Jacqueline Sheehan doing yoga on one of her wonderful writing and yoga retreats.
Through the writing and yoga retreats of the awesome Patricia Lee Lewis and Jacqueline Sheehan, I found yoga in my early twenties. My time with them transformed my writing and my understanding of the mind-body connection.
It’s a complete joy to share a guest blog post, the second in a series of posts on the relationship between yoga and writing (see last week’s discussion with Jane Mortifee). Here are some wonderfully wise words from Jacqueline Sheehan who was my yoga and writing teacher on the retreats I mentioned. She is a trained psychologist and a wonderful writer too – check out her awesome novels. I’ve asked her a few additional questions about yoga and writing at the end of her piece.
Change Monkey Mind into Writer’s Mind By Jacqueline Sheehan
Why should writers add one more thing to the precious time we have allotted to writing? Some of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read keep the reader firmly in the body of the characters so that I felt every twinge and movement right along with the character. For writers to do this we must also find a clear path into our own bodies and yoga is the way that has served me well for my entire adult life.
One of yoga’s aims for over 2000 years has been to quiet and harness our thoughts and inner chatter.
Controlled breathing, a major component of most forms of yoga, actually slows down brain wave patterns, which in turn, helps us to concentrate. Conscious breathing allows us to think more clearly without the noise of Monkey Mind, the endless thoughts that skitter around in our brain.
Neuroscientists have demonstrated that working with the body and with breath can help us change brain wave patterns. Beta brain waves, which operate at 13-30 cycles per second, are fine for high intensity, multitasking behavior when we try to do eight things simultaneously. It is not however a state of creativity. Alpha brain waves, which operate at 8-13 cycles per second, allow us to concentrate on a single task. It is also the state of being that people experience in the arts, and some sports, referred to as “in the flow.”
With simple yoga practices, you can alter brain waves from frantic to calm, induce a creative frame of mind and open up the imagination and the body to make the stepping stones into writing less jarring and more natural.
The bodily awareness, or present mindedness, is greatly enhanced by the focus of aligning breath with poses (asanas) of yoga.
I don’t always spend hours doing yoga each day. I might do two poses in the morning before I start writing, stretch a bit around lunch time, and then add in a few more poses in the afternoon. If you are just starting out with yoga, sample a few different styles of classes until you find one that is right for you and then adapt the poses so that you can do them whenever you need to refresh your body and calm the monkey mind.
Here are some questions I asked Jacqueline:
Which three words would you use to describe yourself?
Experimental. Persistent. Grateful.
What is your favourite yoga position and why? (If you could provide an illustration or photograph, that would be wonderful).
I love backbends because they are so heart opening. One of my favourite postures is the fish, a gentle version of a backbend. Other poses I love just because of their name, such as “serpent couch of Lord Vishnu”.
What lead you to becoming a yoga teacher?
I became a yoga teacher because my friend and writing teacher, Patricia Lee Lewis, asked me to lead yoga at a writing retreat in Findhorn, Scotland. Prior to that, I was content to practice yoga on my own, or with my own yoga teachers. It was her belief in me that motivated me to study yoga and eventually become a teacher.
In your view, what is the most wonderful thing about yoga?
I have practised yoga since I was 19 years old and a boyfriend introduced me to it. So my history with it is so long, it is hard to pick out just one thing. If pressed, I would have to say the awareness of the wonder of breath.
How has yoga helped you, personally?
Yoga has deepened my knowledge of myself, and it helped me to be more compassionate with myself and with others.
How do you feel that yoga can benefit writers on a physical level?
I am ridiculously strong and flexible. It is all due to yoga.
How do you feel that yoga can benefit writers on a creative level?
Yoga creates a space for revelations and emotions. Memory is stored in our bodies, in the cells, and sometimes yoga can give us access to hardened memories so that we can dislodge them or see them in a freer way.
Is there a relationship between the practise of yoga and the art of storytelling?
My storytelling is very physical, I keep the reader in the body of my characters and my lifelong practise of yoga has enhanced my awareness of the body.
Is there a history of artists using yoga to help their craft? Do you know any well-known writers who practise yoga?
I don’t really have an answer for this.
Are there any yoga positions, which you feel are particularly helpful to writers?
Nothing special, whatever connects the mind with the body again. We can get so stuck in our heads.
Give us a sense of the role yoga plays in your average day? Do you have any particular routines that tie in with your life as an artist?
I try not to sit longer than 20 minutes at one time, and I often do bits of yoga throughout the day. I take 2-3 yoga classes per week which feels deliciously abundant.
You teach yoga on writing retreats. What would you say is the benefit of going on such a retreat and could tell us about one that you will be teaching on in the future?
Because my focus in more on teaching writing these days, we usually hire a yoga teacher. But I hope to collaborate with the wonderful Jane Mortifee who is a yoga teacher. We are looking at a retreat in Jamaica. The benefits are that writers consciously explore postures that are ancient, they tap into a kind of brain pattern that is less monkey-mind and more open to surprising connections, the unconscious.
Do you have a favourite book on the subject of yoga – or, ideally, on the subject of art and yoga?
Yoga books can be intimidating to the newbie, so I would skip books until you’ve had a physical, emotional experience of yoga. Two books that I have found helpful are Yoga, The Iyengar Way, by Silva, Mira and Shyam Mehta and Structural Yoga Therapy by Mukunda Stiles
For those reading this article who have never done yoga before, where and how should they start?
Take a yoga class from someone who makes adaptations for beginners. It should feel good. If not, try another class.
Jacqueline Sheehan and some writing buddies at a writing and yoga retreat in Guatemala.