Whether or not one identifies as a writer, it’s likely that most of us have had some kind of creative or cathartic experience during a yoga practice. Maybe we’ve taken the time to jot down these words or ideas, or maybe we’ve just let them go after they’ve emerged from our subconscious.
Author Bruce Black, however, didn’t simply file away these insights. He harnessed them, reflected on them, and then shared them with practitioners through his book, Writing Yoga: A Guide to Keeping a Practice Journal (published by IAYB sponsor, Rodmell Press). The book is a guide to starting and maintaining a yoga practice journal.
In this interview, Black talks about his relationship with the two practices, as well as the apparent contradiction that a “wordless” practice could spark so many words, eventually leading one to discover and accept their true voice. Bruce Black has written about yoga and journaling for Yogi Times, MindBodyGreen, YogaMint, and Tiferet Journal. He blogs about writing and yoga and maintains a Facebook page. Follow him on Twitter, where he shares journaling prompts. He’s currently working on a book about how yoga inspires mindfulness, as well as a novel for middle grade readers.
Which came first for you: writing or yoga?
Writing came first, so early in my life, in fact, that I can’t recall exactly when I began writing. I do remember that it began with a journal. The journal was a gift that I received when I was in elementary school. It had a dark green, faux-leather cover, and its pages were edged with gold. There was a lock on the cover. It opened with a tiny key that I hid in my desk drawer. (I hid the journal under my bed.) Whenever I felt the urge to write, I dug the key out from the back of the drawer, reached under my bed, unlocked the journal, and started writing… and felt as if I’d entered a magical space.
Yoga gives me the same feeling, but yoga didn’t come until much later in my life. Even so, it captured my heart in the same way that writing captured me in my early years. I started my yoga practice when I was no longer able to run and needed to find a way to exercise to stay in shape. For more than thirty years I’d looked forward to running and the sense of peace that came with long, slow distance runs. Those runs helped me find my own inner rhythm and gave me a chance to relax. But by the time that I reached my fifties, my knees had started to wear out. No matter how briefly or slowly I went, they ached after each run, and I knew that I needed to find a different kind of exercise to stay fit and healthy.
In 2003 we had just moved to Florida so that my wife could begin a new job. A colleague of hers suggested a local yoga studio, and my wife took a few yoga classes. I was startled by how relaxed and radiant she looked when she returned home each evening after class. “You might like it,” she told me. Although I had tried bicycling, as well as swimming, to replace running, I was still searching for something. Both swimming and bicycling were good alternatives to running, but neither gave me the same sense of peace that I used to feel when I ran. But yoga? Wasn’t it for women? A kind of New Age spiritual practice? I was hesitant to try yoga, yet, despite my doubts, I took a beginner’s class one evening, and found, much to my surprise, that I felt at home on the mat. The mat, it turned out, was where I could find the same kind of peace that I used to find when I ran. I’ve been practicing ever since. That was almost ten years ago.
You acknowledge how the “wordless nature” of yoga drew you to the practice, and yet it also helped you find the words to express what’s happening on the mat. How do you reconcile this contradiction?
When I started practicing yoga, I was a bundle of nerves twisted into a tense pretzel, anxious about the words that I spent the day writing, anxious about the stories that I was trying to tell, anxious that I wasn’t finding the perfect word, anxious that I wasn’t telling the story well enough. In other words, I worried about everything! Coming to the mat, to a place without words, to a place where I was given the chance to let go of words and just listen to the pure sound of my breath, was such a relief.
It took time—maybe it took years, I don’t know—but in time the practice helped me loosen and unwind and let go of the need to be perfect, the need to judge myself according to someone else’s standards rather than to give myself the freedom to simply write and explore. Yoga helped me accept whatever I put down on paper each day and to welcome the words that came with gratitude knowing that I’d have a chance to change them the next day or the next. Yoga gave me permission to play, to be imperfect—in other words, to be human—and to stop worrying about words.
It was the wordless nature of the practice that, ironically, was one of the reasons why I fell in love with yoga. I didn’t have to speak when I was on the mat. I didn’t have to write during my asana practice. I didn’t have to choose a word to express a feeling or describe an event. I could simply lie on my mat and breathe. And it was in the space of that silence that I could begin to hear my heart. Only after listening intently to the rhythm of my pulse and the sound of my breath did I begin to hear words in a different way. They began to come from a different place. They emerged from my heart instead of from my head. At first, I was resistant to hearing these words—any words—while I was on the mat. I wanted the mat always to be a place of wordless acceptance. But life doesn’t stay the same; it changes. That’s something that I learned on the mat, too. I began to understand how these words no longer came from a place of fear or anxiety or doubt but rather from a place of gratitude and acceptance, a place where words could flow at their own pace, naturally, playfully, without the pressure or expectation of approval.
In Writing Yoga, you talk about how yoga helped you find your authentic voice. What is it about an asana practice that makes it possible for this to happen?
It’s a mystery, really, how this happens, how a person can discover his or her authentic voice as the result of spending time stretching and twisting and balancing on the mat. But it happens every time. Whether I come to the mat worried about a project or distracted by a driver who ran a stop sign, anxious about money or frustrated by my health, I find the moment that I step on the mat—the moment that I begin to notice my breath and how my muscles are tight or tense, how a hip might ache or an ankle or shoulder throb—the worries, the anxieties, the doubts and frustrations of the day all melt away. Each asana helps bring me into the present moment, a moment that I’d forgotten to appreciate fully (or at all) because of my preoccupation with worries.
Each breath as I unfold in a pose helps me slow down and notice where I am. And each asana helps me listen more deeply to a voice inside my self, a voice beneath the other voices of worry and doubt. It’s an inner voice that rises out of the core of my being, an expression of my essence. My asana practice helps me notice this voice and make this connection. And it’s my asana practice that helps me differentiate between the critical voices in my head—the voice telling me that I can’t do this, or the voice that insists I’m not strong enough for a certain pose, or the voice that claims I don’t have the patience or determination to keep trying—and the patient voice in my heart, the voice of understanding and acceptance, the voice of who I am at this very moment. My asana practice helps me hear this voice, my true voice.
Writing Yoga is essentially a guide to journaling, with an asana practice as a guide to authenticity, self-knowledge and awareness. Does an asana practice have the potential to inspire fiction writing (or other creative practices, such as visual art, dance, etc)?
Yes, asana practice has the potential to inspire creativity on so many levels, not just writing, as you say, but the visual arts, dance, and music, as well. What is it about asana practice that helps foster this kind of creativity? It has to do, I suspect, with the way our asana poses encourage the practice of mindfulness and self-acceptance, as well as a sense of gratitude for whatever life brings us. All of us—not only artists—are typically confronted with critics and critiques, negative voices and naysayers who can’t see the vision that we might have in our head (or heart). But the practice of yoga gives us a greater sense of connection to the source of our creativity, and makes this connection feel real in ways that can help us ignore the negative and focus on the positive. By helping us hear our own voice and more clearly see our own vision, the poses cultivate a sense of conviction in our ability to create a work of art in the same way that we might create a pose. Asana practice fosters a faith in a larger process and in our ability to participate in the process, regardless of the outcome.