Thursday, May 19, 2011

Living on the Frontiers of your own Voice: Yoga and Writing with Author Bruce Black

(a child's christmas in wales, dylan thomas)
P ropped up against the brick of our fireplace at home is a vinyl release of A Child's Christmas in Wales read by Dylan Thomas. Anyone who has heard it read would likely remember the magic in its words and the author's lilting, choral delivery. What's in a human voice that tugs at the heartstrings? Why do children like to fall asleep to the sound of a voice reading a story?  And what exactly does the repetition of form tell us about sthiram, sukham, asanam...or stability, ease and yoga?

Author Bruce Black likes the warp and weft of words as much as he likes to trace the outlines of asanas on a yoga mat. Black began yoga five years ago when his knees could no longer stand the stress of running. A writer of fiction originally, Bruce Black turned his attention to the inner story of his yoga practice through journalling after a yoga teacher handed his whole class blank notepads. The exercise proved so fruitful that out of it emerged, Writing Yoga, a book that explores the nexus of yoga, writing and life.

(Bruce Black)
A graduate of Columbia University, where he received a BA in English literature, Bruce Black earned his MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His stories have appeared in Cricket and Cobblestone magazines and other publications, and his blog, Wordswimmer, was named one of the Web's "Top 100 Creative Writing Blogs" by Online Education News and is included in Online Degrees Hub's list of "100 Great Blogs that Young Writers Should Read." You can also find him at Writing Yoga, the blog for keeping a yoga journal. He serves as a poetry judge for The Cybils: Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards and is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He lives in Sarasota, Florida, where he teaches writing workshops for children and adults and spends most of his time, when he's not reading or writing in his journal, practicing Tree Pose.

I spoke with Bruce Black at length about how writing and yoga are symbiotic practices that can help locate personal obstacles to using one's authentic "voice".  As his book details, no one is exempt from the oppressive chatter of the self-defeating inner critic.  And in our interview he talks about how having the nerve to observe the workings of your inner critic is exactly what affords you some room to mitigate the inner saboteur's influence.

"The journal was slightly larger than my hand, with lined, cream-coloured pages (blank on the back), a black spiral binding, and a cover, both front and back, wrapped in cloth on which was reproduced a Japanese painting — Katsushika Hokusai's "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" — depicting a tall blue ocean wave, frozen at its crest just before it falls back to earth. In the distance, beneath the curl of the wave's white crest, you could see a snow-covered mountain. And entering the picture from the right-hand side you could make out the prows of two wooden vessels, coming from no one knows where and whose destination is also a mystery. It was a beautiful gift, a hundred blank pages waiting for words (and pictures) to fill them..." -Bruce Black, Writing Yoga

(Katsushika Hokusai's "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa")

Priya Thomas Interview with Bruce Black May 2011:

(Collection of Bruce Black's journals, courtesy of Bruce Black)

 "No judgement, no praise, no criticism—Just words on a page—that let me see myself in a new light" -Bruce Black, Writing Yoga

Priya: So Bruce, have you always been interested in writing?

(Black's grandfather: Harry Lazarus)
Bruce: I've always been interested in stories. Stories are really the richest part of my childhood in terms of just enjoyment. It comes as a result of hearing my grandfather tell his stories of growing up in eastern Europe. And I could sit and listen to him for hours. There's was something about his voice that was just mesmerizing. It was filled with emotion. It was warmth and love all wrapped in one. He was a baker and somehow the aroma of whatever he was baking would merge with his voice and it was just this beautiful experience. Plus this was my mom's dad and he was a huge influence in my childhood and my brother's childhood; and we both ended up taking our paths into the the writing world. And very often, I think I trace back my love of words and writing to sitting with him and listening to his stories and wondering how that mysterious process you find a connection between people through voice. And so that was my initiation into the world of stories, words and writing.

Priya: Those are some powerful memories. When did you start journalling?

Bruce: I tried keeping journals but they never really succeeded I think partly because I really wasn't sure about why I needed to keep a journal. The idea of this private place was appealing but I wasn't exactly sure what I was supposed to do in that private place. So I would start some journals that were more like record keeping books you know...And they ended up gathering dust in a pile under my bed!

It wasn't really until I went to college and I took a literature class where the professor asked us to keep a journal about our reading. And that was an eye-opening experience. Partly because I found a voice that resonated with me, and partly because I just loved sitting at my desk in the evening with the desk light on and the sounds of quiet after everybody had gone to sleep; and I felt like I'd somehow made this discovery of who I was in a way that I couldn't understand when everybody was around me. 

Priya: Sure..

