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Indeed, “writing is yoga,” declares Gail Sher, introducing the “writing asana”—an invaluable new tool for every writer’s routine. Her insightful and lyrical book, organized around eight thematic “immersions,” plumbs yoga’s wisdom heritage. As Donald Moyer, director of the Yoga Room in Berkeley, comments, “She encourages writers to approach their writing with the clarity and presence of yogis, and teaches yogis how to temper their awareness with the heat of words and images.” Writing the Fire! celebrates the fullest expression of our being.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
GLIMPSING THE BUDDHA
That writing teaches writing is an incontrovertible truth. (One person cannot "teach" another how.) "So why do you represent yourself as a writing teacher?" a writer understandably asks. Because this is the best way I can help others cultivate the optimal conditions for making their writing happen.
Wherefore enters yoga. Yoga doesn't teach writing, but it is perhaps the most sophisticated, accessible, tried-and-true method of "inner disarmament" (to appropriate His Holiness the Dalai Lama's words. See below).
"Sophisticated?" you query. "What does that mean?"
When the Buddha elected to turn the Wheel of the Dharma, he faced the task of conveying the fruits of an inexplicable enlightenment experience to a wide variety of minds. Attuning himself to the spiritual development of each and every audience, his first turning was for those of beginning understanding, his second for intermediate and more advanced practitioners, and his third answered any leftover questions. In this way everyone's needs were satisfied.
Emulating the Buddha's impeccable pedagogy, we draw forth yoga, which easily adapts to specific (and very personal) situations. Its simplest techniques have profound repercussions. Dip anywhere into this vast legacy of wisdom and you will (if you are faithful and sincere) reap manifold positive benefits.
Since, as a writer, you are your own tool, what benefits you benefits your writing. Yoga is amazingly porous. Its principles and practices seamlessly morph into an aid that unearths the voice that is (and always has been) lurking in a writer's heart.
THE SKY IS IN OUR HEART
As I just mentioned, His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggests that "inner disarmament" is a universal way for opening the heart and mind.
But what is inner disarmament? And how does its wondrous space become ours?
One way is practice. Practice carves a passage to a sacred place of peace.
In beginning a practice, we want alertness and ease. Though intent on setting a routine, let it not be a plodding one. Instead, allow it to be vast. Out of vastness, joy arises.
As a species, we think WAY TOO SMALL. In terms of our potential, our basic nature, our telekinetic condition, our general idea is pitiful in comparison to the EXPANSIVE truth. And falsehood spreads. Pretty soon we're boxing ourselves in so routinely that we ourselves fail to see.
Writers need to see. The broader our vision, the clearer our focus. With perseverance our mind becomes more kind, our heart more steadfast, our speech more generous, our behavior more realized. The blessings we inevitably attract will rise and shine upon our writing.
THE TWO LIVES OF YOGA
The Hindu story of Ananta, king of the Nagas (serpents), describes him carrying the treasures of the entire universe on his head whilst holding Lord Vishnu in the coils of his lap. This image is often used to illustrate the sutra of Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutra, circa second century c.e.) that describes the essential qualities of yoga practice: sthira sukha asanam--alertness and relaxation--the double attributes needed simultaneously to hold the world and cradle the god Vishnu.
Sthira means "conscious," "steady," "firm," "stable." Sukha refers to the ability to remain comfortable and at ease, without pain or agitation. This aspect of yoga is fulfilled when we feel awake and unstressed during our practice.
Writing asanas (shapes the embodying of which similarly empower a writer) have the same dual requirements. To understand how we can best bring them forward, we must understand writing's anatomy and kinesiology.
Anatomy is about structure--how a writing posture stacks up. Kinesiology is about the mechanics of interior movement.
When a posture is cultivated properly, the body (our felt image of it) lengthens and widens. "Coinciding with the infinite," Patanjali says. When a posture is practiced correctly, the practitioner extends beyond the skin, merging with the sky.
Indeed, Patanjali describes relaxation as asana's very essence. He uses the term shaithilya, which means "loosening" not merely the body, but opinions, concerns, hopes.
The mind is naturally free. Through various persistent attitudes, this spaciousness contracts. Actually, the mind never contracts. It is the illusion of contraction that yogis address.
As yoga unravels patterns, habits, obstructions, the mind's cycles are interrupted. Aware of its activity, the mind lets go and sinks.
For wholeness, we need to risk our entire being, which is dimensionless, unimaginable, uncompromised.
If a Prostitute Teaching a Parrot to
Sing the Name of God Becomes Illumined,
Then So Can Mirabai
Inayat Khan writes that the practice of Indian music is based on a culture of stimulating intuition, a feminine force that eludes language. It may be felt as a vibration (rather than a sound), like the overtones from a sitar.
