Exploring the science behind yoga for writing
Two things astonished me when I began practicing yoga. The first was the immediate impact yoga had on my creativity. Ideas started flowing freely almost from the moment I started my practice. The second thing was just how amazing yoga made me feel.
Being able to access inspiration and feel great while you’re doing it is at the heart of yoga for writing. But why does yoga have the power to benefit writers in such a way?
As simple as quieting the mind?
In his excellent The Science of Yoga, William J. Broad suggests that ‘The inspirational power of yoga seems to arise – at least in part from nothing more complicated that the release of psychological tension and the quieting of the mind.’
This would explain why most the ideas that come to me when I’m practicing yoga do so when I’m lying down in Savasana.
Broad also writes that ‘A few studies have shown that yoga can unblock the unconscious and liberate not only long-buried emotions but other feelings and thoughts, images and memories. While the general phenomenon is well known, the creative implications are seldom explored.’
Again, the power of yoga to liberate all these things is a godsend to a writer.
The effect on your right brain
The right side of the brain governs intuition, creativity, instincts, aesthetics, spatial reasoning and the sensing and expressing of emotions. It’s also largely responsible for what’s called proprioception or being able to mentally map our bodies.
Those of us who already practice yoga know that moving through the poses with our eyes shut helps us strengthen our ability to visualize our bodies moving on the mat. A powerful ability to visualize is an invaluable quality for any writer.
All those lovely neurotransmitters
A number of studies have shown that practicing yoga has a powerful effect on our hormones.
Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter. Apparently, when our levels of dopamine are low it affects our ability to solve problems. Because, among other things, it increases our breathing rate and the flow of blood to our muscles, yoga can boost dopamine levels. Which presumably means it can also help you solve a writing problem.
When we finish a practice on what’s called a ‘yoga high’ it’s because we’ve raised our levels of endorphins and reduced the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone, in our bodies. Endorphins, as you probably know, create a sense of euphoria. Studies have shown that practicing yoga is an extremely effective way of raising endorphin levels.
The hormone oxytocin positively influences the way we interact with other people and increases when we’re touched. Yoga has been proven to significantly increase oxytocin levels, which could be one of the reasons why we love practicing in classes.
Seratonin is a neurotransmitter that helps put us in a good mood and behave in a kindly way to our fellow humans. Yoga postures like inversions and forward bends stimulate the pineal gland and help the process of converting melatonin into serotonin.
But, while all these hormones and neurotransmitters are wonderful, the most relevant for writers is actually Gamma-Amino Butyrix acid or GABA.
What is GABA?
Gamma-Amino Butyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, calming us down. Alcohol mimics the effects of GABA, making us relaxed and sleepy. Studies have shown that practicing yoga increases the amount of GABA in the brain.
Which explains why yoga makes us feel so mellow and also why I took to yoga like a drunk to lager. I was addicted to the belief that my brain was swimming in GABA. And, perhaps, it's the reason why so many writers are alcoholic.
I took to yoga because it got me naturally high. Then I discovered that it opened the door to wherever inspiration for my writing comes from far more effectively than booze ever did, without killing me.
Writing takes commitment. Some days we may be inspired, others not. But we know we have to keep going. And we do this because we have a vision for our writing that is purely ours. Whenever mine begins to drift a little out of focus, I practice drishti.
Drishti means view or gaze. It's the point we fix on when we meditate or hold a yoga pose. If we gaze at a single point our minds are less likely to wander. We become calm and focused. You can practice drishti gazing at a point outside yourself or inwardly by focusing on your breath or third eye.
In yoga there are eight different drishtis that relate to specific poses. For me, drishti is most useful when I'm in a balancing pose like Tree. I focus on a point on the wall or floor for instance, and it keeps me physically balanced. Even better, drishti helps me tune into whatever is underneath my thinking. If I do give in to thoughts of distraction, my gaze is effected and I wobble.
Physical balance follows mental balance follows inner calm and resolution.
When you’re practicing drishti in a pose like Tree, you’re more centred in yourself and can turn your attention to your writing. You can also use drishti in your actual writing practice by forgetting all about your fingers on the keyboard or pen, as well as the nuts and bolts of things like grammar and style and by concentrating your gaze on whatever it is you’re writing.
So, while you may have been considering taking up yoga to become a physically healthier writer, the real benefits add to far more than that. Yoga really does have the power to transform your writing.