I hadn’t written in twenty years. Well, I’d written—plenty—but hadn’t called myself a writer since grad school. I’ve been an editor for two decades. It has been my pleasure to help other writers make their publishing dreams come true. It has been my passion to teach writing for the past five years. So, when I decided to try on my old writer hat to see if it still fit, I thought a writing retreat would be in order. The Orion Environmental Writers Workshop at Omega Institute combined all of my interests. Yoga and writing, on an idyllic lake with swimming and kayaking. Since I am also an outdoor educator at my local nature center, I thought for sure I’d find inspiration I could take home with me, and material for a piece of writing I could actually shop around. The results of that effort are here, in this piece for the Center for Humans and Nature called “Funeral for a Stick Bug,” a story about our family mourning the loss of our pet, interwoven with facts about the declining insect population.
The old writing-for-publication muscles were stiff when I got started, but the Environmental Writers Workshop was just the thing I needed to limber up. While I was at Omega, early morning yoga helped get me ready for the writing intensives, and I considered the parallels between yoga and writing. Did you ever meet with resistance while trying to get into the flow? Has meditation come to a screeching halt when your to-do list overpowered your mantras? A solid practice of setting the arena makes for productive sessions. Just as yoga begins with deep breaths and focus on intention before we move through a process of casting off what doesn’t serve, so does successful writing. When your motive is to produce something original, you’ll benefit from getting in touch with your authentic self. These lessons from yoga apply to all of the fine arts, and business too.
Self-consciousness prevents action.
Everyone new to a writing class is in the same boat. Even if you’re a repeat student, you’ll experience something totally new during the first 10 minutes of class—otherwise known as the “icebreaker.” My favorite part of curriculum planning is designing icebreakers that draw from my neuroscience background. The goal is to get the sleeping parts of your brain to wake up, and the self-conscious parts to take a rest. In the first few minutes, my students experiment with movement, voice, sensory awareness, and perception. With decks of cards, different surfaces to write on, and sound effects, I shake up an ordinary day and transport us to an extraordinary world of creating as individuals, while co-creating as a group. We enjoy dissolving ego and getting into the flow. Contrary to what you would expect, one way to abolish self-consciousness is mirror work. Why? Because self-confidence is the antidote to self-consciousness. Here is an introduction to mirror work and here is a brand new book by my friend, Erin Stutland, called Mantras in Motion, that gives the blueprint for her revolutionary practice that combines movement and positive affirmations. Yoga is a whole lot more than poses, and writing is a whole lot more than placing one word after another to form sentences. Your body is your instrument—and the pen and keyboard are extensions of the body.
Take small risks to build courage for larger risks.
As it is said, “Your mat appears wherever you are.” Yoga principles of mindful presence, balanced alignment, and grace from the inner critic are just as useful with keyboard or pen in hand, and practice underway. Start by settling into your seat, feel the earth supporting you, and then get on all fours—root down to rise up, stretch high and bow low. Guided by choreography, attuned inwardly to your comfort levels, you make fine adjustments to stay in the flow.
Your journal is your rehearsal space. It’s where your voice might crack or hit a sour note. It’s where you formulate your words before a tough confrontation. Seeing your thoughts on the page helps you witness yourself. Amid your free association might be a rope you want to tug on, to see what is attached. You might be afraid a whole bundle could unravel.
I meet fear where it is, and use connection, tenderness, and logic to escort it away. Like cajoling a child to dip his toe in the water before swim lessons, sometimes baby steps suffice, and should be applauded. We all wear armor that keeps us safe. Here are some common refrains that prevent people from launching off the cliff and soaring:
“I’m not a writer.”
“I have nothing to write about.”
“I’m here for the meditation/nature walk/camaraderie (not the writing).”
“I have mistakes in spelling and punctuation.”
“I’m not that knowledgeable about the topic I want to write about.”
You get the picture. Any hesitations that arise can be subdued with exercises and conversation to help you warm up to the purposeful writing you will do. When you learn a new relaxation technique, you can use it to help with any challenge you might face.