When His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks of "inner disarmament," he is whispering such overtones to you. Think of him as a translator, passing the vibrations of precious secrets on to one who sits at a crossroads.
The Tibetan symbol for translator is a two-headed bird. This bird both looks behind itself to its land of origin and forward to a new one. Thus it connects two worlds.
To appreciate, enjoy, and fully benefit from a primer that likewise draws from disparate worlds (writing and yoga), we, like this bird, must meld diverse symbols (integrate yoga's ancient ideology with--should we choose--the most contemporary urbanese).
Sit for a while contemplating the idea (its bearing on you personally) and allow your thoughts to drift into writing.
It has been brought to my attention that my writing style can be cryptic. In some cases, abrasively so. I tend to begin with the broad and proceed to the narrow. This allows the reader space to mold the concept to her mind. Some find this irritating. Where specificity limits, rather than liberates, I choose abstraction.
Thus a little explanation is required, first about the purpose of spareness and second about how a reader might best make use of this quality.
Regarding the former, "less is more" is called for when the reader thereby may derive a more personal (offbeat) meaning from the text. While it is true that I might think (and experience things) more abstractly (it seems anyway) than many, although the reader may have to struggle to tie up my loose ends, sometimes there is benefit in the effort. Though I've attempted to articulate this in the text with statements like "This is deliberately mind-boggling," there are occasions where a "large" concept is simply left to echo in the reader's heart--"on hold," so to speak.
If at first you feel confused, do not panic. Do not jump to a negative judgment. If you fail to grasp a meaning, stop, open yourself to the mystery, then slowly enter it and wait. Tell yourself that you will simply record what arises at this moment (never mind the formal instruction).
Think of such places as opportunities to practice patience, the foremost writerly virtue. Usually there is no right or wrong. Usually there is room for your own unique understanding, over time, gradually to emerge.
Writing follows inner growth. Part of a writer's process is to watch and, like a fond mother, rejoice!
GUIDELINES TO EASE YOUR WAY
1.Any of the writing asanas that do not come packaged with a prewriting hatha yoga asana can be mixed and matched with those that do. Each "immersion" is an energetic unit. Once you grasp its theme, the ordering is unimportant.
2.For those who just want to practice asanas, I've chosen not to unduly burden the text with theory. However, the final section of the book pertains to terminology. Though by no means exhaustive, it may help. Consult it whenever. (No need to save it for last.)
3.While both yoga and writing are endeavors of profound magnitude, their precision is one of integrity, aesthetics, philosophy (i.e., emotional, psychological, spiritual) rather than scientific. The craft of writing does indeed have its demanding side, but its demands are not the same as a physicist's. Instructions are cues. If you register them mentally, this is sufficient.
4.Chapter titles (ideally) intrigue. Please take pleasure in them. If you do not grasp the connection between a title and what follows, bide awhile, relax into the words, and allow a marriage to develop. Whatever coupling serves you is the correct one.
5.Sanskrit or no Sanskrit? Sanskrit terms are sprinkled throughout the text, along with their translation (which you can also find in the glossary). They might have been omitted. But, however obliquely, they convey yoga's ancient mind and world. If they bother you, please skip them. Their presence alone will seep into your consciousness and perhaps one day may be a help.
6.Regarding quotations, I apologize. I am an avid reader and many concepts pass through my mind. While I recall their lessons, I sometimes forget their source. "Well, this is not a scholarly text," I tell myself, ineffectively assuaging my guilt. While many of my quotations will lack specific origins, my choice, nonetheless, is to share them.
7.Above all, remember: Yoga is primarily a movement from one point to another, higher one, previously beyond reach. What (am I doing), how (do I keep doing it), where (am I in my process), and why (for God's sake) are constantly evolving questions whose constantly evolving answers thrust the writer into an ever-broadening sphere of self-reflection and pause. By superimposing yoga's wisdom heritage onto the transformational process of opening the heart and mind, Writing the Fire! offers a Way for a writer, in her whirling evolutionary process, to stay centered.
MAY WE ALL BOW TO SLOWNESS
While individuals vary, the natural pace of human beings is slow. In an atmosphere of slowness, kindness and thoughtfulness flourish. Writers need to be kind and thoughtful. Because they need to be authentic. (Kind and thoughtful is the way we naturally are.)
Hurry (pressure) makes one slightly insane. It will impact your writing because it impacts your central nervous system.
Being peace is the best way to demonstrate it. Being slow is a beginning. You cannot be violent to yourself (rush) and expect your writing ultimately to meet your standards.
