Heart Openers

My friend (and former student) Callie Feyen is teaching the writing portion of a writing-and-yoga class in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She shared with me the worksheets for the first class—Enter, Discover, Journey.  The yoga teacher, she added, will be teaching poses to “open the heart” to complement the writing portion.

Sounds like the kind of thing we’d do here in California, and for a lot more than $100 for seven classes.  (Maybe the price is a typo…)  Seriously, though, I love heart openers—the yoga poses, I mean.  Here’s one of the simplest:  Take a block, place it length-wise on its side and lie back, your thoracic spine over the block.  You’ll need a folded blanket under your head and perhaps your hips.  Bending your knees and placing the soles of your feet on the floor will avoid strain to the lower back.  If you’ve never done yoga, check with your physician beforehand.  More to the point, check with your mood.

For years, I took Iyengar yoga classes from a woman named Barbara.  Somewhere in her seventies, with the body and mobility of a child, Barbara had bright, bird-like eyes and a wide smile.  She ended each class by visiting every mat to rub the backs of our necks as we lay prone in savasana (corpse pose).  I learned a lot about alignment from Barbara, and I’ve never forgotten her advice about heart-openers.  “Be careful,” she told us, after a class of supta baddha konasana and supta virasana and the aforementioned chest-over-block.  “You’ll be more open to the world.”  The skeptic in me thought, Yeah, right, but here I am these ten years later telling you Barbara’s story:  A man had been pursuing her, a man she wasn’t particularly attracted to, but when he called after she’d been doing a series of heart openers, she couldn’t say no.

Think of a cat, asleep on its back, belly exposed.  (Or, if you prefer, a dog.)  The cat (or dog) wouldn’t get into this pose unless he or she felt utterly safe.  Poses like the ones accompanying Callie’s writing exercises make us vulnerable.  They’re called “heart openers” for a reason.  In yoga, if we do a series of them, we might follow with some forward bends (not right away)—to change that outward openness to something more protective, more inward.

The past few mornings, I’ve been sitting on my meditation cushion for twenty minutes in the mornings, as I read and contemplate the psalm appointed for the day.  As I’ve done so, I’ve felt a strong physical desire to lie over a block.  I spend most of the day hunched forward—at the keyboard, over the steering wheel, in front of the dirty dishes.  In the pool, I do some backstroke, but I do a lot more crawl—face down.  So it’s no wonder my body wants to drape its upper portion over a block.

What, you may be wondering, does any of this have to do with writing or reading or teaching or craft?

Here’s what (in addition to the trigger of Callie’s class):  I’ve been struggling all week to write a scene of confrontation. I don’t like confrontation.  I avoid it in real life, and I avoid it on the page.  I’m not good at it.  I crumple, I prevaricate, I whimper.  I’m getting better at standing my ground, but mostly I slink away.  But I write fiction, so I can’t avoid confrontation on the page for long.  Fiction depends on conflict.  And yes, there can be the subtle conflict, the passive-aggressive conflict, the human-versus-environment conflict where nature provides the antagonist (snow in the Yukon or the wolves surrounding Pa Ingalls’ horse).  But I write character-driven fiction, so conflict depends on, well, character.

In grad school, I wrote a story about a young girl who wanted, more than anything, to go to Marine World on her birthday.  Her sister, a few years older, wanted their father to come home.  When the mother anted up the trip to Marine World, the older sister thought that Daddy wouldn’t be far behind.  But he never showed.  In the first draft of the story, I used imagery to convey the older sister’s disappointment and anger.  In revision, I realized that this girl—so buttoned up, so cautious—needed to explode, and needed to do it in scene.  She had to have a temper tantrum.  I was afraid to write the scene.  Whether I was daughter or mother or both, I feared letting down my guard. But I did it, and the story—“What Her Sister Wanted,” in my thesis and later published in The View from Below—benefited.

Now, in my novel, two women face each other in a scene that has to do more than it currently does.  Yes, I realize I’m being rather vague, and that’s because I haven’t written the scene to my satisfaction yet.  I stare at the page, I move words around, I get up for another cup of coffee.

What do heart openers have to do with confrontation?  Isn’t opening your heart about not being able to say no, as Barbara cautioned us?  Doesn’t conflict depend on No?

Sometimes.  But saying Yes, lying belly-up in the sunshine, feeling safe and trusting can be just as dangerous, just as risky as any guarded confrontation.  That’s the conflict I want to effect in this scene:  that of utterly exposed yearning and what happens what it bumps up against another desperate, giddy open heart.

What physical movement complements your creative output?  Hinders it? 

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About lindseycrittenden

Lindsey Crittenden is the author of two published books: THE WATER WILL HOLD YOU: A SKEPTIC LEARNS TO PRAY (Harmony Books, 2007) and THE VIEW FROM BELOW, a collection of short stories (Midlist Press, 1999). Her personal essays and articles – on topics such as prayer, the pitfalls of too much California sunshine, and visiting a group of lifers at San Quentin – have appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Image, Real Simple, Bon Appétit, East Bay Express, Health, and Best American Spiritual Writing. Her fiction has won national awards and has appeared in Glimmer Train, Bellingham Review, Quarterly West, and other publications. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she graduated from UC Berkeley, moved to New York City as soon as she could, and returned to California for grad school. While in the graduate creative writing program at UC Davis, she discovered (much to her surprise) the fun of teaching. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at UC Berkeley Extension. She has completed a novel, and is writing new short stories and a (very early stages) nonfiction exploration of spirituality & sex.
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6 Responses to Heart Openers

  1. calliefeyen says:

    This is awesome, Lindsey! Not because I’m in the post, but because I loved reading about the exploration of what happens when creativity and physical movement intersect. This is why I’m so excited to team teach this class.
    Personally, I find that scenes involving confrontation are very difficult for me to write, too. I avoid them too (one of the larger things I need to work on in my coursework). However, I find that they become easy to explore when I’m exercising. I can “see” them as an observer and not as someone who is passing judgement. Now I need to figure out how to carry a pen and paper during my workouts. 🙂
    Thanks for writing about this and the upcoming class!

  2. Meghan Ward says:

    I started taking an MBSR class at the Grotto and find that meditating really helps my writing. I’m also sleeping better, which helps everything in my life, and I’m less distracted and more focused. Overall, it’s been wonderful. Eighteen years ago I was heavy into yoga and kept it up fairly regularly (at least once a week) until I had kids. But then I had two surgeries and gave birth all within a span of six months, followed by a second birth 20 mos later, and I’ve only done yoga just a handful of times since. I miss it and hope to get back to it once the kids start school this fall, but for now, I’m content meditating.

  3. Fantastic, Meghan! I’m curious: do you go straight from meditation to writing? Do you find that images or phrases come up to the conscious brain while meditating and that you have to “let them go” (not get attached)? I used to keep a notepad at my side when doing centering prayer (similar to meditation) but it always felt like cheating.

  4. Meghan Ward says:

    Lindsey, I’ve only gone straight from meditating to writing twice (while I was on a writing retreat for a weekend), but it was great. When you say images and phrases – yes – but do you mean specifically that I could write about? Because then I’d say no. The stuff that comes to my mind while I’m meditating is mostly stuff on my To Do list!

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