What My Yoga Instructor Taught Me About Writing
Originally published on emilyfisk.com.
The mirror tells me what I already know: my standing half split looks completely different from everyone else’s. I look a little like I dropped my keys and am franticly searching for them while my left leg awkwardly juts out behind me. The woman to my left in a black Lululemon bra and impossibly tiny shorts looks like—well, like a yogi doing a standing half split: graceful, balanced, lithe. Somehow the sweat from the 105-degree room makes her look even more athletic and graceful. It’s making me look like a drowned rat.
I coach myself, trying to get out of my head. Get back in the flow, breathe. But it’s too late for this yoga practice: I can’t resuscitate it after I dealt the crippling blow of looking around the room, searching the mirror for people to compare myself to. In the shower afterwards, I let the hour of self-doubt, comparison, and frustration wash off with the sweat. Next time will be better.
And it is—two days later, I’m back. There are still women in tiny Lululemon bras, I’m still not as strong and still wearing a stained Forever 21 top with $12 leggings. But I stay out of my head—I don’t look around the room. I look directly in my own eyes in the mirror, and when a pose challenges me, I do what yoga has taught me to do: I lean into it, sending oxygen straight to what hurts. When a stretch pulls tightly on my protesting hamstrings or I feel myself losing balance in eagle pose, I accept it, hyper aware of my own body—no one else’s—kind to it with my words and my thoughts. I don’t have to forgive myself when I ungracefully fall out of airplane or when I still can’t quite get into wheel pose. I don’t have to forgive myself because there’s nothing to forgive; there’s only breathing, stretching, pushing, and practicing, the holy prayer of movement.
Every time I do this, yoga gets easier and better. I don’t think I look like the yogis who’ve been doing it for years, but then, I haven’t been doing it for years—not consistently at least. And I don’t care. When I have my mental space clean and ready for practice, there’s nothing but me and my mat and the monotone guidance of the instructor from the corner of the room. The progress I make is glacial and could be a source of frustration, but instead, I find sheer joy when I notice my heels touching the ground in downward dog or find a new, steadier balance in crow.
Yoga wasn't always so enjoyable for me; practicing at home with jotted down goals (“do a headstand, figure out wheel pose, master crow pose”), yoga was punishing. It was what reminded me of all the things I couldn’t do yet. After practice, I felt defeated and tired, spent from trying.
I don’t know when it shifted for me, but somewhere along the way, I started listening—actually listening—to the things the yoga instructors said during practice.
“Set your intentions.” I intend to win at yoga, obviously.
“If you can’t do this one, that’s fine. Find what feels right for your body where you are.” I scoffed at the invitations to modify poses—I can do them all, just watch.
“Thank your body for everything it’s done in practice today.” Thanks for nothing, body. Could we talk later in the conference room?
Subtly, slowly, I started believing what the instructors intoned quietly and insistently. “Do your best. This is your space to learn and grow.” So I did—I learned and grew.
That’s how I knew I’d slipped back into old habits that day when I felt insecure in standing half split—a pose that challenges me with my tight hips and hamstrings. One measly minute of indulging my old need to compare and beat myself up effectively ended what could have been an invigorating practice, and I couldn’t save myself. But those moments are becoming rare now, and yoga has become a safe space for my body to move while my brain shuts off ingrained habits. I’ve stopped caring entirely whether yoga changes how my body looks—I want it to change what my body feels like when I move. I want to increase the hours I spend feeling how I feel in yoga—strong, refreshed like I’m drinking straight from a mountain lake, moving because it feels do damn good to do it.
Recently, I’ve started introducing these radical concepts into my writing space, too.
I realized the connection while listening to Elizabeth Gilbert gently berate me in the audiobook Big Magic. She told me I had to get out of my head, stop the endless comparison game, stop crippling myself with useless angst and self-indulgent criticism. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that my hemming and hawing about writing wasn’t helping anyone, least of all me, and didn’t I want to write, she asked? Isn’t this what I wanted to do, whether anyone read it or whether it got published or regardless or how my “success” stacked up against the next person’s? Wasn’t writing, she wanted to know, what I wanted to do, for writing’s sake? She wondered what I was waiting for.
Suddenly she sounded like a yoga instructor, and I got it. Get out of your head. Breathe. Stop looking around for Lululemon gear and stronger bodies than yours—just practice. Stop counting page views or worrying about agents. Just write. Who cares if someone else is better at it than you—they’re probably putting in the time on practicing that you’re spending frivolously on comparison and self-judgment.
I began to ask myself: how do I feel after an hour of worrying about my writing goals? Spent, punished, less than, frustrated. How do I feel after an hour of writing—just writing? Invigorated, refreshed, happy, clear-minded. Huh.
How revolutionary, and how simple. Art for the sake of art—movement for the sake of movement. No get-skinny or get-rich or get-successful schemes clouding the page or the mat—just breathing, just enjoying.
The beauty of it is how much this challenging act of getting out of my own way works. It actually works. I’m a better yogi than I was when I had a checklist of poses to master. I’m a better writer when I’m not worrying about word counts and submissions and the ever-looming book in the background. I’ve spent hours and days and weeks lamenting my writing goals without actually writing. Oops.
I could blame marketing or that favorite scapegoat “society” for my shortcomings. After all, we’re all told to look around the room (that’s how they sell Lululemon bras, actually) and compare. But I think it’s more than that—it’s so innately human. But so is movement. So is creativity.
Today, I got out of bed early and out of my own head, too. I sat down with a blank page, just me and my writing. I didn’t look around the room. I breathed deeper when the stretching hurt. And hey, look—I wrote.