October 24, 2011

Writing Yoga: Another Kinda Book Review.

The journal and the mat are places where I can think through problems without judging myself and without feeling pressure to solve my problems. I can just let the problem out and consider it, the way I might look at a tree or a rock, without trying to “solve” it. And in the process of looking, I’ll see something that I hadn’t noticed before, the hint of a path, the suggestion of an answer.*

Some years ago, my yoga teacher told me about a retreat she was leading on a beach in Mexico, involving instruction in not just yoga but writing.** The yoga and beach-in-Mexico parts sounded awesome, but thought I might skip out on the other in favor of more wandering-on-the-beach time—I mean, I got me a PhD in English, done taut reedin’ n’ ritin’ at the college level, for chrissake, completed a novel, and published all kinds o’ crap; so  y’know, what could be more fun on a trip to the tropics than having somebody correcting my split infinitives and instructing me not to end my sentences with prepositions?**** As it turned out, the writing teacher, Ann Randolph, was more holy lunatic than didactic schoolmarm. Right from the get-go, she had us radically stretching, pushing boundaries, moving beyond comfort zones into all kinds of places I really wasn’t expecting to go.***** At the end of the week, when asked how I felt about the balance of yoga and writing, I said I didn’t feel it was a combination, per se. Rather, it felt to me like it was all yoga, the writing as much as the asana practice.

And this, along with, according to what I’d read, a desperate need for writers these days to have something called a web presence, led me to create my semi-famous blog, Yoga for Cynics…(mentioned in Yoga Journal and yada yada yada).****** (And, when people point out that, often, the content isn’t really about yoga, I point out that writing the blog is yoga…and, at least fifty percent of the time, I mean it).

To get even more self-indulgent—I’m gonna mention the book in just a couple more sentences; really—I’ll mention my work teaching reading and writing to prisoners, women in recovery, and men transitioning from homelessness, in conjunction with which I’ve been reading lotsa books about writing as therapy, writing as meditation, writing as very new-agey spiritual practice having something to do with spirit guides and synchronicity, etc. Having recently been certified as a yoga teacher, I’ve also been thinking about ways the two can be artfully combined. So, it couldn’t have been more fitting when the universe—or, at least, that portion of the cosmos known as Elephant Journal*******—asked if I wanted to review a book called Writing Yoga: a guide to keeping a practice journal by Bruce Black.

That was two months ago. One thing about reading books about writing is that the voice in my head that’s always telling me I need to write more goes completely berserk—quit reading about writing and  actually do some damn writing for a change!!! Actually, it’s kinda similar to the voice I hear when reading books about yoga (though it’s a bit kinder, more like alright now, let’s  put down the book and set a gentle intention to move slowly and quietly toward the mat…). So, let’s just say that reading a book about writing and yoga took me a while. Then, considering that the whole point of Writing and Yoga is to get people to practice yoga and write, I guess if somebody ends up too busy stretched out in kapotasana with journal in hand, to ever finish it, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

I had to learn how to relax on the page, let down my defenses, and allow my heart to show in ways that I’d learned in my yoga classes…

Which is not to say there aren’t a wealth of good reasons to pull oneself away from the yoga mat and notebook to peruse its pages. What makes the book stand out is that it both draws parallels between asana practice and journaling and discusses a dazzling variety of ways the two can be brought together—finding provocative parallels,  using insights gained in each practice to aid and enhance the other, bringing these insights “off the mat,” as they say,  as well as bringing the journal onto the mat, toward moving beyond either. This, of course, is the kind of thing lots of people write about, but few so clearly and concretely. While his suggested exercises can be challenging, like a good yoga teacher, Black never fails to offer variations and alternatives: If it’s too painful to reread your earlier entry, reflect in your journal about your feelings toward rereading your work. And, in doing so, I think he manages to not only show how writing can enhance yoga, and vice-versa, but how writing can be yoga.

At the same time, the emphasis is on writing without rules, with multitudinous suggestions offered, rather than a plan or precepts laid down to be followed-by-the-letter-or-else-you’re-doing-it-wrong, from subject matter, to where and when to write, to kinds of notebooks and writing implements, urging only experimentation and finding out what works. And, in refreshing distinction to many writers on similar subjects—who combine the sanctimony and free-flowing magical thinking of the self-styled guru with the romantic self-regard and pretentions of the auteur********—Black’s voice, in describing his own journeys toward yoga, journaling, and the relationship between the two is ever humble and reassuring.

Like many writers, I rarely reread what I write in my journals. That’s because it’s in the process of writing—the actual physical act of writing—that you’ll make discoveries.

If there’s one thing I found a bit disappointing in the book, it’s the From My Journal excerpts, set off within chapters. While placing these bits of actual journaling within the text seems like a great idea, they often end up feeling, ironically, a lot more like more typical yoga writing than the rest of the book.  That is, instead of a view into the author’s thought processes in a raw, informal, messy straight-from-the-chaos-that-is-the-brain form, what we seem to get are more fully formed ideas about yoga and journaling, that seem less personal, more theoretical, even a bit preachy, than the rest. Ultimately, I feel I get more of a sense of who the author really is, warts and all, from poignant stories of  overcoming fear of taking the socks off and letting people in yoga class see his toenail fungus-infested feet, in Chapter Four, than when he sagely opines about the limitlessness of spirit in a journal excerpt. Likewise, I see a profound honesty as he describes getting increasingly anxious and pissed off as traffic, road construction, and sandhill cranes make him late to yoga class, while a reverent “from my journal” description of pranayama seems like something I’ve seen—many times—before.

In general, though, the language of Writing Yoga is straightforward, and often evocative and lovely, giving the reader a sense of what’s possible. One drawback in reading a lot of books about yoga is that, while their authors may have a lot to share about yoga, they’re not particularly skilled at writing. Of course, this is true of books on lots of subjects, but, when a book’s telling you it’s the journey that counts, not the destination, having to force one’s way through endless turgid prose in search of some usable knowledge to take away can seem a bit of a contradiction. Black, on the other hand, is an excellent storyteller with a gift for metaphor, who understands that words are meant to be experienced as well as serving as sources of information. (And, as such, he can be forgiven for occasionally falling into yogic cliche) (particularly since most writers on yoga rely on feel-good yogic cliche as kind of a default mode of expression*********). All in all, Writing Yoga is highly accessible to readers at any stage of a yoga, writing, or yoga-and-writing, and I recommend it highly.




* All quotes: Bruce Black, Writing Yoga.

** Writing Yoga is kinda like what back in academia we called a hybrid text, mixing an instructional focus with more personal, memoir-type stuff, which is fitting, given the subject matter. So, I’m using doing something similar with this review.***

*** which, yeah, is what I generally do, anyway, but it’s always nice to have an excuse.

**** two rules which, by the way, are completely idiotic and ignored by all but the most anal retentive old-school English teachers and their unfortunate students.

***** and, actually, when told about my initial misgivings, she said she wasn’t sure what a preposition is.

****** One skill I really need to work on as a free-lance writer is shameless self-promotion; this link-filled sentence, thus, can be seen as kind of an exercise.

******* yeah, I know, I used the same line in the Ana Forrest  review. My philosophy: if a joke’s worth telling once, it’s worth beating to death.

******** Julia Cameron seems to me to be a particularly egregious example on all points.

********* which goes to show, I guess, that that many yogis feel the same way about empty feel-good affirmations that I do about cheesy jokes. It’s all good.

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