Essay

Writing, standing on your head

THE WRITER NEEDS a body to perform writing. The body is a text written by thought, experience, genetics, culture, performance, fashion, personality. The body is the self, the self is an illusion, and personality is one of its illusions. The writer creates a body of work, writings written by a person whose idea of a cohesive self is demonstrably illusory, whose conscious mind plays only a small part in what she does.

You're writing even when not performing the physical action of placing words on screen or paper. You're writing, or working on your writing, when you're thinking about your characters and themes, your research and influences, your sentences and words.

Sometimes I find myself thinking of such things while doing yoga. Well, strictly speaking, yoga requires the total absorption of mind in the pose, so I should say I think of all this while attempting to do yoga.

The writer's body becomes cramped, stiff, sacrificed to the life of the mind. Increasing numbers of writers in the West are doing yoga, usually as a "balance" to the work of writing, which, physical and tiring as it is, is largely mental work. But yoga's aim of inner stillness makes some writers anxious that it produces an empty head, from which writing cannot emerge, or a head full of anti-intellectual New Age-ism.

 

FOR A LONG time I had thought of yoga and writing as two entirely different practices, which expressed different, even opposing aspects of my self. The writer self wants to lose or dissolve the self and one way is via the body. The yoga self wants to remake the self and one way is via the body. To write or do yoga, to live the life of a writer or of a yoga practitioner: this once seemed an essential conflict. But both practices seem to be going for a kind of transcendence of the mundane.

It's escapism, if you like, the immersion in writing, partly anyway; escape from your own personality and individuality, a paradoxical loss of self in self-expression. Yoga, too, relieves you from the self experienced as the endless voice in your head ‑ from your own responses to the large and small matters of the world ‑ for every aspect of the self is required to be focused and absorbed in the Asana, the physical posture.

Once people know you are a writer they often make assumptions: they might assume you can't resist alcohol and adultery. That you must have "inspiration" to work. That you base your writing on your life, your narrator on yourself, your characters on your friends. That you live in a garret and suffer for your art; that you must have another job, a "real" job. That you earn a fortune, frequent television talk-shows and meet celebrities. Or hunger for that.

Once people know you have practiced Iyengar yoga since 1981, taught yoga since 1993, they often make assumptions. That you're especially fond of crystals, dolphins, natural fibres. That you're vegan, that you go on fasts. That you'd say no to a beer or an "eccie", and like a story to have a moral. That you read self-help books, and read them for self help. That you believe you create your own reality and that this means everyone chooses the conditions of their lives. That you think Western medicine, science and technology are wrong-headed disasters. That you believe in re-incarnation, and might have an idea who you used to be. That you think a display of a figurine of the Buddha, of Tara, of a Shiva Nataraj is an indication of something spiritual. That the word "spiritual" refers to a real and good quality that some people, some places, some objects and some practices have, and the rest do not. That chanting is spiritual. That tribal people are especially spiritual. That Eastern religions are especially spiritual. That you go to India because it is spiritual. That you really need to use the word "spiritual".

I find I can mostly leave these conflicting expectations alone, and get on with what I do. I'd like to avoid or refuse the idea of the "spiritual" too. But it turns up, over and over.

If there is any use for that word, "spiritual", it is one that expresses the sublime moments in each practice. B.K.S. Iyengar, the most influential teacher of Asana, the yoga of physical posture in our time, says: "To live spiritually is to live in the present moment. When you are practising, as long as no other thoughts come to you, for that much time you are spiritual."

Writing, too, can be seen as a spiritual practice, a kind of yoga. In writing, those times of thorough absorption, sublime immersion, when no other thoughts come but those belonging to the piece you're writing, those times come with a forgetting of the body, with little thought to it; even when eventually you have to pee or make more coffee or shake out your cramped hand for a moment, you attend to these needs barely noticing what you're doing.

I guess that's spiritual.

In yoga, on the other hand, this sublime moment comes with a sense of your own ultimate control and awareness of what the body is doing and what that's doing to you.

 

FROM TIME TO time since I began studying Iyengar yoga, I've come across the criticism that it is "not spiritual enough". "I want to do a more spiritual form of yoga," I've been told. It is interesting, and not exactly clear, what people mean when they say this. Most likely the sentiment arises from the puritanical idea, common in both the West and India, that the body is an impediment to spiritual awareness and growth. Too much attention to the body puts you in jeopardy. Mortification, or neglect of the flesh, is meant to enhance a spiritual progress. It's an attitude difficult to reconcile with the idea of "union" that is so basic to yoga.

Those who say they seek a yoga that immediately takes them into a "spiritual" practice, a "less physical" one, are, for instance, sometimes attracted to forms of yoga that ask them to pay close attention to the breath from the very start of their practice.

Sometimes what people mean by a "more spiritual" yoga is that they'd rather do chanting, or rather do yoga where the poses are not challenging, or rather be allowed to drift off into dreams of white light, or rather not do yoga at all.

For some, the path to the spiritual is, perhaps, Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, for which Asana is not essential and may even be a distraction. Nor is Asana seen as essential for devout yogis involved in Jnana yoga, the yoga path of knowledge, or in Karma yoga, the path of action.

