yoga and writing
How Yoga Cured My Writer’s Block
05.21.18

Two weeks before the launch of my second novel, “Bury What We Cannot Take,” a friend introduced me to someone as “a full-time yogi who writes novels in her spare time.” I laughed along. It’s true that my schedule revolves around daily early-morning yoga and meditation — two hours during which I could, ostensibly, be drafting my next novel. But here’s what might get lost in that joke: The yoga doesn’t distract from the writing. I am a better writer because I am a yogi.

In the past decade, through stretches in Boston and San Francisco and Singapore, I’ve regularly awoken at six in the morning to make it to yoga class. Unlike other styles of yoga where a teacher calls out poses, Mysore-style Ashtanga is self-led. Students arrive anytime between, say, 6 and 9 a.m. to practice a set series of poses, beginning with sun salutations and ending with backbends and inversions. The teacher moves around the class, guiding each student individually with physical adjustments and verbal instructions. When a student has mastered his or her sequence of poses, the teacher assigns the next one.

From the start, I was drawn to the intensity and rigor of Ashtanga yoga, and to the challenge of contorting my body into intimidating-looking shapes. I took pleasure in the sweat flowing down my face. I relished the ache deep within muscles I didn’t know I had. Initially, I attended class two or three days a week. The following year, it grew to four. And the year after that, I finally committed to the full six-day-a-week practice. In the beginning, I couldn’t imagine such a demanding schedule. What if I wanted to stay out late with friends the night before? What if it was minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit and I didn’t want to trudge through the snow? But when I voiced my concerns to one of my very first teachers, he pointed out, “You waste so much energy every day deciding whether or not you’re going to come and thinking about what you’ll do instead if you skip. Just commit and then you’ll never have to think about it again.”

At the time, I was a graduate student at an MFA program where I spent the majority of my days dreading writing, procrastinating before writing, feeling guilty for not writing — everything except actually writing. Some part of me must have known my approach was untenable if I ever wanted to be a real writer. Perhaps that’s why my yoga teacher’s words sank in. And with time, I’ve come to treasure the regularity of my yoga practice. I take pleasure in stepping onto my mat; I welcome the breath that moves from the pads of my toes through the tips of my fingers. I appreciate the things my body can do without fixating on any given pose.

As I work, I try, as much as possible, not to judge the quality of the words, trusting that if I put in the time, my writing will improve

Daily Ashtanga yoga has taught me the value of routine. I practice each morning for a set period of time, regardless of my mood or energy level. Sometimes I push myself to my physical limit, other times I move through the poses without straining my muscles. Neither approach is inherently better or worse; the goal is simply to be there. Embracing routine has changed my approach to writing, too. Instead of depending on tight deadlines for motivation and focusing on the end product, I now strive to show up at the same place at the same time every day to meet a set goal — a thousand words a day when I’m drafting something new, two-hour chunks when I’m revising. And as I work, I try, as much as possible, not to judge the quality of the words, trusting that if I put in the time, my writing will improve.

Currently I’m on book tour, and I often get asked about how I deal with writer’s block. Since I started doing daily yoga — and since I’ve honed this approach to writing — I can honestly say the issue very rarely comes up. It’s a little easier to write a thousand words when I know that if they end up being crappy, I can just delete them tomorrow and try again. It’s easier to sit down and write when I know that I managed to write a thousand words yesterday, and the day before that, and even on that one day when I was hungover and all I wanted to do was take a nap. And if I’ve had a particularly rough stretch and had to throw out my work several days in a row, I think of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule” and remind myself that these hours of effort have value in and of themselves.

I am proud of my work ethic and my stamina. But none of that equipped me to respond to the audience member at my San Francisco book event who asked, “What is the most joyful part of writing for you?” I cringed and fell back on that old writerly cliche: “The most joyful part of writing is having written.”

Later, I would wonder why that was the case. Being a writer is the very best job I could imagine having, so why do I so rarely enjoy the work in the moment? Why don’t I savor the act of capturing the precise way a character holds her hands when discomfited, or the particular deadened quality of the sky on a hot, humid and overcast afternoon? What would it mean to appreciate the words that appear on the screen before me in the same way that I appreciate how my body moves on the mat? What would it mean to experience the moments of joy in writing without fixating on them?

For now, the answers to these questions remain elusive, but with regular practice and sincere inquiry, I trust that they’ll reveal themselves. And that one afternoon, next week or next month or next year, I’ll write a sentence so exact and so true that it couldn’t have been said any other way, and in that moment, I’ll delight in those words, let them go and move on.

Kirstin Chen is the author of the novels “Bury What We Cannot Take” (Little A, March 2018) and “Soy Sauce for Beginners.” You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

If you’re interested in trying Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga, here’s a helpful list of certified teachers around the globe.

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