In yoga and in writing workshop, we don’t judge what emerges, we hold space. The more you show up, the better you’ll get. And your own satisfaction is the only yardstick by which success is measured.
Practice builds strength.
I was in my forties before I finally tried morning pages. First made trendy in the 90s by iconic writer Julia Cameron in her bestselling book, The Artist’s Way, morning pages are also prescribed in her amazing follow-up, Walking in this World. It is the gift that keeps on giving. In fact, I plan to teach a five-week course with the book as its focus; it’s that rich. Let me share a secret: You don’t have to write in the morning, and you don’t have to write pages. A little is enough.
I have adopted a new technique taught by Bob Stromberg called “Grab, Interrogate, Transform” (or “GIT”) that shortens the chore and doubles the value of daily writing. Listen to the podcast where he shares a great way to build a storehouse of creative ideas. Bob is an effective mentor because he uses humor to make his anecdotes memorable, and his tips are easy to integrate into daily habits.
Sometimes we fall out of practice. Responsibilities take priority, winter makes us slothful, we have loved ones to care for, jobs to serve… and sometimes our muse is shy. That’s why people sign up for a class. By attending class, you honor your commitment to a vital part of yourself. You find affirmation and the warmth of a community, which are wonderfully restorative. Regular practice makes your muscles stronger. The best advice I ever got was to do five minutes of yoga each day. The Jedi mind trick works here to get you on your mat, and before you know it, you’ve done 20 minutes of yoga. I applied this to writing, and the same magic happened.
There are many styles, and you may sample from the buffet.
Ashtanga, Kundalini, Jivamukti, God bless you! Nonfiction, flash fiction, poetry, sci-fi! There are many styles of yoga and of literature, and you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself.
Often my students surprise themselves. They had no idea they could write fiction until, on a whim, they chose the writing prompt that asked them to invent a fictional character who’s covering up a crime. Or they attended class because they’d been working on a memoir for years, and discovered that dialogue was sorely lacking. They might find that their nonfiction essay needs some sensuality and verve, and the reason it was missing from their writing is because it was missing from their lives. Then the adventure of chasing joy and fulfillment outside the classroom in order to fuel the writing begins and never ends. I especially like to embolden writers to pursue a topic that turns them on, even if they need to study or research. To write is to grow. Whether it’s introspective or investigative, comedy or grant writing, the degree to which you invest your heart is the degree to which your audience will be moved, persuaded, and entertained.
Wellness is the primary goal.
Yoga tones and balances the body and espouses a positive mindset. To maintain the benefits of yoga, we’re encouraged to eat wholesome food and consume media with healthy messages; there are a lot of complementary practices that go along with the yoga lifestyle.
Having outlets for personal expression also contributes to your wellbeing. As Julia Cameron says, “Adventure is a nutrient, not a frivolity.” Exploring nature, visiting a museum, joining a protest, frolicking in water, trying your hand at crafts, and sampling new foods all sustain your creative self. Without the full spectrum of experience, a life isn’t fully lived.
A holistic approach to coaching writers considers how all aspects of a writer’s life play into her ability to express herself. We detect and remove blocks. This can be an emotionally vulnerable time. Group workshops should be safe and nurturing, so that permanent growth can take place. Allowing leeway for artists to make mistakes, to sound flat or sharp, then finally hit the sweet spot, yields dividends. Nobody remembers your run-on sentence; everybody remembers your poignant punchline. You should leave class primed to experience life more vividly and to create art that you’ll treasure. Tremendous healing comes through moving your body and through moving your pen.
If you can’t plan a retreat that combines all of your interests, start where you are. Try the GIT technique. Sign up for class in a genre that stretches your comfort zone. To be sure, the ultimate wisdom from yoga of benefit to writers is that moving your body promotes creativity.
Walking in this World: The Practical Art of Creativity by Julia Cameron
Dojo Wisdom for Writers by Jennifer Lawler
Writing Begins With the Breath by Laraine Herring