What Mr. Bean and Yoga Have Taught Me About Writing
Have you seen the Mr. Bean Snickers ads in which Rowan Atkinson plays a ninja in training? If so, then you have some idea of what it’s been like for me to learn yoga over the past few years.
I’m so clumsy that I've never dared to attempt yoga in a live class. Who knows whom I might accidentally kick or roll over while trying to fold myself into some impossible pretzel shape? The corner of my bedroom seems a much safer spot for everyone.
About four years ago, when I first decided to give yoga a try, I could barely manage a forward fold (yoga-speak for touching your toes). The downward dogs, lions, cats, camels, and other animals had me generally perplexed. As I tried to follow various Internet yoga videos, the peaceful music seemed out-of-sync with the rushed feeling I had. I’d just finally arrive in one pose, grimacing and holding my breath, when the instructor would morph into the next as smoothly as liquid pouring from one mould into another.
Yoga teachers, I thought, must be a special species related to water-nymphs. They seemed to shape-shift without effort, while I was exerting all the mental and physical energy I had and still stumbling through their instructions.
Flash forward a few years, and I’m still a long way from being a yogi. But I can now move from a downward dog to a cobra without collapsing. On a good day, I can even do some of the more advanced balancing poses without reminding myself too much of Mr. Bean.
I also move with the music now, experiencing a series of poses as a “flow” rather than as disconnected athletic feats. Though my body is a slow learner, it seems gradually to have developed some “muscle memory” so that I can feel the dance of a yoga routine. I can focus now more on stretching and strengthening and less on bending into the right shape.
What yoga has taught me is that grace comes only through hard work. And that when you’re developing a new skill, things get harder before they get easier.
Before I started learning yoga, I had no idea that there were so many ways to touch your toes, or that touching your toes could be so hard to do. Many clients have a similar experience when they start to write in a more conscious way.
They tell me that writing gets tougher after the first couple of classes or coaching sessions. Communication suddenly seems more complicated than it did before. Once you become aware of how writing really works, there are so many aspects of it to consider: the audience, the business context, the document design, not to mention all the conventions of written expression (grammar, punctuation, word choice, mechanics, spelling, and sentence structure).
As you start to develop your writing skills, you build up muscle memory in muscles you may not have been aware of before. That means that, yes, things do get harder before they get easier. It takes conscious effort to go through the detailed decision-making that produces good writing. At first, the list of questions to answer seems overwhelming. To name just a few of these: Who is my primary audience? Who are my other stakeholders? What template should I use? What business goal do I need to keep in mind? What do I really want to achieve through my writing?
But as you persist in going through this analytical process, you start to internalize it. One day, you find yourself “in the flow,” writing a challenging e-mail without consciously using your checklist of questions, and you realize, “Hey! Writing is really just talking on paper after all.”
Here are four specific lessons I’ve picked up through learning yoga, which also apply to learning writing:
1. Breathe. You can’t do any yoga pose without breathing properly — which means breathing deeply, from your belly, not from your chest. In the same way, you can’t write well without learning how to relax your mind. If you have a powerful inner critic that likes to chatter about what a bad writer you are, he or she is strangling your productivity. Tell your critic to back off so you can breathe and write.
2. Monitor the process. Yoga instructors are fond of reminding their students to “check in” with their body. Where are the muscles tight? How are the energy levels? How’s the breathing going? Similarly, skilled writers monitor their writing. What strategies work well for generating ideas? What organizational techniques save time? What grammar glitches aren’t getting picked up through editing?
3. Practice regularly. I’ve made the most progress with my yoga when I’ve practiced daily, or at least several times a week. Research shows that the same proves true for writers. Those who write well tend to write often.
4. Notice small improvements. Because yoga is a subtle form of physical activity, progress happens through small gains. Today, I can stretch a quarter of an inch further than I could yesterday, or I can hold the goddess pose (my favourite!) for half a second longer. As you build up your writing skills, applaud yourself for small improvements, such as adding a new question to your audience analysis or budgeting a few minutes to revise an e-mail before sending it.
What has helped you become a more skillful and graceful writer? Please share any tips or resources that could help others.
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