Written by Tara Leonard
I'm standing in a spare, tranquil room blessedly free of mirrors. My bare feet are planted on the polished wood floor, arms raised, elbows out, fingers splayed against the wall above my head. Triceps trembling, I steal a glance at my fellow students, wondering if anyone else is suffering from this seemingly simple pose.
"We’re rotating the upper arm bones out to counteract the habit of slumping,” intones James Moran, a trim 30-something instructor, as he gently realigns a student’s shoulders. “You should feel your chest opening and your shoulder blades gliding down your back.”
Since nothing feels like it’s gliding, I try concentrating on the pose rather than my classmates. My shoulders relax and lower. My rib cage expands with each breath. Then my mind kicks in again, wondering how I’ll write about the experience. This is, after all, Yoga for Writers.
Taught at the Body & Soul studio on Squid Row in Santa Cruz, Yoga for Writers is designed for anyone who spends long hours in front of a computer, whether churning out annual reports or drafting the next great American novel. Moran, who has been teaching yoga for seven years, sees writing as “an extreme sport” replete with physical hazards including shoulder tension, back ache and eye strain.
Postural issues are common in office workers, confirms Peggy Chen, a Santa Cruz physician who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation. “People develop a rounded-shoulder, head-forward position that can create pain in the neck, shoulders and between the shoulder blades. Tight muscles in the neck can also cause nerve tension problems down the arm, which is often the case when people complain of numbness or tingling in their hands.”
Moran believes that yoga, the ancient Indian practice of physical postures, counteracts these problems by both physically realigning the body and bringing new awareness to the mind. “Often there are issues of back strain and shoulder tightness,” Moran says. “The hips tend to be a source of rigidity as well, so we focus on hip and shoulder work. The eyes get zapped by computer screens, so we do a lot of basic inverted poses where the head is brought lower than the heart to increase blood flow, bringing more nutrient-rich blood to the head and neck.”
It’s a compelling niche in a town where scores of yoga classes are taught each week – everything from prenatal yoga and couples sessions, Bikram “hot” yoga. Moran’s class is inspired by Iyengar, a form of yoga that focuses on body alignment.
“The class has given me a greater awareness of my body position as I’m writing,” says class participant and full-time UCSC student Maria Elena Valenzuela. “Now I remember not to slouch, to get up and do a few moves I’ve learned. It also gives me the space to gain clarity.”
Corporate America has caught on too, recognizing that yoga can increase productivity and worker morale while decreasing absenteeism and health care costs. In the past decade, corporations from New York City to Silicon Valley have instigated on-site yoga classes for their workers.
“Around here, Google, Yahoo, AOL, are all cluing in to the benefits of yoga for employees,” says Diane Anderson, Senior Editor at Yoga Journal in San Francisco. “It relieves stress, helping employees relax and focus. They feel as if the employer cares about them and they in return care about the employer.”
In decidedly un-corporate Santa Cruz, Moran takes this concept a step further. A fiction writer and writing group facilitator, Moran sees a synergy between his yoga practice and his creative writing. Currently about half of his class members are fiction writers.
“You can’t force fiction, just like you can’t force a pose,” he says. “You’ll find when you stop thinking about it and come into the present moment, what you’ve been trying to make happen will just come.”
This philosophy resonates with class member Richard Lange, co-owner of Capitola Book Café and author of the novel Fox Run. “My writing process has been an exercise in slowing down and not missing opportunities on the page,” Lange explains. “I’ll put two characters in a room and try not to run away from that scene without really exploring what might happen. You can only do that if you’re calm and in the moment. If you’ve got an entire outline already in your head, you’re going to rush through it and miss a lot of stuff. Yoga is a reinforcement of that process. It says, ‘This is what your body feels like right now. Just feel it. Don’t label it. Experience what this is.’”
“It’s all about refining your awareness and concentration.” Moran continues. “In yoga it’s obvious that you have this huge instrument, your body. It tells you, matter of factly, what you need to do in the moment. In writing, you have your body of work and if you’re speeding through it based on preconceptions rather than what’s really transpiring, those places are going to feel flat or forced.”
Back at Body and Soul, we finish class in the kneeling child’s pose, sweaty foreheads resting on crossed hands. My muscles feel loose and limber, my mind at ease. I experience a fleeting moment of mental quiet when there is only the body, the breath, and the first ray of sun breaking through the morning fog to grace the studio window. And sure enough, the first paragraph of this article just comes to me.
This article originally appeared in Santa Cruz Magazine, Summer/Fall 2007.