WRITING LIFE: Where Worlds Collide – Writing and Yoga by Jennifer Lang

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During my first MFA residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I sat spellbound in Barbara Hurd’s lecture on paradox. She showed images of Andy Goldsworthy’s unique art installations in nature. Using stones, leaves, twigs and other elements, he spread, scattered, and stacked in search of paradox: form and formlessness, intimacy and distance, permanency and impermanence. She encouraged us to search for these same paradoxes, to see what happens, in our stories, when we combine opposites and incongruous elements.

Then she uttered these unforgettable words: “When I write, I feel rooted.” I draped my cotton scarf around my neck. Ever since I stepped on a yoga mat twenty-three years ago and my first teacher instructed us to ground down through our legs and root, I’ve been striving to feel the earth underneath me no matter where I am.

On that breezy June day in College Hall, my two halves—yogi and writer—merged into one. Now, whether I sit at my desk crafting an essay or lie on my back in final resting pose, I am anchoring—words on page, breath in body, body on ground.

The more I read about and speak to others who juggle writing with healing or artistic professions—be it painting, music, Thai massage, or anything else—the more I’m convinced our different endeavors are one in the same: the see and the saw of play structure. Without one, the other cannot exist.



Hurd described Andy Goldsworthy’s approach to constructing forms. “He takes something right on or up to the edge of collapse to see where it takes him. When you write, try to do the same. Go to your edge.” How many times have I heard my yoga teacher express the same sentiment? Go to your edge but never beyond. Go to your edge because that’s where you’ll feel the most sensation. By going to the edge physically, by harnessing my strength and focusing on my breath, I’ve mastered forearm stand and tripod headstand in the middle of the room. When my writer friends say my prose is too crisp, even controlled, what they mean is I’m hiding behind my words, shying away from the edge. Every time I face the keyboard, I search for it and try not to fear the possibility of collapse.


The Right side (responsible for creativity) and the Left (the evil inner critic) duke it out. Each time I write a sentence, Right fires up, but I can’t finish before Left screams stronger verb or better word choice or different structure. Likewise, when I practice Vinyasa yoga flow, my body dances freely with my breath from pose to pose until I stop and check myself: are my shoulders over my hips? Are my legs engaged? Am I squared? In both practices, I strive to find center—the balance between work and pleasure, feeling good and finding alignment—in hopes that my monkey mind quiets.


During a writing workshop I once took, Robert Vivian said, “We avoid in our writing the things we find hard. We circle around and around our subject, the deeper, truest story within.” I’ve heard those words countless times over the years by my yoga teachers: the poses we avoid are often the ones we need the most. Every time I practice hip openers like fire log I fidget nonstop. Sometimes I giggle or make faces—anything to squelch my desire to scream. But as I breathe, I talk to myself like a parent would to a child about eating their vegetables. Do it for your health, I gently nudge. Now, when I come to the keyboard and catch myself dancing around the hard stuff, I buckle down and breathe to unbury the deep, true, difficult story.


Yesterday I wrote 686 new words. Today I’m at 103. I’m stuck in editing mode, trapped by procrastination, distracted by email and errands, laundry and self-doubt. The same phenomenon affects me on the mat. On rare occasions, I can sustain long holds in squat and chair pose. But the real me—the one battling fatigue, hormones, or hunger—usually succumbs to child’s pose. Because every day is different. Change is the only constant. It’s a maxim I accept more easily in yoga and am working towards in my writing.


My first yoga teacher, Rodney Yee, told us to take our egos off the mat. We practice to find alignment, to more easily access our minds, to feel centered—not to perform or check off some complex inversion from an invisible list. Writing is the same, or at least it should be, although in William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide To Writing Nonfiction, he says, “Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.” Honestly, though, I battle with my ego in both places. Acknowledging it exists and letting it lead the way are two very different things.


On the page, tension should be present in every story, every scene. It’s what propels the story forward and the reader to turn the page. When it comes to dialogue, Janet Finch, author of White Oleander, says there’s no reason to write it unless there’s tension. In yoga, a similar tension pervades every pose. Whether standing tall in mountain pose or stretching sideways in parsvakonasa, we ground down through the feet and up through the crown of the head to activate our muscles. End result: tension. In yoga, we use that tension and opposition to lengthen and strengthen and center ourselves.


In yoga, a teacher might give verbal or physical feedback, putting a gentle hand on the middle back to guide me or remind me to lift my hip or pull in my abdomen, but ultimately my body gives me the most honest response. If I feel pain, I release. In writing, I rely heavily on my writer and reader friends for support and critique to help my sentences flow and my words to pop, but every teacher tells me the same thing—listen but trust my instincts.


In the workshop with Barbara Hurd, she encouraged us to play—with words, structure, patterns—because the more we play, the more nimble-minded we’ll be. In yoga, I’m nimble-bodied. I backbend, twist, and turn upside down with ease. Ever since hearing Hurd, I’ve dared more than ever with my prose, striving to be just as agile on the page as I am on the mat.


In both practices, my yearning—to be stronger and more lithe both physically and mentally—continues to push me forward. I am not writer or yogi but writer and yogi, each of my two halves supporting and reinforcing the other, creating a place of paradox where new things are possible.


A San Francisco Bay Area native, Jennifer Lang lives and writes in Raanana, Israel. Her essays have appeared in Under the Sun, Ascent, The New Haven Review, and on Brevity’s One-Minute Memoir and NPR’s Hanukkah Lights podcasts, among others. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as assistant editor for Brevity.  Find her at http://israelwriterstudio.com/ and follow her @JenLangWrites.

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