Yoga for Writers

July 28, 2016    BY Amber Burke

Writers are being given good reason to appreciate yoga. Research shows that it not only has the power to keep our bodies strong and supple, but also has positive effects on the brain. Yoga has been shown to have long-term neuroprotective benefits, as well as to increase gray matter in parts of the brain associated with attention, visualization, and stress regulation. Writers beset by criticism, from within or without, or beleaguered by the ups and downs of the writing process, might also be heartened to hear that yoga can help boost moods even more than walking. 

Less quantifiably, by unveiling new possibilities for movement and posture (“My shoulder can fit behind my knee!”), and bringing our attention to the links between different parts of the body (“What the bases of my index fingers are doing affects my shoulders!”), yoga may allow us to find connections we didn’t see before and arrive at novel solutions to a writer’s dilemmas. And because yoga encourages us to observe our poses, habits, and thoughts with both detachment and kindness, we may leave practice primed to be more objective and compassionate editors of our own work.

The sequence below targets those parts of a writer’s body that might need attention after hours spent buckled over laptops or notebooks—such as hips, lower back, shoulders, neck, and wrists. Try this practice before writing, as a break, or even at the end of your writing day to help you ease out of your heady realm and back into the corporeal world. If possible, consider doing your yoga sequence outdoors to amplify its benefits, since spending time in green spaces has been shown to help us think better.

Go slowly enough to make each pose meaningful—as Ernest Hemingway said, “Don’t confuse movement with action.” If you don’t have time to do the full sequence, try inserting a pose here and there throughout your writing time (Jack Kerouac did headstands!) to refresh yourself and counter the negative effects of sitting. Of course, to prevent some of those ill effects, you could also write standing up (as Hemingway did), or lying down (like Marcel Proust). You could even try the lying down desk to keep tension at bay. 

1a. Mountain Pose Against a Wall

Lean back against a wall (or any upright support, like a beam or a tree), with your heels just a couple of inches from the wall. Your butt, the back of your head, and as much of the back of the rib cage and your shoulder blades as possible should be against the wall. Root down with both feet, and stand tall. 

Soften your forehead and unclench your jaw. Allow your breath to slow and deepen. 

Compare your alignment in mountain pose to your usual postural tendencies. Are your head and tailbone usually in the same upright line, as they are now, or does this position feel unusual? “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think, I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage,” Ralph Waldo Emerson bemoans in Self-Reliance. Why not try writing with the openness and confidence that this pose embodies—hiding nothing, and daring to say exactly what you think and who you are?

1b. Mountain Pose with Eye Movements

Continue to stand tall, with your back against a wall. Look at something near you, then at something far away. Look right, then left. Up, then down. Circle your eyes in one direction, and then the other. After several breaths, shut your eyes and repeat these eye movements behind your closed lids. Then allow your closed eyes to be still. Imagine the muscles around your eyes smoothing out, the muscles behind your eyes smoothing out, even your brain itself unwrinkling. 

These eye movements are vital if your gaze has been fixed for some hours at a screen or page. You can shift the focus of your mind’s eye, too: you need never be stuck. Just as you can move your eyes, so also can you shift your writerly attention. Perhaps the story you were looking for has been waiting for you just above, below, or to the side of the story you thought you were telling. Perhaps the solution you needed is already there, just lingering beneath the surface at another depth. 

2. Shoulder Stretch at Wall

Stand with the right side of your body an arm’s length from a wall. Place your right hand on the wall at about the height of your nose, with the fingers pointing up and back slightly. Walk forward until you feel a shoulder and chest stretch, so that your arm is lengthening back behind you on a diagonal. Cross your left arm in front of your torso, bringing your left hand to the right side of your rib cage (as though giving yourself half of a hug), then gently spin the right side of your chest forward, away from the hand that’s reaching back. Press into the base of your right index finger, and into all the fingertips of your right hand, and try to move the wall forward. Back out of the stretch if you feel pain or numbness; work at the position just before the discomfort starts, and breathe there. Walk back to your starting position before releasing and repeating on the second side.

It’s possible that you hate doing this pose, which can be wildly intense (especially if your shoulders are used to rounding). But perhaps you like having done this pose—your shoulders might feel liberated afterward, and it might be easier to breathe. If, like Dorothy Parker, you hate writing, you might take the pleasant aftereffects of this pose as a reminder of how much you like “having written.”