Being slow is a teacher. It will remind you of your standards while helping you to implement them.
Being slow is a friend.
VENTURING INTO THE YOGI-WRITER'S WAY
We of the Occident are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ.
PATH OF RETURN
Yoga (the word) derives from the Sanskrit yuj (to yoke or harness). Etymologically speaking, yoga refers both to the endeavor to achieve union and to the state of union itself. "Union of what?" you might wonder.
Conscious subject and mental object, say the earliest texts. It means your mind (the observer) merges with an external object (the observed). Such merging is a process that includes
1.Suspending disbelief (allowing for the possibility--and benefits--of achieving it)
2.Purifying oneself of the residue of past unskillful behaviors
4.Contemplating the meaning of such a union
5.Eventually, by thoroughly penetrating the concept with one's mind, directly experiencing it
Their merging is called samadhi (literally, "placing" or "putting together"; see "Straightening the Ground," p. 178). Yoga (or samadhi) is thus both the technology and the state of self-transcendence.
THE JUICE OF DHARMA HAS ONE TASTE
The Sanskrit word smriti (mindfulness) literally means "remembering." Re-membering (re-collecting) or, as in yoga, re-uniting all our disparate parts, happens when we pay attention.
Mindfulness is a capacity. Breath, posture, movement, feeling, thought, and the phenomena around us all comprise its web of interrelationship.
We are always giving our attention to something. The giving may be appropriate (as when we are paying full attention to the present moment) or inappropriate (as when we are attentive to something that pulls us away).
In the Bhaddekaratta Sutta the Buddha taught: "Looking deeply at life as it is/in the very here and now,/the practitioner dwells/in stability and freedom." As Patanjali defines asana--that posture which is stable and easeful--dwelling in the here and now = YOGA.
YOGA'S TREE: ITS EIGHT LIMBS
The root of the tree is the yamas (the outer observances). Since these "organs of action" control the "organs of perception and the mind," yogis think of yamas as the foundation.
The trunk of the tree are the niyamas (the inner observances). These control the organs of perception--eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin.
The tree's branches flare in various shapes and directions. These are the asanas, the postures that align physical functions with psychological patterns.
From the branches grow leaves whose interaction with air supplies the tree with energy. They correspond to pranayama, the science of breath.
The branches of the tree are protected by bark, which also protects the tree's insides. Bark corresponds to pratyahara, the interiorizing of the senses.
The sap of the tree, the juice that carries the energy, represents dharana (concentration).
Flowers bloom when the tree is healthy. Like meditation (dhyana) their nature is freshness.
The fruit is samadhi. "As the essence of the tree is in the fruit, so the essence of the practice of yoga is in the freedom, poise, peace, and beatitude of samadhi, where the body, the mind, and the soul are united and merge with the Universal Spirit," states B. K. S. Iyengar.
ASHTANGA1 YOGA FOR WRITERS
Sometimes the five yamas (outer precepts) and five niyamas (inner precepts) are referred to as "restraints." More accurately they are declarations of our inherent nature. Since as writers, our inherent nature is at once our origin, tool, and product, if you abide by these basic writing ethics, your writing will unfold by itself.
THE FIVE YAMAS OF WRITING
Writers write. Our vow is to be present for it. Anything that interferes is harmful. Thus we avoid such circumstances and behaviors.
Honesty in word and action is a guiding principle that most adults accept. The hard part is knowing what that is. As writers we're given drafts to try out our truth. Certainty = mastery.
Writers may steal if they turn what they steal into something entirely original. If they pull from the universe what appeals to them to pull, then reshape it. Meticulously. (It's a cosmic law.)
Brahmacarya (Regulation of Sexual Energy)2
Writing is so hard that we must bring to it all of our resources. Including sexual resources. Sexual energy is energy. Writers need it for their writing.
For one person this may mean abstinence. For another it might mean frequent, passionate sex. You need to know what keeps you taut. And follow what you know. (No labels.)
Grasping is aggressive. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was quite clear: Fine art never arises from an aggressive state of mind.
THE FIVE NIYAMAS OF WRITING
Since this is the surest way to live life at a higher resolution (with more clarity and happiness), it perforce is the Way for a writer. What does purity mean to you?
Practicing contentment helps a writer stay present. Whereby her writing becomes alive, sparkling, vivid.
What People are Saying About This
“A book like this one—rich and dense and nourishing—is the perfect ‘food’ for feeding your writing practice. It is packed with things to do, try, play around with, and mull over. And the juxtaposition of writing and yoga reverberates like a gong—with yoga illuminating writing and writing illuminating yoga.” —Nina Zolotow, coauthor with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body