Yoga and Poetry: A Q&A with Lindsey O'Neill

by Laurin Macios | June 2016

We sat down with Integrative Vinyasa and Restorative Yoga teacher and poet Lindsey O'Neill, who led the session Embodied Creativity: Writing with the Self as Witness (Poetry & Yoga) at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, to talk about the ways yoga can support our creative process. Lindsey's 2016 Yoga and Poetry Summer Series, held in collaboration with Mass Poetry, begins June 23. Find out more and register here.

How did the combination of yoga and writing poetry come about? How are the two similar?
Both yoga and writing are a practice, a salve and an exploration. A way to connect us more deeply to ourselves, make sense of our human experiences and, in sharing our own voice and journey, connect us more directly to others by way of our shared humanity. Our life experiences are part of our visceral fabric, so our creative self-expression is already part of who we are. In connecting to our bodies, we are able to feel our way through this inner creative landscape, using embodied intuition to discover what wants to be expressed. The breath can keep us rooted in the present. Our inner knowing and intuition can connect us to our Muse, and support us in letting him or her lead.

It’s also a mercurial lesson I have learned over and over again: that the better care we take of our bodies, the more easily our writing and creativity can flow. My own process began as yoga followed by 2o minutes of free-writing, which was mostly in the form of poetry or lyric prose, starting from an embodied place of feeling centered, writing from a place of curiosity and exploration. This allows us to use the “Self as Witness” muscle as I call it, that observational larger Self that yoga and mindfulness practices help us discover. Natalie Goldberg, who is a Zen practitioner and American poet, author, and speaker also works with writing as both a humanizing and a spiritual practice. She calls this larger mind “Wild Mind,” so it’s not about denying or confining our humanity, but seeing all of our human experiences as honorable and sacred. I think yoga and artistic self-expression can be both containers and vehicles for developing and exploring this freedom while we give BodySoul a voice.  

How do yoga and poetry support one another? On a larger scale, how does combining a mindfulness practice with a creative practice work? How can the combination of these practices support us day-to-day?
Creativity is continuing to be discovered as both a mind/body Process. Musicians, writers, and creationists are onto this connection: artists ranging from Sting, who has a regular yoga practice, to American writer and poet Joyce Carol Oates, who has used running to work with writer’s block and to brainstorm about her drafts, practice this concept of awakening the body to tap into the creative, innovative mind.

Science is also discovering that the mind/body is far more malleable throughout our lifetimes than we initially thought. Enter: neuroplasticity. Meaning that through intentional, consistent regular kinesthetic activity over a regular period of time (i.e. 30 mins a day, 3x a week) we can re-pattern and reintegrate our habitual thought and movement patterns. This is also true for strengthening our creative neural pathways, and this supports us in staying connected to that “larger mind” expansive sense of wonder that yoga can facilitate. A slow flow and mindful yoga practice support this way of connecting to the sensory body as we slow down and tune in, and we can take this experience with us into our poetry as we create.

We can connect to, and deepen our appreciation of, our own humanity as we move on the mat and the page, and then carry that understanding with us as we move through a world that is both beautiful and, at times, overwhelming.

How do a yoga practice and yoga tools help create a more sustainable creative practice?
Our yoga practice helps us strengthen our sense of focus and invites us to slow down enough to build a stronger sense of body awareness. The body-based awareness that we build leads to skillful navigation of how we are moving on the yoga mat, and off, as well as how we are expressing ourselves through our words on the page. It allows us to tap into the emotion we are creatively expressing, without getting lost in it. Similarly, it creates the space for us to ask ourselves: What do I need right now? To keep going, or to rest? We don’t have to work ourselves to the bone and to a place of depletion. We can check in, notice, and take a body break when needed.

Like all of our energy, our creative energy is a limited resource so we need to burn that fuel efficiently. The mindfulness that goes along with a yoga practice also allows us to notice the sense of expansion we feel in both body and mind when we are aligned through posture, head and heart. Through this expansiveness, we can make innovative creative connections and generate unique, nuanced ideas. These tools are all part of taking care of the mind and the body, while increasing our capacity to tap into the flow of creative and life force energy that supports us in all that we do.

You've mentioned that creative self-expression an important part of our wellness practice. Care to expand?
This practice of interweaving our creative energies with mindful, embodied practices is about stepping more fully into ourselves. Experiencing the ecstatic, mundane, and even profane with a sense of wonder, self-compassion, and curiosity around what is still possible. It’s about participating in our lives, fully inhabiting the potential of our minds and bodies, and celebrating sensation as a sign of our aliveness. It’s about seeing our world as something we are in conversation with, and letting that relationship teach and shape us and our words. Joyce Carol Oates said “Stories come to us as wraiths requiring precise embodiments,” and I think our poetry comes to us requiring the same thing. Mindfulness practices and creative self-expression from an embodied place become a natural and instinctual part of how we can better get to know and take care of ourselves, and our writing. They both cultivate an inner reflective dialogue, alongside an outer conversation voiced through our poetry. We can think of both our yoga and poetry practices as elements of contemplative creativity, inviting us to explore who we are, connect more authentically to one another, and connect more fully to something larger while we offer our unique contribution to the creative conversation.

Lindsey O’Neill is an Integrative Vinyasa and Restorative Yoga teacher, Yoga and Writing workshop facilitator, and poet. She graduated in 2003 with a B.A. in English and a concentration in studio art, and has her 200HR yoga teaching certification through Yoga Alliance. She completed her yoga training through the New England School of Integrative Yoga Therapeutics in 2012. Lindsey teaches yoga classes throughout Boston and has held Yoga & Writing workshops at Wentworth Institute of Technology, Boston’s Grub Street, at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, and led a workshop series at a local Boston yoga studio in 2013. She also co-hosted a 2016 pre-marathon yoga class with Boston’s Frank&Oak. In her own writing, Lindsey writes to give voice to the sacred and visceral. She is currently at work on her first poetry manuscript.