3. Cat Cow with Wrist Stretches

Come down to your hands and knees, arranging yourself in tabletop with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Point your fingers toward your knees, palms down. (If this is too much for your wrists, turn your fingers out to the sides instead.) Take care not to hyperextend your elbows, keeping the eyes of your elbows soft. As you inhale, round your back toward the ceiling. As you exhale, backbend your spine, tipping your tailbone up and back and bringing your heart forward, while lightly drawing your belly in. (Exhaling as you backbend has the advantage of offering the lower back the support of the belly in “cow,” and lets us practice harnessing abdominal support without tucking the tailbone under.) 

After several breaths of this, switch your hand position, turning your palms up and pointing your fingers back toward your knees. Press the backs of your hands into the mat, and again cat-cow your spine. Next, turn your fingers to face each other (palms still up), and again flex and extend your spine, pressing the backs of your hands. Make fists if you want more intensity, keeping the backs of your hands on the mat.

These poses limber your spine while stretching your wrists, and they can be important after working on a keyboard or clutching a pen. Imagine these movements clearing any obstructions in the passage of your ideas from your brain to your hands, enhancing your ability to write—or “think through your fingers,” as Isaac Asimov defined it.

5. Hopping Dog

From tabletop position, place your palms down, fingers forward and rooting down through the bases of your index fingers. Curl your toes under, lift your hips up and back, and move into downward facing dog. Bend your knees enough that your sitting bones can tip up and back, and your lower back can curve in toward your belly. Now take several small jumps in place, as if you are springing over a jump rope, being careful to maintain your lumbar curve and to land softly, with knees bent and tracking toward your middle toes. If this is going well, for more intensity, make your hops bigger, into “donkey kicks,” moving the heels toward the sitting bones.

As you hop in this spine-lengthening pose, imagine you are banishing stagnation, jostling stuck energy, and channeling vitality from your legs toward your brain. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal: “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Here, you can also stomp down any impediments to your work, such as plans, worries, critical comparisons, or sleepiness.

6. Moving Baby Cobra, Lowering an Ear to the Floor

Come down to your belly, hands alongside your chest. Anchor the tops of your feet, your knees, and your pubic bone. Keep your belly on the mat, and as you exhale, peel your head, shoulders, and chest up off the floor. Lower down on the inhale, bringing one ear to the ground. Lift up on the exhale, then lower your other ear to the ground. Come up and down a few times, rising on your exhales, and then hold baby cobra for a few breaths. 

In this back-strengthening pose, draw your belly in toward your spine with every exhale, and notice if there’s anything your own gut wisdom has been trying to tell you. Listen to your deepest self. When you bring an ear to the earth, imagine that you are listening to her. In "The Power of Myth" interviews, Joseph Campbell said: "If you will think of ourselves (sic) as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These [human eyes] are the eyes of the earth. And this [the human voice] is the voice of the earth.” With this perspective, we might then feel a new imperative to tell the biggest stories, in a voice we at first may not recognize—as it has all the strength of the earth behind it.

7. Low Lunge with Eagle Arms

From downward facing dog, step your right foot forward and lower your left knee down. Ensure that your right heel is under your right knee, and bring your spine up to vertical. If you are not yet feeling a stretch at the front of your left thigh and pelvis, scoot the left knee back until you do. Take your right arm under your left, create your eagle arms: intertwining your forearms and bringing your palms together, if possible, with fingers pointing toward the ceiling. Lift your elbows as high as your shoulders, and reach them forward, while you breathe into the space between the shoulder blades. After several breaths, step back to downward facing dog, then repeat the pose on the second side.

While stretching your shoulders, upper back, quadriceps, and hip flexors, this pose attunes you to a blind spot: it is not always possible to see what is right before your eyes. Notice that if you unfix your gaze from your hands and try to see beyond them, they become transparent. (If your hands are not already disappearing in this pose, bring your thumbs closer to the space right between your eyebrows.) Are there ideas, right in front of your eyes, that you’ve been overlooking? Orson Scott Card said, “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas everyday. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” Is there something very near you, or even perhaps a part of yourself, to which your writing has been blind? 

