Twelve Posts on Writing, Day Four: Focus, Breathe, Wait

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I just got back from yoga. I do hot yoga, where the studio is heated to 105° with the humidity cranked up to around 40%. I haven’t been in a while, and to be honest, today kicked my tail. I had to stop a couple of times, to lay down on my mat to keep from vomiting. I’m glad I put in the effort, though.

I’ve learned a couple of things about writing from practicing yoga. I’m certainly not the first writer to explore this connection. Laraine Herring and Natalie Goldberg have written a lot more (and a lot more eloquently) on the subject.

But having just returned from class, I want to share with you what I’ve learned about writing from yoga.

Practicing yoga isn’t about doing wacky poses. It’s about connecting with your body, about breathing, about stretching yourself to your limit and then listening to how your mind and body react.

When I move into a pose — say Half Moon pose — the first thing I do is focus. I block out all the other movement in the room and only focus on what I’m doing. Next I focus on my breathing, because if I don’t breathe, I will panic and my muscles shake. When I’m ready, I move into the pose, going only as far as my edge, that point where my muscles say, Stop. Then I wait, focusing and breathing, until something changes, until something shifts, until my body says, Okay. Only then can I move deeper into the pose, going beyond that edge to the next point where my muscles say, Stop. Then, again, I wait, breathe, focus, etc. By the end of the pose, I’ve moved beyond what I thought possible; but more importantly, I’ve learned how far I can go, what my body can do, where my new edge is.

The next time I practice, I find that new edge and make it the old edge.

It’s the same with writing.

When I sit down to write — say a scene from the novel — the first thing I do is focus. No internet. No phone. No family. Only the scene in my mind (as much as I know of it). I begin to write, losing myself in the sights, sounds, smells, characters, trying not to think too hard about what I’m doing. I keep it simple — like breathing — because if I don’t, I’ll panic and my scene will get shaky. I just write as much as I know. And when I get to the end of what I know, I pause, and I wait. I stay with the scene in my mind — no stopping to check email, to get a drink, to scratch that itch — just my fingers and mind poised for the next word. I wait. I breathe. Then something shifts, my mind shifts, the characters move, and I write deeper into the scene. I go beyond what I knew to the next point where my mind stops. And, again, I wait, breathe, focus, etc. By the end of the scene, I’ve moved beyond what I knew of the story; but more importantly, I’ve learned how far I can go as a writer. I’ve found my new edge.

And the next time I write, I start from that new edge and make it the old edge.

Sometimes yoga is easy. Sometimes — like today — it’s hard, and I want to throw up. Same with writing. (Though writing hasn’t made me vomit. Yet.) Sometimes I spend a lot of time silent and staring, fingers ready, waiting for the shift. Sometimes writing kicks my tail.

But like yoga, the more I practice writing, the more I get into the groove of writing, the more my creative muscles remember how to do what I’m asking them to do. It doesn’t necessarily get easier — there will always be new edges to discover, new places where my mind says, Stop. But it does become more familiar. More natural. More like breathing. And I grow more and more eager to return to my pen. To return to my practice. And when I write this way — focusing, breathing, waiting — I’m always  glad I put in the effort.

Has yoga impacted your writing? I’d love to hear how.

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