Yoga Lessons for the Working Poet #1


Today, I am taking this as the opportunity to talk more about yoga, my latest obsession/Important Excitement. As I think I have said before, I have always believed that the other arts–visual, musical, physical and spiritual–have much to teach the working writer, and in particular the working poet. I sing a lot (often at the top of my lungs) although I am a poor musician, and I have been a martial artist for more than half my life now, so I am always noticing how these practices apply to my practice of writing. Doing yoga now for almost eight months has brought similar insights.

It’s funny. I have several women friends who each have two brothers, the one they get along well with, who is always named, and the one they don’t, who is always called “my brother” or “my other brother,” even if the first is not named. Similarly, my gym has several yoga instructors, most of them very good, one who is a drill sargeant, and Erica Magro, who I consider My Yoga Teacher. Because what I learn from her isn’t just about turning my body into a pretzel or seeing how long I can hold a particular pose; it’s about learning a new way to live.

I think writing is like that. There are lessons to be learned from the constant, daily practice of writing. Some of those lessons are similar to the lessons I learn in yoga. Erica often says, “Get there how you get there. If it doesn’t feel right, back off.” This is not the sort of thing we get taught in our hypercompetitive culture, and it is a lesson I frequently need to pass on to the writers I work with, especially the scientists and engineers at MIT, who didn’t get to the top of their profession by going easy on themselves, and sometimes find themselves tied up in figurative knots because of it when it comes to their writing.

This may sound like a contradiction to the things I say about discipline and not waiting for a muse before you get down to the work that is writing. It isn’t really. The word discipline doesn’t inherently mean being hard on yourself. It is more akin to the word disciple, and means teaching and learning. So for me, self-discipline involves learning how I do things, what is the best environment for me, the best medium for getting my ideas on paper, and then taking advantage of my strengths. And it means, when I hit a wall in whatever I am working on, I back off for a while. I do something else. Let the back of my brain mull over the problem while I use the front for other things. Then, when I go back to my wall, I am more apt to see possible doors and windows or tunnels or even ramrods.

And when I see how useful this practice of backing off and returning is in my writing, when I have proof that it works, I am much more likely to bring it to the rest of my life. And I live with a little less stress as a result.

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