For the next few weeks I'll be exploring the connection between physical fitness and writing. Long obsessed with both, I'm hoping to examine the relationship between the body and the pursuit of writing from many angles - why are so many of the most exciting poets I know also obsessive runners? Why are so many of the poets I know former hardcore athletes, some of them even flirting with professional status? Alternately, why do some writers slyly criticize the pursuit of physical fitness? Is fitness an addiction like anything else, and we poets are somehow more prone to be seduced by its high?
And, as with any work, I'm excited to see what answers come to questions I've long had about myself and my own dogged pursuit of fitness, often at the sacrifice of sitting down to write. I look forward to posting here and to hearing your thoughts on the matter, all you poet-athletes out there.
For my first post, a little background on my time as a yoga teacher. Happy reading and happy weekend.
I can always tell when my students have crossed what I think of as “the yoga line.” They go from doggedly pursuing the postures - breathing raggedly, eyes darting about the room to see if they can imitate other students, flopping into child’s pose in mock defeat - to total acceptance. I can tell by the way their faces go blank, by the symmetry of their inhales and exhales. I can tell when they’ve let something go they didn’t even realize they were holding on to.
This boundary is significant not because these students can suddenly put their ankles behind their necks or hold handstand in the middle of the room, but rather that they are practicing. Truly, mindfully practicing. Just as someone can be taught to write a technically perfect sonnet but not how to breathe life into it, I can teach my yoga students where their bodies are supposed to go in a given posture (right foot here, left elbow there), but teaching them how to practice is an entirely different pursuit.
Despite its significant presence in my life, I’ve always found yoga to be a difficult thing to write about. How to say what emptiness feels like? An emptiness that need not be filled? As if you are now complete because you are empty?
Yoga feels uncool to discuss, too soft and frilly for a serious writer. I’ve never quite known how to explain what it means to me without sounding didactic or egomaniacal. I came to teaching, I think, because it was the best way to talk about yoga, to be grateful for it, without actually having to talk about it. But if I’ve learned anything from yoga, as with writing, I know you have to sit with the things that make you the most uncomfortable. You have to push into them with both hands and risk sounding uncool, soft, frilly, whatever. As long as you’re trying, then you’re practicing.
A quick overview for my non-yogi readers: what we often think of as yoga in the western world is actually one limb of an eight-limbed pursuit. The postures and physical exertions are a means to an end - the end being (fingers crossed) enlightenment. Every bend, twist, flip, and breath is in the service of creating a generative energy in the body. Or, as a great teacher of mine put it, “Yoga does not transform you but restores you to your natural state.” It sounds obscenely new age, I realize, but this is the truth of yoga.
Yoga and writing, for me, achieve the same outcome, which is ultimately harmful to my work. When I have completed a satisfying practice, as with a full day of writing or a great poem draft, I feel empty. I don’t feel compelled to write or read or even speak to anyone. Sometimes, when I’ve had a particularly intense practice, I even have a hard time eating for a while, as if my body is still settling into itself and I am an outsider. I wouldn’t want to disturb the process.
But, just as with writing, not all practices are satisfying. Sometimes I have the wind at my back and others I wonder how I ever got into yoga in the first place. I feel like a failure, a fraud, a drinker who pretends she’s a yogini but is really just a drinker. No matter what, though, I always feel done after the fact. Even with a stiff, breathless, difficult, hungover practice - I walk away powerwashed. This is problematic, of course, because I need something in me, some dirt in the wound, some itch I can’t reach, to write.
This is not to say I think of writing as therapeutic. In fact, I wholly reject that idea and think it does a disservice to the discipline required to put pen to paper day after day. Whenever I have students or friends ask me if I work through trauma with my poetry or if writing makes me “feel better,” I am at a loss. Yes, of course writing makes me “feel better,” but that’s not what I’m doing here. That’s not the point. I think of this logic the same way I think of yoga logic: yes, I like having a better butt and being more bendy, but that’s not what I’m doing here.
It’s not that I’m offended. I find it nearly impossible to be offended by a question, by someone else wanting to understand me better, but I am uncomfortable finding a suitable answer. What I can say is that I am excessively human. I am weak and needy and riddled with anxiety. I have a hard time sharing the truth of myself with others because I have a hard time knowing what it is. For years, I wrote to overcome the constant sense of loss I felt. This is not uncommon. When I came to yoga, it was the first time anything else made me feel as relieved as writing. It satisfied the little disciplinarian in me, it took an axe to the frozen sea inside, it reordered the sensible, it left me feeling intact - a feeling I’m grateful for, of course, and suspicious of, still.
It’s an extremely gratifying moment when I watch my students cross the “yoga line” I described. I understand, then, that they understand. That they feel the emptiness. It is akin to the silence that makes a poem a poem and not just a set of broken sentences. As Robert Bly put it in his essay A Wrong Turning in American Poetry, “A human body, just dead, is very like a living body except that it no longer contains something that was invisible anyway. In a poem, as in a human body, what is invisible makes all the difference.”
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith now lives and works in New York City. Her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Phantom Limb, Ghost Town, The Best American Poetry Blog, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School in 2013.