The practice of Asana can be carried out simply for the sake of its physical benefits. Arguably, even this kind of practice, after enough time and done with sufficient integrity, will be experienced as something not "only physical". A better ability to relax, endure and concentrate is hard to quantify as "merely physical"; self-knowledge becomes involved and next thing you're calling this spiritual.

A serious student does not only perform Asana, but studies its meaning and effects, reads yoga texts and works on an increase in awareness and understanding. Thus the practice of Asana must go on the paths of knowledge, devotion and action; your writing practice can also be seen that way.

 

IN MY RECENT novel Neem Dreams (Rupa, 2003), I give to my character an early experience of
a yoga class:

Pandora is learning the ropes at the new yoga school. Into the ropes, the teacher says. People dive toward the walls, where ropes hang in an occult configuration. Doubled pairs, top and bottom. Hands holding onto the upper ropes. Stretch arms behind arched bodies, heels against the wall. Palms turned down. Bring the sacrum forward, lift the sternum, roll the shoulders back, hanging for ten, moving for ten. Another new language.

There is bewilderment and frustration in the early stages, not unlike, come to think of it, working out where an unwritten novel is going to take you, and then ...

One day in the downward-facing dog stretch, Pandora feels her spine move, her spine lengthen, she feels herself grow long, she feels her chest open and move toward her thighs, she feels her buttocks extend upward, she feels part of her body move and extend where she hasn't known there was anything to feel. She feels her upper arms turn, locates strength within herself, understands the movement, understands a new way to understanding.

Much better, the teacher remarks.

What's more, Pandora realises, first she hears Barbara say adhomukasvanasana and, before the English term follows, finds herself, kneeling, arms stretched, rising into the pose. Without thinking, recognising the Sanskrit term. Without thinking, the body welcomes the instruction, moves gratefully into this stretch.

Yoga requires close attention not only to the performance of a pose but to its effects, the effects today not necessarily the effects you will find tomorrow, the effects of being in adhomukasvanasana not the same at the beginning of a session as at the end, not the same after a triangle pose as after a headstand. You learn to observe these things, and thus to know your body, which is one way to know your self. Partly know a part of your self, anyway.

 

WE ARE TO some extent our bodies: rigid in some areas, flexible in others; more or less open, more or less strong, more or less resilient. Poses with back-bend actions develop our courage, poses with forward-bends develop our capacity for surrender, twisting poses wring out our abdominal organs, developing a feeling of lightness; inverted poses develop our ability to see things differently. Holding poses longer develops ability for stillness; doing poses in quick succession gets the blood moving, the heart pounding, the energy stirring.

The writer channels those abilities into the writing itself. I got serious about yoga when I was getting serious about writing and, though there's no way to test this, I know I'd never have been able to do all the writing I've done without yoga.

A writer must find her own voice, no doubt beginning with sincere imitation of those she admires. I felt I was finding mine around the time I first met B.K.S. Iyengar in 1984 and interviewed him for a radio program. "Are you a guru?" I asked him. "Your guru is your practice," he said. This answer made yoga possible for me.

This is not quite the answer heard by those who believe the yoga we do is that of an ancient tradition, the final authority in correct practice. The idea is, while yogis of old did not wear leotards, carry coloured sticky mats to their classes or practise to DVDs of celebrity teachers, they basically did what we do.

Well, they didn't. Yoga as we know it today is a construct of recent times, a contemporary form derived from a historical tradition, subject, as all traditions are, to varieties of influences, interpretations and political manipulations.

Finally, when you're on the mat, you've read and listened to those who have more experience and insight, but it's you who must place your hands just so, each and every part of the hand extended, aligned and active, and see if you've forgotten about your feet. To merely obey an instruction is antithetical to the introspective, truth-seeking driving spirit of yoga.

In writing, too, tradition is cited as authority in like, you know, English, when new expressions get taken up 24/7 or whatever. But tradition as authority is antithetical to the inquiring, even disruptive spirit of writing, itsspiritual drive.

We are not the same kind of humans, as those in the mythic or historical times of Patanjali, author of theYoga Sutras: we have different relations to our bodies, our texts, our bodies of work. (I hope to become a yoga-practicing, text-producing cyborg.) Still, a writer is aware of antecedents and influences, a history from which we emerge. As far as I can tell, this is what people mean when they insist we write "within a tradition", such insistence usually being trotted out to censure beginning writers who do not read the classics, or teachers of writing who set contemporary texts for their students.

It seems to me that anyone serious about writing will eventually read their predecessors, and usefully wonder whether there is anything new to say, and what that might be; whether the exciting changes in everyday language might be enriched by disused vocabulary; what wealth of references you can share with others who also read texts that have been around a long time and what qualities keep a book current well beyond the context of its creation; how a chain of influence binds us to the practice of literature; what deep pleasures can be found in stories, language and thought from that strangest country, the past.

But we do our writing and our yoga inquiring into the present, shaped by contemporary developments in both practices, finding our own particular and original methods, and attaining the spiritual by being absorbed in the present.

And, maybe, it helps to think of these things while standing on your head.

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