When I practice yoga, I often find myself having a conversation with dead poets. When the instructor at the head of the class says, “Let go of your thoughts about the day,” I think of William Wordsworth intoning, “The world is too much with us.” Entering a restorative pose, I hear the echo of Walt Whitman’s invitation to “lean and loafe at my ease.” When I ask my own yoga students to mindfully transition to the next pose, I silently impart the blessing of Lucille Clifton: “may you in your innocence / sail through this to that.”
Call me crazy, but I’ve never thought twice about the muse’s voice in my mind. I am a poet and words follow me throughout my day—to the grocery store, to school pick-ups and drop-offs, into downward facing dog. No big whoop. Lately this voice seems to be insistent on making visits during and after my yoga practice, when the beginnings of poems often arrive like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud. It happens with such frequency that I get miffed when I don’t get a full-seven minute savasana, because sometimes that is the only point in my day where I get to sit with the muse.
So what is it with yoga and creativity? How do they connect?
One way to understand the link between the two is found in the Yoga Sutras. Patanjali defines yoga as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” and one of the biggest benefits of yoga is that it can bring us into a deep state of semi-conscious rest. This state, afforded to us by savasana, pranayama, or meditation after a physical practice, allows us to integrate the effects of yoga and map them on the body and mind. In doing so, Patanjali says, we gain access to our essential self – that place where consciousness and creative power meet.
Yet it’s not just Patanjali touting the benefits of stilling the mind to get in touch with this power. Studies in neuroscience have also advocated mindful rest as a way to access the creative self.
In her decades-long study about the secrets of the creative brain, leading neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreason found that the creative mind is most associative and active when preceded by a restful state. She wrote in The Atlantic, “When eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation, and to strike when the mind is relaxed.”
By achieving a state of rest and letting the mind calmly drift, we allow the brain to forge new pathways and make unexpected connections. In this associative state, the mind is more free to create and discover rather than following the same old patterns or thought. From this, Andreason argues, stems the creative genius of scientists like Isaac Newton and writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Sylvia Plath. Anyone who has been struck with just the right phrase or idea in the twilight moment before sleep or just upon waking can attest to the power this phenomenon.
The challenge always seems to be waking up enough to write it down before the idea has vanished to dream or the rest of the day.
In addition to promoting this kind of semi-conscious rest, the practice of yoga also has a lyrical aspect to it. By linking breath and movement (one of the classical definitions of the word vinyasa), yoga asks us to turn inward and look deeply into the self. When we cultivate this awareness, we are better able to understand our relationships with ourselves, our habits (samskaras), each other, and the rest of world. Some yogis extend that awareness to forge a spiritual relationship. Creative writing can do all of the above too, and it can be its own kind of meditation on a subject.
Writing and yoga both promote this awareness of self and what lies beyond the self, and they can provoke even bigger questions about mystery and the unknown, whether in the worldly or spiritual sense. If you’ve ever found an elusive solution to a problem while in asana, felt the hair on your body prick up during meditation, or floated away to some Pink Floyd-inspired astral landscape while in savasana, chances are you have plugged into this creative state of mind through your yoga practice.
Romantic poet John Keats called this state of consciousness “negative capability,” where the writer or artist sits with mystery without trying to find reason in it. To investigate the unknown—to discover something new about our bodies or minds and transform according to what we learn—is one of the reasons many of us practice yoga.
To be a yogi is to live in negative capability.
We can learn that sometimes it is enough to simply ask the questions about ourselves and the world without receiving an answer. I decided long ago that I may never achieve full lotus pose, but I certainly can ask my body each day to consider padmasana, and there is value and art in the asking.
The progenitor of Ashtanga yoga, K. Pattabhi Jois, said of yoga, “Practice, and all is coming.” This leads me to a final point about yoga and creativity: they both require you to show up. The yoga maxim “apply butt to mat” rings true for creative writers and painters alike, who have to make a practice of putting pen to paper and brush to canvas. Pablo Picasso famously spent the last half of 1957 painting version after version of his vision of Las Mennas by Diego Velázquez. The 57 paintings that preceded his final portrait underscore art as the product of dedicated practice, and they lend a fascinating window into Picasso’s creative process as works of art themselves.
Art, like yoga, requires discipline. Many days I’ve sat down at my desk and written for hours without a clear direction or product to show for it beyond a sore lower back. Sometimes I show up on my yoga mat and can only do half of what I physically accomplished the day before. I’m OK with that, because in each case, it is my practice that will lead to the next poem, the next essay, the next asana. I just have to show up and then trust the poem will be there.
In other words: write, and all is coming. Practice is the best avenue to creativity I’ve found.