By Amanda Cleary Eastep
“Breath is the percussion of language…”
The tall, willowy yoga instructor said this to the class in a lilt that hinted at her formal actor’s training and enviable diaphragmatic control.
At my age, with quadriceps straining to sustain my squatted “goddess” pose, I was just happy to control my bladder.
The morning class was the first of a wide variety of sessions offered at a writers conference. I had been preparing for months to be part of a panel discussion scheduled for the last day of the conference, so an exercise in controlled breathing seemed like a good start.
However, I had never been to a yoga class that melded hamstring stretches and writing exercises.
What does sweating to the New Age oldies have to do with writing? Well, certainly the activity could encourage relaxation, endurance, and letting go of inhibitions that might hinder creative flow (I think there are special undergarments for that).
One unyoga-like exercise in particular had us skipping around the room chanting “I am, therefore, I skip,” or something like that, which pretty much solved the inhibition problem. A few people refused to participate and loitered on the sidelines, snickering at us as we pranced by.
I so wanted to poke them in their third eye.
“We’ll see who ends up writing the great American novel!” I yelled.
I, mean, I would have if I hadn’t been gasping for air.
During the next exercise, we lay on our mats and were instructed to rest our minds and allow a group of words to enter unhindered. The words didn’t have to make sense. (So basically every first draft EVER.)
Besides bagel and cream cheese, all that came to me was the word “present.” Oh, great, a heteronym. I imagined it in its verb form, as in, you are serving on a panel in a few days and have to preSENT something of value to an audience of writers with high expectations and dreams of publication. Deep breath.
“Now say the phrase without the consonants,” the instructor guided.
A whole phrase? I only had one word. I hadn’t even had free conference coffee yet, let alone mustered the mental capacity to figure out how to pronounce even a single word with only vowels.
“I’ll give you your consonants back later,” she assured us.
Thank goodness. It’s not too easy navigating a writer’s conference short an R, N, L, S, and T.1
Hm, preSENT. No consonants, only vowels. That would sound like “eh – eh.” Got it.
Now we were supposed to walk around the room talking only in vowels to each other. The instructor approached me, stared at me like I had just stepped off a flying saucer, then proceeded to babble in vowels with an intensity that could have won her an Oscar for best supporting yoga instructor in a foreign science fiction film.
I shrugged apologetically. “Eh…eh?”
It sounds way better with consonants, I wanted to explain.
I’m often trying to explain–mostly to myself–where my words have gone–why I don’t write as much as I used to or why, when I do, my confidence shrivels like a yogi fasting beneath a Rajasthani sun.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what the point of this “yoga” exercise was, except, again, to encourage us as creative people to “let go.” Gratefully, we soon returned to our mats…all these poor introvert writers without their beloved consonants. We fell to our knees, curling over into our safe little child poses, and took a collective deep breath.
Breath is the percussion of language.
I thought about this as I pressed my face to the spongy mat (thankful I had brought my own), and my breathing returned to normal. R, S, T, L, N and an E. (Yep, still got ‘em.)
Curled up on the floor among other writers with the same dreams and aspirations and pulled hamstrings, I thought about this verse from Job 27:3:
“The spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.”
(OK, fine–first I thought of “…he would not let me catch my breath but would overwhelm me with misery…”)
If the breathing in and out of human beings provides the rhythm—the heartbeat—for our language, then imagine what God can breathe into our words…the consonants and the vowels, the spoken and the written.
Knowing that the instructor had a theater background, I figured the consonant exercise had something to do with her acting training. I later discovered that the “‘free and open’” vowels are associated with emotion, while consonants are thought to be connected to the intellect.2
This assertion may, in fact, have been proven by a bunch of sweaty writers in tights jumping around and trying to communicate with each other in chimpanzee.
By “taking away our consonants,” perhaps the instructor was helping us connect more singularly with our emotions… (I was definitely feeling stupid) …maybe she meant to help us turn off, if just for a moment, our overly busy and critical brains.
In the practice of yoga, there’s a phrase that’s often used: showing up to the mat. Your poses don’t have to be perfect. Comparison with those around you is discouraged. And each movement flows in tandem with your breathing.
The important thing is that you are PREsent.
As writers, we must show up to the blank page (but not in tights) with all our emotions and intellect, ideas and doubts. What we can’t do is stand on the sidelines, afraid of what others may think.
Instead, let’s join in the deep inhale and wild exhale of the Holy Spirit, in whom we “live and breathe and have our being.”3