Friday, September 26, 2008

It’s all in the blankets.

“Everything started changing for you when you started doing that yoga you do.” It was remarkable that my best friend of 30 years (we met in the crib) could pinpoint the moment when things started shifting for me—about a year and a half ago. When I was too afraid to fully pursue my passion for writing, hadn’t had a long-term relationship in 12 years and wasn’t even sure where I was going to live. My stuff was living in San Francisco; my body was lodging in Atlanta.

I stumbled upon “that yoga” my friend was referring to when another friend invited me to go with her to a class. “It’s really relaxing,” she said. And I thought, “Yeah I’ve done restorative yoga before. That’s cool.” My friend didn’t know that I had been living with unrelenting pain in my shoulder blade for over a year. I had come to think of it as an unpleasant, noisy squatter. Harmless enough, it created enough havoc to make it impossible for me to sleep through the night. I was just happy that the intensity of the noise had eased over time—even though it did refuse to stop. And I had tried everything: a sadistic chiropractor, acupuncture needles, homeopathic remedies, physical therapy sessions, all types of yoga and the very unknown Bowen technique. They all seemed to get rid of the pain for about a minute before it returned to its comfortable lodging place.

When I walked into class for the first time, I saw plaid blankets everywhere. No yoga mats, just blankets. Blankets to lay on, rolled up blankets, blankets folded into thirds, blankets folded into halves. Oh yeah, and a couple of blocks. I had been doing Iyengar, Vinyasa, Hatha and other types of yoga for years and I’d never seen anything like this. “Ok,” I thought, “why not?”

Jody, the instructor, helped me settle in on the floor, propping my legs up on several folded and rolled up blankets. We started with shevasana, a relaxation pose I was used to do doing at the end of class. So I knew right away that this was going to be different. And it was. Each pose was a gentler variation of the traditional yoga pose I was so familiar with. Each used a blanket or blocks so that I could actually relax into the pose without any effort at all. We didn’t even get to downward dog. I felt new spaces in my body I didn’t know existed, my muscles let tension slide away, my mind fell into a meditative stupor.

After class, I spoke with Jody. When I told her about my pain and how I had been giving up on yoga little by little, she smiled. “You’ve stumbled into the right place and you don’t even know it. Svaroopa yoga focuses on opening the spine,” she explained. Jody used to be a personal trainer. Then she developed herniated discs. “Going from weight training to Svaroopa was quite a switch for me. But you’ll see the change is remarkable. My discs healed.”

I was skeptical. I’d gotten my hopes up so many times before. But after a few classes and a couple of individual yoga therapy sessions, the change was miraculous. The squatter was not only evicted, but I felt better than I had ever felt before. I felt like I was experiencing my body for the first time. My shoulders, usually uneven due to scoliosis, now looked even in the mirror. I felt happier than ever, giddy. And the pain never returned.

But there was more. Something had shifted internally as well. I’d been on an emotional and spiritual growth path for a long time, but Svaroopa got me to new levels much faster. By helping me reach deep inside of myself and let go.

I now know that those crazy Svaroopa blankets provide external support so we can discover the internal strength that exists inside of each one of us—physically, mentally, and spiritually. And as we release the tensions in the muscles wrapped around our spine, we also release the stories that live in our bodies and color our perceptions. Those old stories from our past that make us react in a very certain way to brand new situations. Those pesky illusions that keep us stuck in the same behavior we’re so sick of even when we don’t realize we’re doing it and even when we don’t know we’re sick of doing it. By releasing all of that, Svaroopa yoga brings us closer to our true essence, to who we really are.

That’s what happened to me. In retrospect, I can now see how stuck I’d been. Just as stuck as that pain had been in my shoulder. I had reached a certain level of happiness and success. And my life had taken up residence on that mesa for so long, that I couldn’t find my way to the higher mesas around me. Internal release gave me the gentle boost I needed to move upward.

