Nine years ago I felt stuck and miserable.
I would probably have considered a divorce if I hadn’t been madly in love with my husband.
I was contemplating my only two options if I wanted to pursue my academic career in philosophy—a move from Memphis to either Maine or Minnesota.
I’m from Paris, France. I thrive in urban culture, worship the sun, and am happiest when I wear the least amount of clothing possible. No offense to anyone from Maine or Minnesota, but I just did not love academic philosophy enough to move to either place.
So instead, I decided to go on a yoga and writing retreat in the Mexican jungle.
In my hanging, mosquito-net-swaddled bed I lay wide awake for the first three nights, terrified of the tropical dark’s racket and the scorpions which, I was told, love to crawl up in your things.
Overwhelmed by the receptivity and kindness of my writing peers (something I wasn’t so used to at academic philosophy conferences), I cried through most writing circles. In yoga, I didn’t do too badly—for the first three days, before I sprained my ankle frolicking on slippery rocks and caught a bad case of jungle bronchitis that caused me to cough up my entrails every time I took a deep breath.
Still, I had never felt that wildly, unrepentantly alive.
I told myself that I, too, would one day lead writing and yoga retreats in sacred, beautiful places.
A few weeks after I returned home, I took a six-day intensive course to become a certified writing workshop facilitator and promptly proceeded to offer workshops out of my house.
Each week, for the last eight years, 6 to 12 writers have come to my home to have their creativity sparked, write together, listen to each other’s writing, eat my ratatouille, and generally feel like their writing matters. Somewhere along the way, I also earned my 200-hour, then my 500-hour certification as a Kundalini yoga instructor.
Today, writing before a stupendous vanilla spritzer on a sunny Pacific pier overlooking Yelapa’s pristine cove, I celebrate this: Full Circle!
Soon, I will walk down to the beach and order a fresh coconut. I will sip its precious water directly through a straw, and then I will get body-slammed in the surf—Oh, and did I mention it is January?
This morning, I watched the last of fifteen participants to my latest yoga and writing retreat disappear between a mammoth sombrero palm and a giant red ginger blossom astride the mule that took her to the taxi boat, because there are no cars here.
Over our combined more than 28 years of teaching and facilitating, my long-time collaborator Anna Esquivel and I have learned that our bodies are full of stories waiting to be told, and our stories hunger for the sensory detail that will bring them to life.
Kundalini is the Sanskrit name for life-force, or creative energy—our Muse. Kundalini yoga is the ancient technology designed to uncoil and liberate this Muse in a safe and systematic way. It does so by stoking our intuition, vitality, and creativity through movement, rhythm, breath, chanting, and meditation.
We have found that there at least seven ways in which the powerhouse Kundalini yoga and writing combo will crack the code of your life.
1. Put your ass in the seat.
This is Anna’s favorite saying, and she reminds us of it as we sit down to write in our circle. Or, in more yogic terms, get your sit bones on the mat.
Always, I come out of yoga feeling stronger, more confident, energized. I come out a bit more whole, fierce, unwilling (incapable, really) to shut up my gut.
The old “who do you think you are?” demon is still there, perched on my shoulder like a poopy parrot, but it no longer sounds shaming or belittling. Its question has become a real question, open and curious—a question I can’t wait to answer in the only valid way I know to answer it: by putting my ass in the seat and my pen to paper.
I am a writer; I am an untamable creative lioness; I am wildly original, and unique, and what I have to say matters because no one can say it for me, or like me, and if I don’t say it it will be lost forever, and I know I will die one day—maybe sooner than I wish. So there’s no time to waste, and I must dare delight.
I must risk failure. I must risk success.
I must dare do what my soul craves.
I shall never resign to be the one who says, drudging year after drudging year, “I have this great idea for a book/ story/ song/ movie script/epic poem (select as appropriate) and I hope I’ll get to write it one day, when the children are grown/ I can finally retire/ I win the lottery/ I pay off all my debts/ I earn a writing degree/ my entire family is dead because they might object/ I can move to Patagonia for a year because that’s where my story is set (select as appropriate).
2. Bye-bye writer’s block.
Writers have a slight tendency to obsessiveness. We blissfully spend a lot of time in our heads thinking up stimulating narratives, titillating characters, or the perfectly-wrought sentence. This can easily slide into perfectionism, and as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it, “…perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified.”
But yoga gets us out of our head and into our breath, our toes, our bellies.
Carole, a stylish self-described “middle-aged mermaid” who teaches yoga and has joined us in Yelapa for the second year in a row, says it well. “What I love most about combining yoga and writing is feeling the energy move in waves. When your body flows with the movement of yoga, your mind and spirit make the connection. We are our thoughts and movements.”
Or, adds Marilyn, a spritely Ph.D candidate in Literature, “Yoga relaxes my mind, eases my anxieties and makes me more in tune with my own breath, thoughts and actions. All of this makes for a better writing experience.”
