My friend (and former student) Callie Feyen is teaching the writing portion of a writing-and-yoga class in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She shared with me the worksheets for the first class—Enter, Discover, Journey. The yoga teacher, she added, will be teaching poses to “open the heart” to complement the writing portion.
Sounds like the kind of thing we’d do here in California, and for a lot more than $100 for seven classes. (Maybe the price is a typo…) Seriously, though, I love heart openers—the yoga poses, I mean. Here’s one of the simplest: Take a block, place it length-wise on its side and lie back, your thoracic spine over the block. You’ll need a folded blanket under your head and perhaps your hips. Bending your knees and placing the soles of your feet on the floor will avoid strain to the lower back. If you’ve never done yoga, check with your physician beforehand. More to the point, check with your mood.
For years, I took Iyengar yoga classes from a woman named Barbara. Somewhere in her seventies, with the body and mobility of a child, Barbara had bright, bird-like eyes and a wide smile. She ended each class by visiting every mat to rub the backs of our necks as we lay prone in savasana (corpse pose). I learned a lot about alignment from Barbara, and I’ve never forgotten her advice about heart-openers. “Be careful,” she told us, after a class of supta baddha konasana and supta virasana and the aforementioned chest-over-block. “You’ll be more open to the world.” The skeptic in me thought, Yeah, right, but here I am these ten years later telling you Barbara’s story: A man had been pursuing her, a man she wasn’t particularly attracted to, but when he called after she’d been doing a series of heart openers, she couldn’t say no.
Think of a cat, asleep on its back, belly exposed. (Or, if you prefer, a dog.) The cat (or dog) wouldn’t get into this pose unless he or she felt utterly safe. Poses like the ones accompanying Callie’s writing exercises make us vulnerable. They’re called “heart openers” for a reason. In yoga, if we do a series of them, we might follow with some forward bends (not right away)—to change that outward openness to something more protective, more inward.
The past few mornings, I’ve been sitting on my meditation cushion for twenty minutes in the mornings, as I read and contemplate the psalm appointed for the day. As I’ve done so, I’ve felt a strong physical desire to lie over a block. I spend most of the day hunched forward—at the keyboard, over the steering wheel, in front of the dirty dishes. In the pool, I do some backstroke, but I do a lot more crawl—face down. So it’s no wonder my body wants to drape its upper portion over a block.
What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with writing or reading or teaching or craft?
Here’s what (in addition to the trigger of Callie’s class): I’ve been struggling all week to write a scene of confrontation. I don’t like confrontation. I avoid it in real life, and I avoid it on the page. I’m not good at it. I crumple, I prevaricate, I whimper. I’m getting better at standing my ground, but mostly I slink away. But I write fiction, so I can’t avoid confrontation on the page for long. Fiction depends on conflict. And yes, there can be the subtle conflict, the passive-aggressive conflict, the human-versus-environment conflict where nature provides the antagonist (snow in the Yukon or the wolves surrounding Pa Ingalls’ horse). But I write character-driven fiction, so conflict depends on, well, character.
In grad school, I wrote a story about a young girl who wanted, more than anything, to go to Marine World on her birthday. Her sister, a few years older, wanted their father to come home. When the mother anted up the trip to Marine World, the older sister thought that Daddy wouldn’t be far behind. But he never showed. In the first draft of the story, I used imagery to convey the older sister’s disappointment and anger. In revision, I realized that this girl—so buttoned up, so cautious—needed to explode, and needed to do it in scene. She had to have a temper tantrum. I was afraid to write the scene. Whether I was daughter or mother or both, I feared letting down my guard. But I did it, and the story—“What Her Sister Wanted,” in my thesis and later published in The View from Below—benefited.
Now, in my novel, two women face each other in a scene that has to do more than it currently does. Yes, I realize I’m being rather vague, and that’s because I haven’t written the scene to my satisfaction yet. I stare at the page, I move words around, I get up for another cup of coffee.
What do heart openers have to do with confrontation? Isn’t opening your heart about not being able to say no, as Barbara cautioned us? Doesn’t conflict depend on No?
Sometimes. But saying Yes, lying belly-up in the sunshine, feeling safe and trusting can be just as dangerous, just as risky as any guarded confrontation. That’s the conflict I want to effect in this scene: that of utterly exposed yearning and what happens what it bumps up against another desperate, giddy open heart.
What physical movement complements your creative output? Hinders it?