Shivasana Your Heart Out: Yoga and the Writing Life

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There’s no disputing that I’m a tightly wound person.  Once, I was so nervous about serving beer at a party I threw in my parents’ basement, that I numbered the beer cans and made people sign them out.  Years later, in the middle of a Mardi Gras Crawfish Boil in New Orleans, I snuck into the host’s house to check my email for updates about a class project.  And just last week, I made so many “to-do” and “to-buy” lists that I had to make a list of my lists.  And although this anxiety-fueled mode of operation makes me a generally reliable person and a productive fledgling writer, I’ve come to realize… it is also threatening my sanity.

Since I’ve been told that anxiety is wildly contagious, let’s take a moment to relax before you read on.  Sit upright with your eyes closed, drop you shoulders down away from your ears, take a deep breath in through your nose filling your belly…. and exhale.  Repeat as necessary throughout this post.

As I mentioned above, chugging along on the fuel of anxiety isn’t always a bad thing.  My mind races incessantly… but if I can manage to get my thoughts on paper… sometimes those thoughts turn into the early draft of a promising short story or essay.  I’ve always felt this stream of inner-dialogue was a blessing — a capacious well of language that supplied the material for writing. The problem is, I can’t shut it off.  My well overfloweth. So when it’s time to sleep… instead of dozing off like the rest of the sane world, I lay half-awake while a random patchwork of thoughts loop through my mind :… I love those return address labels I ordered..and I love that mermaid story by Milhauser… the ending is so transcendent… Did I turn the oven off?….. Why can’t I ever eat just one bowl of Fudge Tracks ice cream?…. Should I switch that story to third-person narration or just leave it?… Am I deciding to leave it out of laziness or because I’m following my instincts?…. I bet if Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, he’d pick Palin as his running mate…. Oh, if I end on that thought, I’ll surely have a nightmare tonight….

This was (and sometimes continues to be) my “sleep.” Toss. Turn. Think. Night after night. Again and again.  And in the mornings, I’d roll out of bed feeling tired, emotional, and mentally dull.  And worst of all, instead of putting that flow of inner dialogue to work by hunkering down to write…. I’d instead watch three or four episodes of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” and then doze off on the couch (in the middle of the afternoon!)…. knowing full-well that my midday nap would only worsen my nighttime sleep troubles…

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GET INTO PLANK POSITION. Hold it for three breaths.  Flow into down dog.  Now lift your chest to the ceiling for up dog.  Nania, relax your forehead and jaw.  And don’t forget to breathe.  Nania, drop your shoulders away from your ears, let go of your thoughts, do your best to relax. These comments from my yoga instructors used to drive me nuts.  I’d think, “Don’t worry about my forehead and jaw, lady.  Let’s focus on the fact that I couldn’t do a push-up if my life depended on it.” But a (very talented) poet friend of mine who always listened intently as I jabbered on about my sleeplessness, claimed that yoga was the answer to her own battles with occasional insomnia and stifled creative productivity.  She began talking about her yoga practice in a way that made me feel I was missing something. She said yoga gave her a space where she could go to shut out the world, to focus simply on the state of her own body, and enjoy the quiet solitude of her mind.  For her, the practice of yoga was about feeling peaceful, being both physically and mentally aligned, and quieting the chorus of voices that crescendoed and diminuendoed throughout her day. Her goals dealt with mental, emotional, and physical harmony.  She said this helped her sleep…. which helped her write… which helped her feel calm and happy.  Yoga, sleep, write, relax, and repeat.

My yoga goals were to strengthen my arms and give my rear-end a little boost.  It was time for me to shift my thinking.

Eventually, I stopped viewing yoga one-dimensionally — and started paying closer attention to the mini-talks that some instructors use to open their classes. The teachers would say things like, “Release the negative energy that bottles up your creative spirit,” “Visualize positivity flowing through your heart center,” “Quiet your mind and listen as silence expands and resonates.” I used to dismiss these thoughts as spacey abstraction.  Quiet my mind?  What does that mean?  Does that mean to stop thinking, because I’m not gonna do that. And how do I visualize positivity and make silence expand?  This sounds like a puffy nonsense for space monkeys. But as I continued to bank an average of 2-3 hours of sleep a night, I eventually told my cynical inner-dialogue to take a hike.  I was sleeping sporadically, getting no writing done, and beginning to feel like I was losing my grip.  My marbles were everywhere.  So who was I do judge others when I could barely take care of myself?

I began practicing the breathing exercises, visualizing the images each instructor described while completing a series of challenging poses — all in an effort to get my breathing, my mind, and my body on the same plain.  The abstract notions of expelling negativity and visualizing positivity finally clicked in a practical way…. because  as writers, we take ideas and emotions and concretize them all the time ; you locate a feeling and render it in a way that you understand and that others can imagine. That’s all my yoga instructors were asking me to do — to visualize these ideas of energy, positivity, and balance, instead of only hearing the words in my head.

And I’ll admit… I’m sleeping a little better these days.  After months of thinking of yoga in a more holistic way… it’s helped me quiet my inner dialogue and enforce the same discipline on my mind that I do on my body while in class.  It seems yoga is the yin to my writerly yang; the calming counterbalancing action to the continuous reel of my creative mind.

Now I know yoga isn’t for everyone… but I’ll wind things down with a link to one of my favorite pose series. If you’re in good health and want to give it a shot, here it is: Surya Namaskar – the simple sun salutation.

And here’s a nice relaxing pose called Shivasana, the corpse pose:

Yes, there’s an actual technique to this…. but for now, you can basically just lie there and relax.  I promise you won’t screw it up… just remember to breathe.

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