse in this process, not least of which is the simple fact that learning to write well takes a lot of time and a lot of practice. But perhaps the most urgent reason I needed to get back to basics was to silence the deafening voice of my inner critic.

On a truly rotten writing day I was convinced that every sentence I wrote was complete dross. Even worse were the days when I wrote nothing. Having told the poor and downtrodden of the world that I wasn't available to work on their behalf for a few days and instead sequestered myself in my kitchen with the shiny new laptop my sweetheart gave me for Christmas, and despite enjoying the kind of peace and quiet that writers with children can only dream of, I was writing nothing. Now if that doesn’t give you enough material to bash yourself about the head with then possibly nothing ever will. My self-esteem was taking a battering. I began to see that this was the lot of the writer, plugging along alone with very little feedback except that relentless critic in my head.

The one thing that was sustaining me was my yoga practice. For several years my yoga mat had been one place where I knew I could feel myself to be at ease and at home. Which is not to say that yoga is always easy. Many aspects of the multifaceted path that is yoga are deeply challenging. But the beauty of yoga is in the gentle way it teaches us to approach each breath, each movement, each thought and each reaction with an open and curious mind. Rather than worrying about whether or not I would be able to do a handstand like the one my teacher had just demonstrated, I was learning the liberation of wondering what it would be like to try, and then simply trying.

Yoga was also teaching me to always start from where I was, rather than where I thought I should be. It is all too easy in a yoga class to look at the teacher or anyone else in the class who is practicing a complex posture with apparent grace and ease and to think “I should be able to do that” or “I wish I could do that” or, perhaps worst of all, “I resent my old/tight/fat/weak body for not being able to do that.” But yoga, if we really pay attention to what it has to teach us, will always remind us that there is no yoga other than the yoga that represents an authentic, safe and joyful embodiment of our own unique breath and body. In my yoga I was learning to simply turn up on my mat and enjoy the practice that was right for me that day without striving to be anyone or anything else.

Ironic perhaps, then, that I would roll away my yoga mat and then turn up at my laptop wishing that I could already write like May Sarton, Joan Didion or Ann Patchett. Rather than acknowledging that, as in my yoga, I was only at the beginning of a long adventure in writing, I was yearning to be better. I was judging my every effort at writing based on the ways in which it was lacking, rather than celebrating every effort as a step along the slow but sure journey to being a better writer.

But yoga, thankfully, has a way of seeping off the mat and into all the corners of your life. Little by little it begins to permeate your approach to all aspects of your life. The awareness that you first start to access through the physical practice of the asana, or postures, begins to shed new light on your relationships with yourself and with others in every aspect of your life. In this case, yoga is beginning to teach me how to write.

So today I sat down at my laptop and approached it as I would a yoga practice. I took a few moments to check in with how I was feeling, to notice whether I was tired or bursting with energy, whether my breathing was shallow or jagged or deep and smooth. I noticed what expectations or fears I was bringing with me to the keyboard and I consciously chose to set each of them aside, just as I would at the outset of a practice. I took some time to consider what my sankalpa or intention would be for my writing today, as I do for each yoga practice. Then I began, easing myself into the writing by warming up with what was – for today – my writing equivalent of sun salutations, polishing a piece I had written last week.

In the process of editing what I had already written I was able to see that my writing was slowly shifting. I could see that I was beginning to be able to recognise when I was speaking authentically in my work, and equally to recognise when the tone was forced or awkward. Today I chose to celebrate what I was learning, celebrate the progress I was making and most of all, celebrate that by applying a little of what yoga has taught me to my writing I had been able to actually enjoy a day of writing again!


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7 Responses to "The yoga of writing"

  1. Rachel says:

    “But yoga, thankfully, has a way of seeping off the mat and into all the corners of your life.”
    I love that sentence, I think you write beautifully. I have recently discovered yoga, I have A LOT to learn, but the thing I am loving about it is my inability to think about anything other than the yoga – I didn’t realise how much I needed that.

  2. Swirly says:

    This is a beautifully written piece, and I think your metaphors are spot on. This is a journey, and as with any journey, we need to remind ourselves to stay in the present. xoxo

  3. Shannon says:

    As a beginning writer, I so needed to hear tihs today. The “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Not good enough” gremlins are wreaking havoc with my mind. I’m so glad I came across this. Thank you.

  4. Ayurveda says:

    This is very adorable blog.
    Thank you to share this one with whole world.
    This is one of my articles about Ayurveda..

  5. […] year ago I wrote about the ‘yoga of writing’. I had been feeling totally stuck in my writing, paralyzed by the pressure I was putting on myself […]

  6. […] Marianne Elliott explains this one better than I […]

  7. Jen says:

    Very sweet and thoughtful post. I agree that yoga can seep into other areas of life. I recently took up running for the first time, and doing so while coming from a yoga background has been very interesting. I think my approach differs from a lot of other runners, but I’m grateful for it. The art of being gentle with ourselves is such an important practice. I also know the inner writing critic well, so I will think of your post next time she comes into my head. Thank you!

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