Bruce: So keeping a journal was almost like finding this friend who was almost a mirror of yourself. A friend that was able to listen in ways that sometimes other people can't. So after my mom passed away, I continued keeping journals but they were more like work journals. I was writing fiction at the time, and sometimes when you struggle with writing a story, sometimes it's helpful to keep a journal about the story trying to look at what the plot problems are or who the particular characters are...kind of like a "behind the scenes" exploration of what is happening on stage so-to-speak. And then I went to Vermont College of Fine Art where I met many writers who opened me up to different ways of using journals.

And then finally my teacher Rita Knorr at the yoga studio here in Sarasota, Florida, Garden of the Heart, surprised everyone after the end of one of our sessions by bringing out this cardboard box filled with blank journals; handing everybody in the class a journal. She had talked very tangentially about journalling during the class. But this was the first time I think anybody suspected we might have to do it ourselves. She gave them to us with this almost hope I think that it would help us deepen our understanding of what we were doing with our yoga practice.

Priya: Just to backtrack a bit, I know that you came to yoga after a running injury. Why did you choose yoga?

Bruce: There's a couple of reasons. The main reason was that my wife had started taking this yoga class and would come home so invigorated from the classes, she just radiated this kind of energy. She just seemed more alive. And she kept telling me how much she enjoyed the class and she thought I might like one. She was really the inspiration for me even entering a yoga studio. It wasn't even on my radar. I wasn't thinking about yoga and I really didn't see myself as doing yoga.

Priya: Interesting.

Bruce: I saw myself as an athlete and as someone who was involved in sports who would run, or swim or bike. I just couldn't understand what yoga was. I thought it was maybe an opportunity to gain flexibility but I didn't really understand what it was. But what I found in terms of the yoga, which was really wonderful, was it was the closest I could get to replicating that sense of losing myself when I was running. So that's one of the big attractions for me with yoga. It's what I like to call meditation in slow motion.

Priya: Earlier when you were talking about journalling you referred to writing as "finding the voice". And you started this interview by talking about your grandfather's voice and how important that was for you. In the book a lot of what you raise has to do with fear and the voice. So at what point did you realize that these yoga classes were having an impact on your voice?

Bruce: Well, the yoga was a puzzle at first, because I would spend hours writing. And then I would go into the yoga studio, and for the first time all day, I didn't have to use words.

Priya: Right. of course.

Bruce: It was this amazing release. There was a way in which I could just notice things occurring in my body or my emotions. I didn't have to put a word to it. And that was the beginning of an experience that I never really had before. And I was puzzled by it. I was also a little shocked by it because I got caught up in the wordless experience that I thought was yoga. In fact, when a teacher would ask a question about what it was that we were doing, my mind went blank, I suddenly had trouble getting back to words.

Priya: (laughing) Oh I've definitely been there!

Bruce: But what it ended up doing for me, was helping me to notice these emotions that were somehow clouded by words, or thoughts that were lost in words. And it allowed me to see almost directly into an experience, as opposed to needing words to describe it. Out of that process of noticing, I began to hear a different kind of voice. It's kind of like when you lower your guard so to speak. I found that the voice I was using was a kind of public voice, and that there was a different voice inside me that was there, but for whatever reason, I either ignored it, or couldn't hear it, or was afraid of it. In a very beautiful way it's like finding yourself sitting in silence, and out of the stillness you hear a voice. It's an ancient metaphor, but I think it still holds true. But I don't think I even understood that I was hearing a different voice until I started journalling about it. And that happened when Rita gave us the journals for yoga.

Priya: I wonder what observing the body for the first time was like for you. Obviously, as a writer, you would have been used to observing the world, but was it different putting your observational skills to the body?

Bruce: It was different in the sense of I had to learn to accept the body I had in that moment. It wasn't just about observing it, it was being willing to accept that what I saw was who I was now; and to accept that who I may have been twenty years ago, I was no longer. You know, losing the ability to run was a huge loss. Being able to accept the fact that my knees ached when I ran and that they didn't ache on a yoga mat, that was a revelation to me. But it was also a process of self acceptance. So I had to observe my body to understand that it was a fifty year old body‚ it wasn't a twenty year old body, which might have been the image I had of myself in my mind. I had to reconcile that image with the reality of my body and yoga helped to bring the two together. And then I was able to see that I had hit middle age, and that it was something to celebrate, just the same way I would have celebrated being twenty. There's a way you can come to the fullness of fifty if you accept it.

Priya: I guess that's why they say that yoga aims at direct, impartial seeing.

