If you didn’t know me as a person, and all you knew about me was that I was a yoga teacher and a poet, you would probably think I was pretty boring. You’d think of poems filled with rainbows and flowers, and imagine me crying all the time into the heart on my sleeve. I probably wouldn’t get an invite for dinner.
There is this idea out there that true artists live fast and die young—they drink hard, play hard, write hard, and then get liver failure in a tragically young death. How can the peaceful archetype of the yogi go hand in hand with the tragedy of the true artist?
Well, lots of ways, in my opinion. I am indeed a yogi and a poet, but I am none of the above. Though I do cry a lot, that part is true.
What I’ve discovered, actually, is that my yoga practice shifted my writing quite dramatically—and not towards rainbows and flowers, either. Working with the subtler sensations in my body, cultivating mindfulness, meditating—all this has created space in my writing for me to get out of my hamster-wheel head and write from deeper places. It does for my writing what drinking too much wine late into the night used to: it alters my perception and gives me access to a whole new world. Without the hangover (most of the time). And the poetry’s better, I’m pretty darn sure.
There is actually a whole, budding theory on how yoga and creativity can work together in all kinds of mediums, from writing, to painting, to music, or just dealing with issues coming up in whatever work it is you do. We need creativity in all aspects of our lives, and in order to access it, we have to be willing to step out of our comfortable boxes. Here are some of the ways yoga can work even better for your creative endeavors than drinking, smoking, and hating your life:
One of the major things we do in yoga is notice—not only what’s going on physically as we move from pose to pose, but also mentally: What thoughts are going through my mind right now? How can I detach from these thoughts and turn on what’s called the buddhimind: the mind that observes? We watch ourselves as if our internal world were projected for us on a huge movie screen. When we let go of the attachment between the emotion and the image/words, we can see the whole picture more clearly. We look at our minds with the artist’s eye, and see more interesting ways to express what we are feeling and thinking. Rachel McKibbens is one of my favourite poets, and she describes this process as letting the thoughts and feelings travel out of your head and waiting til they get down to your hands to write them out. Give those wild-horse thoughts space, and there will be room for you to take the reins.
Writer’s block happens when we get stuck. Nothing will come out. We can’t produce, we can’t move, we are locked up. This sometimes happens in our bodies, too—Leonard Cohen and Michael Ondaatje are two authors I studied in school because (get this) they talked so much about constipation. Art and shit have a real connection—when the body is locked, when we can’t let go of the waste, the crap, and make space for the beauty and nourishment, the pen can’t move. Yoga can help with both those things.
3. Feeling Feelings:
A Buddhist meditation technique is this: Sit still and encounter an emotion: anger, sadness, whatever. Rather than replaying the story that sparked the emotion over and over again, get curious on a physical level: What does anger feel like in my body? Where specifically do I feel it? Is it associated with a color, an image, a word, a sound? When we pay attention this way, we describe heartbreak less like this: “I feel like my heart is broken into a million million pieces!” (cliche) and maybe more like this: “Some days my heart escapes from my chest and sits in the sunshine pumping, shuddering, disgusting, and making a spectacle of itself outside the safety of my ribcage” (cliche redone; paraphrased from one of my own poems, Heart Hanging Out).
The Latin term for inhaling is inspirare, the root of our English word inspiration. Traditionally (we’re talking Tarot, Astrology, yoga philosophy, Chakra theory, and many other traditions) the element of air is always connected with ideas, creativity, and the movements of the mind. When we are stuck, mentally and otherwise, we often stop breathing. Vinyasa yoga moves the body with the breath, and breaks through blockages in the blood, lymph, muscles, and connective tissue, so our awareness flows into places in the body we didn’t even know we could acknowledge. And when we do start breathing more deeply and more rhythmically, we slow down our brain waves—from the multitasking Beta brainwave state to the more focused Alpha state. This is the state you enter into when a writer is writing, a dancer is dancing, a painter is painting, or when my dad is playing guitar. He can’t hear anything else ["Dad. Dad. Dad. DAD! The kitchen is on fire!" ...DAD!].
5. Emotional Maps:
Yoga philosophy gives us some specific emotional maps to help us navigate the territory of our bodies so that we get better at not only expressing to the world how we feel, but understanding better what the body is trying to express to us. According to Chakra theory and Chinese acupuncture meridian theory, we hold grief in our lungs, anger in our inner thighs, trauma in our hips, and weakness in our knees. We also learn that the throat is the center of expression in our bodies—it’s where we hold all the words we didn’t say, where we get tired if we haven’t been listening hard enough, and where we lie to ourselves. Opening the physical throat and chest area can help to release old blockages in the throat chakra, opening up space for truth and honesty, and then its creative expression. The hips, on the other hand, are the source of the body’s creativity because it is related to our sexual center—svadisthana chakra, where we literally create life. Often if one is blocked, the other will follow—the anger seething in the hips needs to get out through the throat, and moving the physical body can help us access some of this stuff.
6. Confronting Fear:
When we practice yoga, most of the time we are trying to become better. We are learning about ourselves, facing ourselves, and going to those deep dark places that artists sometimes need to go to find the light. Honestly, whenever I meet a person—yogi or otherwise—who is all about rainbows and flowers, I seriously doubt the fullness of their sanity. If you are an intelligent, sensitive human, you’ll see darkness. Yoga teaches us how to handle that darkness and learn from it, not how to shove it away.
Yoga can also teach us to get braver: we turn upside down, we jump around, we balance on one hand with our feet tied in knots (well, maybe not that one), we sit still and face the hamster wheels making their sickening turns in our heads [oh GOD it's terrifying]. But then we watch our bodies get stronger and more flexible. We are amazed when we can suddenly do something that felt previously impossible. When we approach our physical fears on the mat, we also learn to manage the terror of speaking the truth. This way we can be more than your run-of-the-mill dead-by-27 tragic artist—we can really make a world out of this thing. And do it beautifully.
Anyway, that’s what I think.
Want to see more? Watch this video of my poem “Elephant Ear,” inspired by a secret and strep throat here.
And this one, “Blind Planet,” about love, mental illness, and chopping garlic here.
I also teach a Creative Flow class every Tuesday at 7:30 pm at East Side Yoga Studio on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, where we work with these ideas and then spend the last 5-10 minutes of class journaling.
Another one of my poems is being published this month in a new anthology of poetry by yogis from all around the world, including Shiva Rea, Sharon Gannon, Michael Stone, and myself, called the Poetry of Yoga. I’m impressed that they chose the one they did because it’s, well, a little creepy. If you want to hear it, though, you should come to a workshop I’m doing here in Vancouver on December 11th at Highgate YYOGA: We’ll read from the book, do some yoga focused on opening those creative centers, and explore writing exercises to help us get there.
Creative Flow: the Poetry of Yoga
Sunday December 11th, 1:30-4:00pm, $30
Highgate YYOGA, 315-7155 Kingsway, Burnaby BC
And if you are not on the Canadian side of the border, maybe I’ll see you in Seattle at Maya Whole Health in February—details on that one will be coming soon to my website, jcpeters.ca.
In the meantime, here’s an exercise you can try: Practice pigeon pose for at least 8 breaths on each side, and then write a letter: address it “Dear Brain,” and sign it “Love, Your Hips.” And let me know how it goes!