Soon after I started Svaroopa, I began working towards realizing my greatest desires. I applied to an MFA program in creative writing, I began visualizing the love of my life, and decided that I would pursue a creative career despite nearly immobilizing fears around money. And I finally moved my things to Atlanta. Those were just a few steps in a journey I never could have imagined at the time. One that’s brought me more joy and growth than I could have ever conceived. Now I’m a writer, artist and creativity coach with the love of my life by my side. And I continue to practice Svaroopa every day. To make sure no squatters ever return. But how could they? There’s too much power in a bunch of Svaroopa blankets.

If you live in the Atlanta area, you can try Svaroopa at Jody's studio.
To find a Svaroopa teacher near you, click here.

Friday, September 12, 2008

In the sane asylum, I learned I was an African queen.

I was moving on tip toes, lifting one bent leg, thrusting it to the right and squatting down. My arms came down to the floor and swooped up, springing my body back on tip toes. I twirled myself around and around, my arms outstretched to the sides. I began running like a ballerina would, legs turned out and feet landing lightly at an angle. My arms made outward swimming strokes to push the brush out of the way. I was deep in the jungles of Africa. And as I ran, I could see the others. One woman stomping her feet, waving arms in the air, head bent forward, thrusting from side to side. Her black hair covered her entire face.

It was a Saturday morning in the Candler Park neighborhood of Atlanta. We were in Joan Toder’s expressive movement class, which she calls Dance Meditation. Like all expressive arts, the concept is simple. You let the art form take over, letting it get deep inside of you and pull out some amazing bits from your deepest core. All of a sudden, you’re a dancer, a writer, a painter and you’re learning from those very bits that the art form has brought to light. In Joan’s class, you simply listen to music and move. However, wherever you want. As others in the class do the same.

For the first part of the class, I danced in a corner of the room, not wanting to stray too close to others, focusing on myself and whatever movement came out of me. I heard hooting, grunting and whooping come out of the other participants. Some rolled on the floor, others danced. I couldn’t help but take in some of the energy in the room. Liberation, freedom. It entered my body and made me giggle. It reminded me of Paulo Coelho’s book, Veronika Decides to Die, in which sane people decide to remain in a mental institution because it’s the only place that’s acceptable and easy to be non-conformists. Was this what Coelho’s sane asylum was like? Full of freedom and joy?

After 45 minutes of this, Joan asked us to move intentionally close to others while continuing our own dances. The group gathered in the center of the room and began to move. Now I had no choice. I had to get close to others. At first, I danced on the outskirts of the group, around those on the outer edges. Sometimes it was difficult to maneuver around a person, especially if arms were flailing about. But as I continued to focus on my own dance, I let it take me through the middle of the circle when it was time. The same fast-tempo salsa tune elicited some to move slowly, others to move quickly. So many ways to interpret one song.

And then my favorite and most challenging part of the class. While we danced our own dance, we touched others lightly as we moved by them. Remaining unaffected by their movement. Some people danced together for a bit while their hands touched, each moving in their own world. I saw them connect for a second and then move on.

Joan’s class was such a beautiful metaphor for living a creative life. How we each have our own very distinct dance. How we need to trust it to take us where we need to go. And remain focused on it even while other energies swirl around us. Hopefully, we can. Hopefully, in the bliss of our own dance, we can accept another’s touch. Hopefully, we can offer one to someone else. This is the meaning of true freedom.

Years ago, I would have been too shy to come into a class like this. But now, I look forward to seeing what different art forms can bring out of me and what I’ll learn about myself in the process. If I hadn’t tried the sane asylum of expressive movement, I never would have known that an African queen lived inside of me. Though I did suspect it.

Something to consider:
During times of transition, it’s important to try out lots of new things that push you outside of your comfort zone, like different art forms. Expressive arts not only bring creativity into your life in the least intimidating way, but they teach you about yourself. Things come out of you that you didn’t think you had in you, and those who didn’t think they were creative may be surprised to find they had a writer, painter or African dancer queen living right inside them all along.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mindless writing 101: permission to play, have fun and be an artist.

My mind got very pissed off the other day. It was finally settling into its favorite lavender-scented bubble bath when it heard an awful thing. So awful that it got out of the tub and started jumping up and down and yelling in outrage. Until I agreed to sit down and write this article.