Bruce:  I had to observe my body, to accept it. And that ties in with the "voice" issue. Throughout my life, there were different voices that I would hear that would almost serve as impediments to my hearing my own voice. And I don't know if everybody has similar issues, but there are ways in which the expectation of a parent to go into a certain profession, or the expectation of a sibling who thinks you're a certain kind of person, can have an impact. And it's hard to get out the role that they assign you. All these things can interfere with you actually coming into your own as an individual. And it was through being able to observe my body and being able to accept the body as it is that was part of the process of learning to accept these voices as external voices that were urging me in certain directions. And, that I had to understand that I had a choice to either listen to these voices or listen to a different voice at the core of my being.

Priya: You talk about your mother's death in the book and how that experience brought you back to your authentic voice. Perhaps people who've had the experience of writing through grief might be familiar with that process. But for those who haven't, or find the idea of writing intimidating, can you tell us how the writing process helped you?
Maralyn Black (left), David B. Black (right)

Bruce: Well, it was years ago and I was in my early twenties, and the process of writing for me at that point was different that it is now. I don't know if it was so much self-reflection as it was self-absorption. So it had a different impact. But I remember there was an enormous amount of anger over losing a parent at an early age, and god knows there are people who have had greater suffering and greater losses, but for me this was the first major loss of my life. And our family was very close and there was just this enormous anger. And the journalling was a way for me to safely express that anger without hurting my father or my brother. And without hurting myself. By putting it on the page, I felt that I was somehow healing myself. There was a certain amount of guilt as well because I think there was a way in which I felt that I must have somehow done something wrong to cause this great upheaval. I don't know where that guilt came from. All I know is that I felt that if I'd acted a different way, expressed my love differently, shown more gratitude towards my mother and not taken her forgranted, I thought maybe that would have changed the situation. And I guess that just goes to the sense of powerlessness we feel in the face of death. And then there was the mourning and the missing and I think the journal was probably most helpful at that point because it allowed me to bring her back. And I was able to use the pages to recall her.

And she had a particularly painful death. There were nights of terrible torture from my perspective of what she had to endure. And for months, I really was upset that I couldn't see her the way we used to see her....enjoying life. All I had in my mind was this picture of her in this terrible suffering that I felt was unfair for anybody. And the journal helped me get past those feelings of despair. It didn't abate the sadness but it was able to help me remember her as she was - she used to paint these beautiful pictures and I was able to remember her gazing at her paintings. So there was a way that she was with me as long as I kept writing about it. 

Priya: As a writer of fiction it sounds like you're able to recreate her story and reshape the grief through writing. How much is yoga a part of that process?

Bruce: The yoga has been very interesting because it goes back to this acceptance of life as it is. There's a way in which if a muscle hurts, I don't have to turn away from that hurt, I can see it as part of life. And if a close person in my family passes dad passed away before the book was published.

Priya: Right, yes I read that...

Bruce: Yes, he was 94, he wasn't 51. So there's a big difference in how you interpret that death and how you respond to it. But there was a way in which the yoga helped me understand the death as part of a larger process. And that's been enormously gratifying to me. To be able to understand life and death as intertwined inexplicably. And this is hard to put into words, but there's ways in which I don't feel my father is gone. I feel his presence and his energy every day, in my life, in my yoga practice and in my writing. It's a very hard thing to describe but it makes a huge difference in terms of how I go forward.

Priya: You mentioned earlier that you feel your writing, now, is more self-reflection than self-absorption. I wondered whether learning to pay attention through yoga has allowed you a bit more freedom from some preferences that you may have had previously? Do you feel that you are less biased about life and death?

Bruce: What yoga taught me through these different practices, and what I learned through different poses, about bias or prejudice or assumption was to stop berating myself for not meeting expectations, or for not being who I thought I was. And it taught me a kind of compassion towards myself. It helped me understand that I needed to nurture myself. It taught me that if I treated myself with compassion, if I softened in a pose instead of straining into it, if I relaxed into a pose, that it would open me up. And in allowing my heart to become more vulnerable in some ways, I was able to hear this voice in a different way. And as I softened, I was able to hear my own voice.

And the compassion is something that helped bring me into, in anusara terms, a proper alignment. There was a way in which the negative voices, the critical voices, and the intensity of focus on words every single day brought me out of alignment. It was through the yoga process that I was able to regain my alignment in an unexpected way. It was quite beautiful. I mean, I didn't understand I was out of alignment when I went into yoga.

Priya: I like the idea that our alignment is about more than flesh and bone lining up in class...that's it's about something greater...

Bruce: And I didn't understand that until I was involved with this particular yoga studio. At the studio they talk about alignment in a physical way, but there is a subtle pointing of alignment that goes beyond the physical. And what you were just describing is exactly what I resonated with... It was like "My god, we're not just talking about physical alignment here!" We're talking about a whole set of alignments that incorporates physical, emotional and spiritual, psychological! It really is quite energizing when you can visualize all of these coming into alignment. And you can begin working towards this alignment through a simple down dog or child's pose. It's a beautiful idea. And it's one of the ways in which I hope my book shares this concept with other people.