8. Wide-Legged Forward Fold with One Knee Bent

From downward facing dog, step your feet forward, and then rise up to stand with a long spine. Step your feet wide apart, and arrange them so they run parallel to each other. Interlace your hands behind you and take the fronts of your shoulders back. (Grab a strap if this feels too intense or uncomfortable.) Bend both knees and lower into your forward fold, keeping your spine as long as possible, and staying broad across your collarbones. Tip your sitting bones up toward the ceiling while you lengthen your spine and direct the crown of your head toward the floor. Lift your interlaced hands toward the ceiling (or even take them all the way overhead toward the floor). Then straighten one leg while bending the other knee deeply. Switch sides several times, then hold, keeping your spine centered instead of letting it list toward your bent knee. 

This pose will stretch your hamstrings, hips, and shoulders. It is a pose that can also come with declared goals (Head to the floor! Hands to the floor!)—which may leave you feeling stuck some distance from where you want to be. But those are not things you can rush: if you push or yank, you will set yourself back. The vast majority of us must progress deeper into this pose with skillful, patient dedication, just as we must with our writing. 

9. Extended Child’s Pose with Hands in Prayer

Come to hands and knees, separate your knees to hip-distance apart, and then sit back on your heels and walk your hands out in front of you. Bend your elbows and bring your hands together above you in prayer position, so that your elbow tips are on the ground and your fingertips point toward the ceiling. Walk your elbows far enough forward that you feel a stretch at the undersides of the upper arms. 

This is a pose that stretches the back and shoulders in preparation for the next pose. It is also a pose of supplication. Ask for what you want, what you need, and to write what you want to write. Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, asserted that “vast inner solitude” was necessary to write: “To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grown-ups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn't understand a thing about what they were doing.”

10. Headstand

From hands and knees, tuck your chin and bring the crown of your head to the floor, with hands loosely interlocked behind your head. The pinky-finger sides of your hands, wrists, and forearms press down into the mat. Curl your toes under, lift your knees up, and hike your hips high as you did in downward facing dog. (If your neck is vulnerable or you do not yet practice the full inversion, either stay here or take hare pose, keeping your head light on the floor. You are already reaping the benefits of an inversion.) If you would like to go further, walk your feet toward your nose until your hips are right over your head and your shoulders; then press down with your forearms and lift your feet from the floor, folding your knees in and bringing your heels close to your buttocks; then lift your legs up toward the ceiling.

In addition to strengthening your core and upper body and freeing the spine, headstand gives you a new vantage point. Could the piece you are working on benefit from a reversal of perspective? As Flannery O’Connor recommended, “Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.”

11. Thunderbolt Pose with Lion’s Breath

Sit down on your heels (or on a block or blocks) and bring your spine up to vertical, in a pose that was once said to confer psychic powers (which would be handy for most writers). Inhale normally. As you exhale with a “ha” sound, stick your tongue out, gaze up toward the space between your eyebrows, and spread your hands like lion’s claws.

Lion’s breath, whilst giving you an opportunity to exhale whichever of your writerly habits you’re sick of (like an unfortunate tendency to use the word “whilst”…), reminds you that you don’t have to be dignified all the time; chances are most of us could probably stand to take ourselves a little less seriously. 

A nice plus for writers: some say this pose benefits vishuddha chakra (throat center), the energy center associated with communication and self-expression, and increases extroversion in introverts.

12. Bharadvaja’s Twist with Neck Stretch

From thunderbolt pose, move your hips just to the right of your feet, and place your left foot in the cradle of your bottom foot. Bring your left hand to your right knee, right hand to the floor behind you, or loop your right hand around your back until you grab your left inner thigh. Twist to your right, letting the twist wind its way up from your lower back all the way up to the upper back, but do not turn your head; keep your chin centered over the top of your sternum. Then lower the left ear toward the left shoulder, then right ear to the right shoulder. Repeat this a few times. Then hold the neck stretch on each side for a few breaths, keeping your ear close to your shoulder, and then tipping your chin up toward the ceiling. Repeat this pose on the second side.

