4.26.2017

The Poses of Prose: On Writing, Yoga, and Embodiment


I recently had a realization about yoga thanks to the incredible genius of my teacher, Kia Meaux. I always thought yoga was about these very precise poses, more or less discrete, that could be strung together into a routine to stretch the body, its muscles and ligaments and the like. But, as Kia has taught me, yoga is a practice that's not about stretching per se: it's about becoming embodied. (She likes to say that she can show you all of yoga in one pose. I love that.)

That's an incredibly complex idea: to become an embodied body. At first, it sounds absurd. After all, aren't we already embodied? Isn't that what all this — this flesh, these fingers, these farts  — is? Isn't this my embodiment?

Sure, in some sense. But in another sense, we are actually rarely in and of and with our bodies. I, for one, certainly am not. I imagine myself as a nose on a stick that emits words while ideas flow and ricochet around me. So when I've tried to do yoga, I spend all this time listening to what the teacher says then trying to contort my body into some pose that looks like what she's doing. All my attention is on understanding while my body is only tangentially involved. The result is not pretty.

Kia made me stop all that. A pose, for her, is a set of possibilities. It is a way that discloses as many ways as there are bodies. I start contorting my body and ask: Is this right? She replies: How does it feel? Which is to say, there is no absolute pose. There is a way of sitting with one's body that draws more or less attention to this or that part — the hamstrings, the spine, the shoulders. It's about experiencing that part of the body, not necessarily stretching it. The pose — and its stretch — is a way, not an end: it's a way to being present with the world as oneself.

As I consider her question — How does it feel? — my mind folds into my flesh. My attention is on my body, in my body, and when it all feels as it feels (even if hurts a bit), my attention becomes my body. The pose-that's-not-a-pose is an exercise in being present with my body in the world — feeling gravity's embrace, feeling the muscle extend, feeling the pleasure and sometimes a little pain. The end result is not a limber body or hot ass; those are by-products. The end result is living well with the world.

After a few lessons, I tell Kia: I can't believe the way you move so fluidly in your body, your understanding, your teaching. To which she replies, more or less: That's how I feel about you and your writing.  

This was an incredible moment for me as I suddenly saw writing as a kind of yoga practice. We often imagine writing as disembodied, an abstraction from the world. But, for me, writing is leaning in with my whole self, my body and mind and senses. Writing is a practice of going with ideas, language, moods, and sensations. It's rarely if ever about expressing a pre-formed idea and having it fit perfectly with the words. Writing is not a pose. It's a way.

Now, I've often compared writing to surfing — another thing I have never done and, in this case, something I will never do as I don't even know how to swim. But what I love about surfing is that in order to move, you have to lean into the wave. And then, once there, you have to remain poised. Lean too far back or too far forward and you're gone. It's a constant negotiation of forces, adjustments being made on the fly with the tumult of the ocean. The figure that ties writing to surfing and yoga is the demand of embodiment. But I don't want to conflate all these things; so now I'm gonna stick to yoga.

When I write, I'm looking for a flow — a flow of words, of ideas, of revelations, of affect, and of myself with those elements. I'm not sitting back and composing; I am performing, practicing, on the screen, with the keyboard, with my fingers, with my thoughts, with the thoughts of others, with tangents and dreams, with wisps of notions and fleeting sensations, with all the vicissitudes of language and its grammar and sounds and shapes. As in a yoga routine, I am moving the energy from there to there to there, feeling my way through — for a word, for the stretch of an idea, for an energy, for a flow that, uh, flows. And noting it all. Heeding it all. Experiencing it all. (Well, maybe not always all. But a lot! Or much! Or, sometimes, some!) Writing is not a standing back but an immersion.

For me, writing is not about delivering an answer. As in yoga, there is no telos; there is only flow (of course, your writing teachers may disagree and fail you). The goal of writing — for me as well as for my readers, few and insane as they may be — is not to have a goal but to attain a certain enlivening, a certain waking up, a taking notice, a being present. One might say that the endpoint-which-is-not-an-endpoint of writing is a kind of embodiment: a moving with the world (rather than a taking leave of the world through abstraction, anxiety, fear, ego, and the like). Oh, when in that groove, the words stream, the ideas stretch, my mind and loins and gut all working as a little engine with language and the weight and contours of ideas and sensations to forge....this.

But doesn't writing inherently have an audience in a way yoga does not? Well, that depends on how you look at it. For me, writing is personal. I'd write with or without publishing it as writing is the act, is the making sense, is the stretch: is the embodiment. But, that aside, yoga has an audience, too. When you're moving your energy about, flexing your ass with your downward facing dog and such, you're writing on and with the body. Your flesh, as well as your spirit or whatever you want to call it, is your screen. You are the page, the words, the ideas, the affect, the flow: you are the essay.

Like yoga, writing has a grammar (nifty move there, eh?). Yoga has poses and movements between poses, a vocabulary and a grammar that turns around hips, breath, spine, neck, balance (not knowing much, I'll stop there). What are the poses in writing? As in yoga, there are thousands if not infinite: there are as many poses as there are writing bodies.

For instance, there is the circle: tying the beginning into the end. I use this pose often. In my last post, for instance, I begin with the pleasure of distinction and end with a call to more distinctions. That's a shape, like child's pose, in which there is a lot of flexibility, a lot of give (oy! "give" as a noun is downright fantastic!).

There's the related tangent which, if you think about it, is a sideways stretch. For example, above, I talked about surfing while talking about yoga. 

The non-sequitur — that is, talking about something completely unrelated — is under appreciated as schools systematically beat it out of us. What does this have to do with anything? they scribble madly in the margins (they was often I). But I've come to really like the understated cool of the band, Suicide. 


The failed attempt is a great performative pose. A friend of mine just sent me a great example of this. He was writing about his art, trying to explain it this way and that, but each effort came up short. So he shifts and addresses the nature of the coming up short. 

Alliteration and other forms of mouth filling are great go-tos (note the title of this meandering post. Oh! Meander! That's a great figure for the form of essays in general). While this is often what we imagine as being writerly, it is not something taught in composition classes: the way words fill the mouth, even when silently read. (When I taught comp, I had students read Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" out loud in class. We'd go around the room, everyone taking a stanza — who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York/ who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night/ with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls....)I fear if I did that today, I'd be fired, sued, and molested on social media). The written word, after all, is never totally silent. Such is the nature of a phonetic alphabet — the words slither from the page across your tongue and down your throat. Nabokov loved to fill the mouth, almost suffocating you with confection: 

Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on from here, Ada, please! (From Ada). 

I could go on and on. The shift of address: suddenly address your reader directly. The reversal: take a claim everyone assumes and flip it — belief in god is...nihilism! There are so many prose poses. But none of that matters. The point is to move with. To  keep the flow flowing, feeling good and right or, perhaps, just flowing: if it gets too contrived, change positions. Start over. Shake it off. 

The point is not to think of writing as having a point. It's not about expressing an idea from my body to yours. Writing is a doing. It demands you being present.How does that feel? How about that? And that? It's all a stretch but the stretch is not the endpoint. The goal-which-is-not-a-goal is to feel with the world. It's to notice. To experience. To be embodied.

Oh, here's another amazing thing to realize about writing, a realization akin to what Kia taught me: there are no hard and fast rules. You can split infinitives, end in prepositions, not use sentences. Just ask yourself: How does it feel?

1 comment:

James Anderson said...
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