Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Mark Morford's Yoga for Writers

Taking up yoga is the smartest thing I've done over the past couple years.  

I've always worked out regularly, but was never in the habit of stretching. As the aging process and sedentary employ took their toll, I developed lower-back pain and neck stiffness that got progressively worse. 

Chiropractic adjustments pulled me back from the brink, but eventually my recovery plateaued, so I started yoga classes. 

Now any soreness or pain I get tends to be short-term. My posture is better, my center of gravity more firmly rooted. I'm mindful of sitting and standing up straight, chest up, rather than slouching or leaning forward.  

And I like to think yoga has made me more patient. The postmodern world jams us with advertising, multi-tasking, and mountains of mostly useless information in a 24-7 media blur, which is all the more intense in a densely-populated city, where the messy elements of humanity are magnified. At various moments I'm sardined with strangers on slow-moving buses, boxed in behind the Slow Walkers of America on narrow sidewalks, or stuck in long lines for seemingly simple transactions at Walgreen's, the post office, sometimes even the ATM machine. Real time - elongated, contorted - grinds against my internalized, up-tempo city rhythm, which thrives on forward motion.

Yoga slows everything down and separates me from the undertow of cumulative stress. I emerge from a session with a sense of calm, and when I check in to my yoga practice multiple times a week I'm a lot less prone (if not immune) to projection or adverse reactions to people who are rude, unreasonable, or hysterical. 

I also find yoga valuable as a writer. Writing is a solitary activity; excelling at the craft involves hours on end alone, in front of a computer screen. This degree of immersion is necessary to rev the creative jets, to close the gap between an original conception and a realized final draft, but it's a self-contained universe. Too much time in the bubble can erode one's ability to cope with the curveballs of everyday life.     

Mark Morford, a long-time columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and vinyasa yoga instructor, tears down this wall between the mental and physical planes every few months with a Yoga for Writers workshop.  

The last class I attended was in a yoga studio with a shiny parquet floor and soft yellow walls. The sun poured through a skylight and warmed the room. I knew I was in the right place when a young woman with a "So It Goes." tattoo on her ankle set up next to me.

I was intrigued to meet Mark after reading him for many years. In contrast to most dry, orderly newspaper copy, Mark's writing is colorful and free-form - while sober and focused. His approach to yoga is similar:  yoga isn't about becoming mushier, or softer; it's about finding clarity within, and in your relationship to the world around you. 

As the students sat on their mats, notebook or laptop at the ready, Mark gave us some background (a dozen years in yoga and journalism, a million words pushed out into the media sphere) and explained the purposes of the class. Many writers he'd met were pale and out of shape, with bad postures, and wrote from the neck up, with little connection to or balance with the outside world - or their own hearts. When Mark had first written for the Chronicle, he too was often driven by concerns about what his editors (or his audience) thought. We should get in touch with our authentic voice, and let the chips fall where they may.

Once we had settled in and become engaged in Mark's introduction, the workout portion of the class began somewhat abruptly. Mark teaches vinyasa yoga, a form with a heavy cardio component and a lot of movement between poses that's not for amateurs. He circled around as he guided us.  

After getting our asses kicked for 20 minutes and working up a sweat, we sat back down. Mark discussed the role of the muse in art from the Greeks forward, how we channel our higher selves through the people, places, and things that inspire us. Then we did a freewrite on the muse. When Mark saw someone hesitating, he said, "Don't think about it." The idea was to pour out as much as we could from this prompt in the time allotted, without stopping.

