Writers often say that we kill our passions by writing about them. We start the process innocently enough: we can’t help but want to write about the subjects that obsess us. In my case, it was yoga. In 2002 I followed my yoga teacher to Indonesia for a two-month yoga retreat and came home with a suitcase full of stories. I hadn’t gone on retreat looking for material to write about, but somehow I spent the following nine years thinking about yoga, writing about yoga, performing a one-woman show about yoga, and finally, publishing my first book, Yoga Bitch, which, as you may have already guessed, is about yoga. This is usually a surefire way for a writer to kill her favorite subject: she literally writes it to death. But the process of writing and publishing Yoga Bitch hasn’t killed yoga for me; it’s actually proven to me how essential the practice is to my life.
Writing any book is an arduous task, one full of setbacks and anxiety— and those are just the mental and emotional issues! Physically, writing is brutal. It’s manual labor. Your neck juts out as you puzzle through a difficult sentence. Your shoulders fly to your ears. Your back rounds into a human comma. If someone snuck into my room and took a picture of me writing, I’m pretty sure I would look like a pale troll with a bad case of scoliosis. And being a troll is a workout! There have been days when I feel like a triathlete when I get up from my desk. (Not that I actually know what a triathlete feels like; in truth, just the thought of a triathlon makes me need six months of physical therapy and a prescription for Vicodin.)
Anyway, the point is this: yoga hasn’t been just my subject. It’s been my lifeline, saving me from complete physical and emotional collapse while providing a space in which to sort through my deepest hopes and fears.
Throughout the writing of Yoga Bitch, I practiced yoga at least three times a week. I meditated whenever possible (Arrrgh, okay, I meditated like three times) and I read a lot of yoga books. But when it came time to start promoting Yoga Bitch, I kind of freaked out. My regular yoga practice couldn’t touch the anxieties I faced. I had spent years writing my memoir, locked in my writing cave, only sharing my work with the people I trusted most in the world. That was hard enough. But now the work was done and it was time to find readers. And once you start looking for readers, you come up against an inevitable truth: people are actually going to read your book.
Now, perhaps this should have been obvious to me, but it wasn’t. What can I say? I can be slow. But once I realized that people were going to read my book, I couldn’t help but think about all the people I’d rather didn’t. The ex-boyfriends. The conservative acquaintances who never swear. The snarky critics whose reviews I devoured . . . until I imagined what they’d do to my book. And pretty soon it dawned on me that this dream come true, that of being a published author, was a little like having a job appraisal performed on me every day for the foreseeable future. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve always hated job appraisals. So this wasn’t exactly a nice thought.
I began to feel porous and exposed. And just a touch narcissistic. Or no. More than a touch. I felt like a huge narcissist, like I was going to have to avoid looking at my reflection in ponds for fear of growing into the bank.
That’s when I had an epiphany, or maybe just a powerful whim: I needed to go on a yoga retreat before the book launched, in order to work this stuff out. And I knew exactly the teacher I wanted to study with: Jessica, my ecstatically spiritual roommate from Bali and a character in my book.
Two weeks before Yoga Bitch hit the bookstores, I found myself at Jessica’s craftsman bungalow an hour south of Seattle. I had never been inside Jessica’s house, but the moment I walked in, it felt familiar. This was the perfect place for Jessica to live: beautiful, light-filled rooms that smelled of lavender and something like vanilla. Every surface was soft and comfortable; every table and chair was placed to maximize light and ease. I’m no expert on feng shui, but walking through Jessica’s plant-filled rooms, I immediately started mentally redecorating my own house to maximize flow. (And, see: I listened to my gut and found my way to Jessica’s for a yoga retreat. But will I rearrange my house for flow? Um, probably right after I do that triathlon.)
That evening, Jessica and I revisited our time together in Bali nearly a decade earlier, when we were both in our mid-twenties and a bit lost. Jessica showed me around her garden, a space that was as ecstatic and effusive as Jessica herself, full of roses and honeysuckle and flowering vines. She showed me the garage she had converted into a yoga studio, which looked out at Douglas firs and sword ferns, and then left me alone in the garden among the chocolate cosmos and the birdsong. Jessica had designed her garden to encourage meditation and solitude; tucked here and there were private little corners to sit and breathe. I found one such spot on a tiny patch of grass facing a little Buddha statue and swaying gladiolas, and sat down, all too aware of the buzzing to-do lists in my head.
If I’m honest, I’m happiest when I don’t leave the house a lot. When I wear my sweats and sit at my desk all day in Troll Pose. But when I have to, I can be a performer. I can do it, and even enjoy it, but it makes me a little crazy. My mind buzzes with all the people that need emailing, all the events to plan and favors to request. All of these tiny action-items start churning and pulsing until I exist in a sort of micromania, forever focusing on tiny details, rarely stepping back to get a larger perspective.
Just that morning, I had woken up at 4am with the overwhelming urge to check my email. I had done that every morning for the past few weeks. And as soon as I had checked my email, I sat up for a few hours, imagining all the terrible things that could happen as soon as the people I loved started reading my book.
Now, I sat still and focused my attention on the garden. I watched the way little pieces of my micromania floated across my mind, and I watched them float away. I listened to the creaking trees just beyond the garden, and tried to leave the buzzing to the bees.
Over the next twenty-four hours, Jessica and I talked and ate and stretched. And then she guided me through a kundalini yoga class that seemed to break my mind open so that I could see it from the outside. This was a class that married metaphor (Jessica talked about the cycle of death and rebirth) to postures, breathing, chanting, and meditation. Studying my mind in this way, I finally was able to access the deeper fears attached to this new stage in my life. I wasn’t really afraid of people reading my book: I wanted people to read my book! I was afraid of what would come next. The wide-open future.
See, I have been living with the story of Yoga Bitch for nearly ten years. Over the course of that decade, my life has changed in more ways than I ever could have imagined. I lost people I loved, I moved from one city to another and back again, I couchsurfed for many months. I discovered sadnesses I had never imagined possible and joys too numerous to count. I became a wife, and a writer, and somehow, a woman. And through all of it, there was this story. And now, with Jessica showing me the way, it was time to let it go.
That’s why I will never tire of this subject, even if I allow the story of Yoga Bitch to live in my past, now. Because so far I haven’t found a better way to access the truth of my life. I might be letting go of Yoga Bitch, but my passion for its subject—and my friendship with Jessica—will continue.