Yoga for writers: a conversation with Jeffrey Davis

Before I started practising Yoga at the age of 47, I had never really lived consciously in my body. It was a machine that got me to and from the bar and the bookshelf. I wanted Yoga to help me become fitter, stronger and stretchier but I wasnt prepared for the effect it would have on my writing.

Storylines, snatches of verse, song lyrics or even taglines and advertising headlines Id been trying to come up with for hours would pop into my head when I was practicing an asana. The worst was relaxation at the end of the class. Waiting until I could dash to the changing room and grab my notebook was a lot worse than having an itch on the sole of my foot and being unable to scratch it.

Without me actually wanting it to happen, Yoga turned on the inspiration tap. And it didnt flow, it poured. Being someone who writes, my first thought was Wow, I bet theres a book in this. There was and Jeffrey Davis wrote it.

A conversation with Jeffrey Davis

Jeffrey and I spoke via Skype. He sounds like a man whos come to terms with his life, happy to give long, entertaining answers to my questions, laughing easily and in love with wonder.

Yoga and writing

Jeffrey got serious about becoming a writer aged nineteen. He was an undergrad at the University of Texas in Austin when, as he puts it, he went left and changed from business to the humanities. For Jeffrey, studying poetry was the key to being both present in the world and in his imagination at the same time. In his pre-Yoga life, he went to graduate school, published poetry, wrote short stories and essays, became a fiction editor and taught creative writing. In my creative writing classes, I showed students how to really learn and honour their craft through the lens of how they were engaging with the world. Id put them in unusual situations; asking them, for instance, to observe people in cemeteries, coffee shops and anywhere I could think of. I was actually teaching my students how to be curious.

For a variety of reasons, aged thirty-two and an admitted workaholic, Jeffrey found his way to a Yoga class, with profound results. Yoga awakened my interior imagination so my head wasnt just crowded with noise and I could feel in tandem with parts of my body below my chin. After a few weeks of practising I suddenly felt alive and grounded. Within two to three months Id regained my concentration and then the hard armour of my heart cracked open. I could feel my emotional body again, which is really important for a writer. It took me onto the next leg of my journey.

We talked about what the experience actually feels like. Yoga screwed up my life in lots of beautiful ways, Jeffrey says. For a fellow whod learned to control his emotions, reconnecting with my emotional body was a shock. Two years after I began practising, when I joined the first of my teacher trainings, I spent the first year crying without knowing why. I was going through exhilarating changes I didnt understand.

Ever the curious intellectual, Jeffrey set out to understand what was happening to him. He studied the burgeoning science of neuropsychology to grasp the effect Yoga had on his brain and body while combining his knowledge of Jung, Maslow and Joseph Campbell with what he was learning about the Eastern traditions. Delving into the classical texts, he learned exactly how Yoga helped him achieve the cessation of the minds whirling fluctuations, that flow were all looking for.

I studied translations of the Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a several-hundred-years-old catalogue of movements and breathing practices.  At the same time, I experimented with their effects on me as a writer, noting which postures helped me concentrate more, which activated the flow of emotional imagery thats so important for us writers and which enabled me to open up and stay in an emotionally difficult place. I worked a lot with teachers who taught me about sequencing and I found out how to enable myself and others to close our eyes and pay attention to what was happening in our interior space.

For the next eight years of his life, Jeffreys commitment to teaching Yoga for creative writing was all-consuming.

Yoga and the creative writing establishment

In my experience, orthodox creative writing teaching tends to concentrate on the sheer slog of mastering the craft rather than nurturing the source of the writing itself. I was curious to know how the creative writing establishment responded to Jeffreys use of Yoga. 

First of all, Jeffrey says, I'm still of the hard work school. Writing is about learning, finessing, mastering aspects of the craft and then breaking the rules. I still agree with that but I have a different way of handling the work. What befuddles me is that if you write you know youre always up against the vagaries of your own mind and moods so why not find the best and healthiest means available to manage these? Especially if they increase your awareness and power to track the images that filter through its ether, enhance your ability to watch your thoughts and give you the strength to delve into emotionally difficult places. Were still doing hard work, just in a different way.

But its changing, right? Sure. Ive been invited to several writers conferences to teach some variation of my work. Ive taught an MFA in Creative & Professional Writing programme, and the director of one MFA invited me for a workshop and then asked me to speak on the soul in creative writing. I was surprised, but I think theres a hunger within academia to add some genuine humanity to the field of creative writing programmes, which can get mired in pettiness, positioning, and personalities. The conversation about embodiment related to writing and social justice is also shifting and thats incredibly exciting. A few days ago I was at the wonderful Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington DC. Together with my poet/yogi colleagues Kazim Ali and Susan Brennan, I gave a workshop called Moving Breath, Moving Justice where we used Yoga to lead people into some politically sensitive subjects. But I would say you have to be qualified to teach some of these things.

One last, slightly cheeky, question: Do you still practise every day? “I do. No matter where I am in the world or what is happening to me personally. Every single day - usually within the first 20 minutes of getting out of bed. A variation of the same Concentration Sequence that's in the book. Every single freakin’ day.”

The Journey from the Center to the Page

Ive read Jeffreys The Journey from the Center to the Page a number of times and lost count of the people Ive recommended it to. First published in 2004, The Journey offers, as Robert S. Nelson, Director of Creative Writing at the University of Texas says, a map showing the way for living the authentic life of the writer, a life not found in the bottle, in pills, or in misery, but rather a life found at the center of our authentic selves.

You dont have to be an experienced yogi to follow the sequences and breathing exercises Jeffrey suggests. But practice them before you begin to write, stick with it, and I can assure you that youll soon see a difference in your writing. Im personally eternally grateful to Jeffrey for writing the book I wanted to write.

Practising the sequences in The Journey helped me get to the next level, which is using Yoga to move beyond inspiration. In the same way that practising regularly enables us to stretch a little further, hold a posture for longer, breathe deeper, Yoga led me to concentrate on getting better at specific aspects of my writing anything from grammar to writing more believable dialogue. I came to see showing up at my desk as no different from showing up at my mat.

Id like to give the last word to Jeffrey. Forgive the length of this quote but it says everything I know to be true about Yoga and creative writing:

Yoga reverses the feeling of being a victim to some mysterious muse whose erratic schedule rarely jibes with yours. With consistent Yoga practice, you can influence your concentration and imagination, your level of vigor, and your awareness of emotions all beneficial attributes, as this book will explain, to writers. Its no secret, either, that we writers are given to depression, anxiety and insomnia, too. Numerous current studies verify what the ancient yogis stated: Yoga helps the mind and its moods. And whereas physical forms of exercise such as aerobics and running do benefit the brain and body, Yogas principles and tools offer a practical way that efficiently centers the body-mind imagination and deepens self-understanding. Yoga is a way that emphasizes less how you look on the mat and more how you live in the world. Thankfully, its a practice that also is invariably adaptable to any body, which is good news for most of us sedentary writers. To practice Yoga as muse for authentic writing involves the physical postures (asanas), breath awareness (pranayama), concentration (dharana), inner seeing (bhavana), and self-study (svadhaya).

Why Yoga? Why not?

Why not indeed?