I was at an art show where my boyfriend and I fell in love with a particular artist’s work. When I saw the way the artist had mastered the use of acrylics in the way I wanted to, I approached the guy standing in the booth and asked if I could take classes.

“No,” he said. “The artist is very busy and very shy. But she’ll tell you that, as an artist, you have to just give yourself permission to play, try different things out and see what works.”

“Yeah, I understand. I’m a writer and it’s the same thing in writing or any art form really,” I said.

“Well no. I come from a big family of writers and I know that when it comes to writing, it’s all about character development.”

That’s when my mind got out of the tub and when my boyfriend gave me a look that said, “I can just imagine what’s going on in your head right about now.”

After taking oodles of writing, art and creativity classes, workshops and trainings over the last 20 years, I’ve come to realize that somehow writing has been involved in a terrible PR campaign that has created a scary, unapproachable and painful image of this sweet art form. Talk to any writer and you’ll inevitably hear about the difficulties of writing. I used to be one of them. Now, I’m determined to put a stop to it.

The following myths around writing are a disservice to writers, potential writers and the art of writing. Hearing these things over and over again from respected authors, directors of MFA programs and emerging writers creates a reality where writing is difficult and people are scared of trying it. It’s time to deconstruct the old PR campaign, because everyone has something to say and it can actually be really fun to write.

Old myth: The writing process is difficult, full of struggle and painful.
New reality: The writing process can be easy, fun, joyful and blissful if we let it.

Whether you’re painting, writing or creating any type of art, the creative process has two distinct parts to it: a flow that comes from quieting the mind and letting the art travel through us, and the craft in which we apply particular techniques to create a polished, finished product. There are zillions of classes on the craft of writing, where we learn about character development and scene creation and narrative arc—all important things that tame the writing and make it go deeper. But if we apply too much focus on the craft, the real organic beauty of our words can easily get squashed. And the process can become difficult, even joyless. Reveling in the mindless, organic part of the process and honoring it as an important part of creativity makes writing joyful and fun.

Old myth: Writing is cerebral.
New reality: The best writing comes from the body and senses and our childlike ability to play.
In the writing workshop I developed, I use practical techniques that disengage the mind, and instead, engage the entire body and senses where our words live. We also practice playing, which is an important part of all creativity, including writing. I recently trialed the workshop with a group that included a couple of writers whose writing I’m familiar with. And some of the words that came out during the workshop were the best I’d ever seen from them. Fresh and different and passionate. By disengaging the mind, you let the writing take you to places you never even thought of going. The writing writes you.

Old myth: The writer often faces a blank page, which causes writer’s block.
New reality: There is no blank page.

I’m not sure if this is an American invention or not but when I visited Cuba this year, I spoke with various writers who insisted there is no such thing as a blank page. “The page is never blank. Even if it appears so. The writer is always full of experiences and ideas. They are already on the page of a different form—in our minds,” one writer told me. Applying organic methods throughout the writing process can create an easy flow from our minds right onto the page.

Old myth: Writers are introverts, and the art of writing is a solitary act.
New reality: Writers need a creative community they can be part of, draw support from and get creatively inspired.
The expectation that writers need to be alone with their thoughts makes the process of writing more difficult. Staying inside of one’s head for too long can be unhealthy, cause depression and put a halt to creativity for lots of writers. While there are many art centers where artists can rent studio spaces, there are very few places like this for writers. Yet, writers too need collaborative centers where they can share office space, have a community of support and get out of their heads. Because the creative process is never a solitary act, and ideas only get better around other creatives. [I’m in the process of developing a creativity incubator for artists and writers. Anyone interested in joining me in this project?]

Writing has been separated from other art forms for far too long by the myths that claim it to be a solitary, cerebral and painful experience. Everyday, I work towards creating this new reality for myself and other writers: a joyful, collaborative world that lets us tap into our deepest writing in the gentlest of ways. To create this new world, I believe that the organic, mindless part of the writing process needs more attention. It needs to be part of every writing program. So we can let our minds go on vacation and soak in the tub as long as they want. While we have some real fun—letting our best words flow onto the page.