In Bharadvaja’s twist, which stretches the neck and wrings tension from the back, you can experiment with calibrating just the right stretch for your neck; notice how a millimeter’s adjustment to the angle of your chin can mean the difference between a dramatic, fulfilling stretch and no stretch at all. Our diction benefits similarly from this kind of precision; as Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

13. Bridge Pose

Lie down on your back, placing your feet a few inches in front of your sitting bones. Tip your tailbone back into the mat until your lower back curves slightly away from the mat, and then lift your hips. Walk your shoulder blades closer together, interlace your hands (if that’s comfortable for you), and press your shoulder and upper arms into the mat to lift your heart. Keep a gentle curve at the back of your neck. You will want to keep the shoulders this grounded, and the neck this comfortable, in the next pose.

As you hold this heart-lifting pose—one said to increase optimism—you might consider that the stream of thoughts that threatens to distract you from your writing need be of no more consequence to you than rivers are to the bridges that cross them; you can do your work far above that stream, connecting shore to shore, sentence to sentence. 

14. Half Shoulderstand

Lower your hips down from bridge. Bring your arms alongside you, palms down. Press your hands into the mat and, using a bit of momentum, swing your legs overhead (as if you are heading toward a backward somersault). Bring both palms to the back rim of your pelvis, and walk your elbows closer together. Keeping your hands on the back of your pelvis, lift your feet up so that your legs hover over your face and torso. (If you feel any strain in your neck, lower down and simply lie on your back, stretching your legs up toward the ceiling.) Keeping this chevron shape—hips elevated, and legs lifted on a diagonal—rather than verticalizing the spine, makes it easier to root down into your shoulders as you did in bridge, while requiring less neck flexion than a full, unpropped shoulderstand. Breathe here for as long as you are comfortable, several minutes if you like.

Shoulderstand is often touted for its circulatory benefits and calming effect on the nervous system. The backward movement of the legs required to create this pose echoes the courage and faith required at the beginning of a long writing project. The fact that shoulderstand—and headstand—were said to be longevity-bestowing poses might hearten those of us for whom a finished manuscript seems years away. 

15. Fish

Using your arms to slow your descent from half shoulderstand, lengthen your legs out on the mat in front of you until you are lying on your back. Then come up on your forearms, elbows below your shoulders. Point your knees and toes up, anchor your heels, drop the tops of your thighs down, and tip your tailbone back until your lower back curves in gently. If your neck is sensitive, simply root down through your forearms, lift your sternum until your chest is higher than your shoulders, and look up at the ceiling, tipping your chin up and back as much as you comfortably can. 

If you want to go further, wiggle your forearms closer together underneath you, and move your hands forward until your fingers are under your buttocks. Re-anchor your heels and thighs; press down with your forearms, boost your heart up, tip your chin toward the ceiling, and bring the crown of your head to the floor (or to a block or book, if the floor is too far away). Continue to drop your weight into your limbs, putting very little weight in the head. To come out of fish, lengthen back through the crown of your head, tuck your chin in, and settle your chest down until you are once again lying on your back. 

Fish, which stretches the front of the neck, is a pose in which the chest is pridefully puffed. Walt Whitman, in his preface to Leaves of Grass, writes that the soul of the greatest poet, in balance with its considerable sympathy, “has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own.” For him, pride was both a virtue and our birthright as humans: an innate, ebullient expression of the magnificence of the self and the universe. 

In this pose, be proud of being a writer. Be proud of what you have written. 

16. Savasana, Palming Eyes

Lie flat on your back, and then rub your hands together until they are warm and tingling. Place your palms lightly over your eyes, fingers pointing up toward your hairline. Drink in the warm, soothing darkness your hands are offering.

Instead of trolling your mind for an idea or solution, be receptive now: allow what you need to come to you. Virginia Woolf said, “Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes rises to the top.” Imagine that the words you need are flying to you, hundreds of slow wings flapping as you breathe in and out: inspiration, expiration. Don’t look yet: rest here in the confidence that the words will be there for you when it is again time for you to return to your writing.

wardrobe: prana

#poses Photography: Andrea Killam

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Coyote, New Mexico, and teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga at Body in Santa Fe. In her classes, she aspires to a precision of language and detail that will not only create sustainable poses but also guide students inward, toward an ever-deepening self-awareness. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA Program, and two yoga teacher trainings through Yogaworks in Los Angeles, and has been registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour... Read more>>

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