I wrote about the sunny sky I often see first thing in the morning, on my days off - an instant sign that my neck of the universe is smiling. My freewrite was in stream-of-consciousness prose, just a big block of text, but I'm breaking it up here into verse to denote the accents, the flow, the way it was meant to be read and heard:

You [the muse] are the light that streams through the window when morning comes,
the sun
(click on photo to enlarge)
the sky                                                                        
out there
the mind's eye capsized,
pulled along,
a magnet
thrusting outward
knocks you up and out of bed willingly,
on the feet
arms swing lightly
plant each step slow,
out to the bathroom
light footfalls,
door shuts
shower comes on cold against your hand 
then lukewarm,
then warm,
then hot,
turn the dial back slightly 'til it's just so
clothes drop to the floor in a pile 
on the inside of the door against the wall
curtain comes back
warm, rushing water caresses your face
hold it in place
imagine the water removing the dirt, 
the buildup, 
the residue, 
the creases, 
the crow's feet,
then turn around and feel the flow against your neck,
knocking the knots loose
and so on and so forth
until every cranny and crevice is fresh-scrubbed,
pace back to the bedroom
look up mid-stride
the window in the front door announces another sunny day,
an invitation,
a feast,
a gift.

When the freewrite time was up, Mark commanded us back into position for another vigorous workout. 

Afterward, as we caught our breath, each of us received a ball of cotton and a little square of dark chocolate, which we were told not to eat until further instruction. Mark talked about the importance of tapping the senses in our writing.

What did the cotton feel like? 

We rolled it along our palms, pulled it apart. 

Given the go-ahead, we ate the chocolate, slowly. 

How did it taste? 

Next up was a freewrite on either the chocolate, the cotton, or both. I chose chocolate and expanded outward. Again, this was originally an amorphous blob of text, here versed out to read like it was meant to sound:

dark brown
the flavor rolls around your tongue
suck on it slowly,
as long as possible,
the piece gets smaller and smaller until it's a nub,
the hub
of your senses
outside is outside
inside is right there on the tongue
taste buds active,
it all comes back to the ocean...
pigs at the trough leaning in 
give us today our daily spread,
a long dinner table with a white linen cloth 
hanging over the edge
silver dishes 
a long drink of wine 
ruby red and sweet
down the gullet
arm extends back, 
out from its crooked eminence,
set the goblet down quietly
look back up
the world opens up again 
full focus
ten people gorging and talking and smiling and
when the moment comes 
breathe deeply
look to the sky,
the sun,
it smiles down on you and me and everyone you know 
and don't
on the peninsula [San Francisco],
the thumb,
the vibrating
city on the hills
facing west the heads turn in sync,
a line,
a string,
lose yourself in the deep blue.

Not long after I finished inking this freewrite we were summoned back into vinyasa mode. The class was more tired now. As we lowered ourselves down to the mat in plank pose for a 10 count, Mark dragged the countdown out ("ten...nine...eight-and-a half...eight..."). Groans went up in the room, and laughter. 

Two dozen poses later we were seated and awakened and in the final topic of the writerly discourse, the self versus the ego. In this formulation, the self is our truest expression, our authentic, intuitive voice. The ego is our need for order and control, our concern about what others think. The goal is to let the self steer while the ego rides sidesaddle. As one woman in class put it, the ego should be in the car with you, but not behind the wheel. 

To close, people read their freewrites, revealing a rich cross-section of  approaches to basic prompts. While I spat out a faux-etic series of loosely linked images, others spun he said-she said thumbnail narratives, created scenes with dialogue, or offered heartfelt renderings of what the prompt meant to them emotionally.

The whole experience was an exercise in opening up, dumping everything out, and re-assembling the pieces, all of which reflected how fluid our lives are, how empowered we are to re-invent ourselves as necessary, to shape our destiny.  

When class ended, the collective broke apart and walked outside into a bigger, more alive, more interconnected world.

© Dan Benbow, 2012

p.s. here is information about Mark Morford's upcoming  "Yoga for Writers:  Bali Immersion" two-week intensive

p.s.s. here's another take on the Yoga for Writers class

1 comment:

  1. This is a masterful tribute to the health and spiritual benefits of yoga, Dan, and you've just about got me convinced--yoga classes ahead, I can see it! Thanks for posting. You're going to shake up some folks (not just writers)who need a lot more peace and joy in their lives.