The movement,breath and rhythm goes deep into my tissues—where my issues like to hide, to stir them up enough that they want to come up, and out, and peek at the light, and maybe even dart a timid tentacle at the savage world. Then the squid of the unresolved decides it wants to make sense of that world, to make meaning with it.
Throughout human history, the way we have made sense of the mystery and the scary has been to tell stories. Next thing you know, I’m ready to tell those stories instead of hiding in my Cro-Magnon cave of habit and fearfulness.
3. Work your magic.
Writing is magic. Inspiration is a mystery. I like to picture her as a petulant fairy sprinkling her dust on a few blissfully selected ones. But any half-serious writer knows that writing is also work. Human history lists a few instances of blessed souls downloading amazing stuff directly from the Source, but those are usually prophets or psychopaths.
For the rest of us, “Writing is work. So is yoga,” explains Jarad, a father of three and full-time pastor who has come with us for the third year and is working on his second novel,
“It is work to teach your pelvis to move with your breath,” he says, and, I might add, it is work to hold your arms up in the air for three or seven minutes while pumping your belly. And for some of us, it is hard work to lie down on our back, basking in bliss and doing absolutely nada but feel for several minutes.
To begin your day with this kind of work—the kind that stretches you just beyond your comfort zone and that yields rewards not immediately graspable—is powerful practice, and a powerful metaphor for the kind of writing and living you want to do.”
4. Use your voice.
In Kundalini yoga, we use our voice—literally: we sing! We chant mantra (man=mind; tra=liberation), those strings of high-vibrational sounds (that is, energy waves) that subtly transform the fabric of our mind-body.
Mantras tune us to the music of the spheres like we tune a viola so it can play its all-important part in Beethoven’s fifth Symphony. Mantras are sounds we make with our vocal chords, and breath, and the resonance of our chest. In other words, we embody those higher vibrations. We project our voice. We listen to our own voice, and then to the voice of everyone else.
And what is writing, if not just this? Tuning in, giving voice, listening…
In yoga, we use creative visualization (“Picture the tendrils of a lotus flower growing up your spine as you breathe in, watch the lotus flower blossom at the crown of your head as you breathe out”) because, it is said, our brains do not distinguish between real perceptions and made-up images.
Remember the last time your heart skipped a beat because you thought you’d seen a large toothy dog barrel down your way when in fact it was a chihuahua looking for a playmate. So the images we choose to fill our mind with do matter—a lot. In fact, they have a direct impact on our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which command our stress response.
Now, can you think of any better way to practice shaping clear, evocative imagery than refining the craft of creative writing?
6. Use your gifts.
In Mexico, I’ve watched Tonya, aged 51 and with a heart-transplant, ride her mule like an Amazon princess up to the waterfall. I’ve seen Rita, a timid 26-year old engineer, make everyone in the writing circle roil with laughter with her wit. I’ve watched D., a 7-foot tall gentle giant, shed tears of relief as he read his piece about having difficulty feeling. I’ve seen Murray, aged 72, find enough ease in his ailing knees to spend an entire evening expertly teaching salsa-dancing to each woman present.
On the French Riviera, where Anna and I have taken several retreats to my family’s home, I’ve seen pale, wound-up executives throw off their bra to the mistral (fierce Mediterranean wind) and raise their bare bum at the full moon, one gleeful skinny-dipping night.
I’ve seen Robin crank out 2,500 words a day on her novel now under contract with an agent. I have myself written large swathes of my first novel, forthcoming this Spring.
Mostly, I’ve watched people tan and tone; open their hearts to each other; dare set the boundaries they need; ask for what they want; write one true, unapologetic sentence after another; produce poetry that makes your synapses sing; nap; moan orgasmically over fresh, colorful food; offer their unconditional support and talents to each other as true gifts.
Here is how Paulette, retired drama teacher from the public school system, puts it,
Zen when pen hits paper
Feelings stretch into linear space
Breath counters the mind […]
And then she concludes,
This is an experience
As varied as rock or sand
Sculptured like a yoga body, or a laid back pod of seals, sunning, in chorus.
Combined we plant
Rainbow seeds and are actualized in the pearl
of an idea.
7. Be authentic.
Don’t get me wrong, combining yoga and creative writing won’t necessarily turn you into a raging nudist twirling in the moonlight, nor will it make you quit your job (although it might).
It might not even turn you into a dedicated yogi or writer, make you twist your body into a pretzel at the drop of a hat or want to publish anything. It will, however, stir you toward more authenticity.
If it so happens that either or both of these practices—or any other creative and spiritual practice—truly make your soul sing, then anything is possible. If you choose to commit passionately, to work at it as much as musicians work at their craft, and happily married people work at their marriage, then who knows what might happen?
You get to choose.
Author: Valentine Leonard
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Image: Alena Getman/ Flickr