Long ago in a land faraway a humble physician named Patanjali codified his thoughts and knowledge of yoga in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. This is a guide for living the right life. It is also a guide to right writing.
You don’t believe in all this yoga stuff? Fine. But I have found that yoga not only opens the body but the mind as well. It expands our possibilities, which is good news for anyone facing the blank page.
I write about yoga all the time, indirectly, in my mystery series: Down Dog Diary, Warrior’s Revenge, and Crow Calling. In these unconventional cozy whodunits, yoga teacher Maya Skye sometimes seeks answers in meditation and her yoga practice. Just as Sherlock Holmes had his violin; Maya has her yoga mat.
Patanjali’s 195 guidelines to enlightenment are considered the fundamental text on the system of yoga, so what do they have to do with writing?
Here’s a few ways Patanjali, the father of yoga, has helped me on my path as a writer and may bring new perspectives to your writing:
- Nonviolence (ahimsa). This principle says do no harm to any creature in thought or deed. This is a tough one, especially in the fractious times in which we live. It is so easy with social media to cast judgments, to seek similar views, to fall in with the same crowd—and stop listening. But think about what would happen if you practiced ahimsa in your writing — writing that keeps an open mind elevates the conversation for us all.
- Truth and honesty (satya). Ernest Hemingway once said, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” Don’t recirculate false stories or misinformation in your work. Whether you’re writing the next great American novel or a community newsletter, truth is important. Truthfulness touches our very nature and resonates in our soul.
- Nonstealing (asteya). My writing mentor gave me this advice: “No one else can write your story.” And it’s true. There are a finite number of stories in this universe, but an infinite number of ways to tell them. Still, when I consider asteya, I realize that my stories don’t belong to me. They belong to my readers because, without them, my writing doesn’t come to life.
- Abstention (brahmacharya). The writer who practices brahmacharya avoids listening to that little ego jumping up and down, shouting me-me-me. “Brahman literally means the vastness,” according to Yoga Sutra scholar Ravi Ravindra. Writing that dwells in vastness is not small or petty.
- Nonpossessiveness (aparigraha). Free yourself from greed, hoarding, and collecting. Writers hoard ideas and truth; they throw up walls against criticism; they take sides. This inability to share leads to hard feelings in critique groups and cardboard characters on the page. When we don’t clutch so fiercely to our ideas, we have room to acknowledge the perspectives of others, which will always make our writing — and our lives — richer.
I love aparigraha for another reason: it helps us let go. The writer in us gets our snapping turtle jaws around an idea and holds on so tightly. But with aparigraha or nonpossessiveness, we learn to let go of those stories we’ve spent years on but still aren’t working. We can let go of bad reviews and harsh criticism. We can let go of our “darlings,” those sentences we love beyond measure but lay so heavy they drag down the entire page. We can move on. And who knows what wonderful story is around the bend?
I admit I am nowhere near bringing all of Patanjali’s teachings into my writing. But every day, I try. Because this edgy world that we live in could use a little less anger and more love, a little less conflict and more peace, a little less me and more us.