Priya: As a creative person, this must have been really freeing for you to suddenly find that you were able to access and perhaps silence some of those critical voices.

Bruce: It was enormously liberating. Also, it wasn't just silencing the critical voices, it was being able to distinguish between a true voice and a false voice. True and false is probably not the right terminology. There's a way in which, while I was writing fiction, it was almost as if there was a veil or a screen or a wall between me and the words. It wasn't until I started understanding that maybe this journalling was the way I needed to work as a writer, that the veil fell away. Until then, it was kind of like writing with gloves on. And then the gloves were gone!

Priya: (laughing) Right!

Bruce: When the gloves were off, I could finally feel the page. And I could feel my voice coming from a place that it was too frightened to come from before. And this book actually felt different writing it than previous writings.

Priya: Well, your book is perfect for anyone who has felt intimidated or challenged by writing because it addresses common fears and acknowledges that it's a difficult process. It's like trying to get on the mat for the first's a challenging thing.

Bruce: Well, the mat and the page are very similar! In my perspective there's an empty page and there's an empty mat. And before you step onto the mat, you really don't know what your practice is going to be like. In the same way that before you start writing on a blank page, you don't know what words are going to come forth. But you step into this other world. You enter into this world of imagination, and in my perspective, onto the mat or onto the page you create these "asanas" over the course of an hour. And it's so much like creating the words on a page. And then you step off the mat and you step off the page. The difference is that the mat seems empty. But you can almost see  those poses on the mat for an instant after you step off of it. It's like that photograph of Picasso with the flashlight where he's got the light and you can see the image that he's drawn with the can see what was done.

Priya: That's an interesting way to understand it.

Pablo Picasso, light drawings, Gjon Mili/Getty Images, 1949

Pablo Picasso, light drawings, Gjon Mili/Getty Images, 1949
Bruce: The page still retains the words. But the two acts are similar. I just taught a writing/yoga workshop last Tuesday and for the opening exercise I had people walk from the edge of the room into the centre of the room, and then I said "imagine you're standing on the edge of your mat, imagine you're standing on the edge of your page, imagine you're standing on the edge of your heart, now jump". And for me that's just so much of what it's like when you're writing. You're standing on the edge of heart and are you gonna jump or not??

Priya: You know it's easy to understand how judgement and criticism can get in the way of locating the real voice. But, as a writer, can you tell us how praise also gets in the way of locating that voice?

Bruce: That's a great question. And it's an ongoing discussion in the teaching of writing. Because so many people require praise as a way of encouragement to keep writing. And I myself, for years, longed for praise you know? And ultimately, it has the potential for good but I think it is also detrimental to a writer's development. Because the danger comes from writing to please someone. So that you're ultimately not focusing on what you need to write, you're focusing on what you need to write in order to gain that person's praise. It's a very, very subtle distinction, but it's an enormous distinction as far as a writer goes. I think Chaim Potok mentioned that as soon as he thinks of a reader, it's death!

Priya: I like that..

Bruce: My sense of teaching writing is to avoid the use of words like "this is good", or "this is great"‚ or "this is wonderful" because that's a distraction in some ways. They're not really exploring what really happened on the page. If I want to describe my response to someone's writing, I try and describe my emotional response. Or how did this word operate in a way to convey a certain image? But as soon as I interfere with words like, "this is terrific", I think I've lost the chance to help the writer.

Priya: That's interesting. And do you find that there's an analogous relationship in yoga? For instance, if you get really attached to say being really good at a pose. Or conversely, feeling that you're really bad at others??

Bruce: Yeah, it's one of the things that is involved in the process, for me, is not making a judgement. Just accepting what it is. It's neither good, nor bad. Pain is neither good nor bad. It's just pain. It's just about can I be with this experience and not assign it a value? For me it's been incredibly helpful to work away from those values. It's the same when friends of mine tell me they got a rejection from an editor and it's very easy to slip from the sense of "oh the rejection means this is a bad piece of writing, and that means that I'm a bad writer‚ and that means I'm a bad person". And it kind of keeps going downhill from there! (laughing) And praise also works in the other direction and falsely bolsters the ego in ways that are not altogether helpful to a writer.

Priya: Just a last question to close off. Do you have a method of practice for your writing? I know some writers will force themselves to go to the desk first thing every morning and just write for hours no matter how they're feeling. I wondered what your process was. Do you have rituals that help create the conditions that inspire creativity?

Bruce: For whatever reason, a lot of writers, myself included, are fearful of what we're going to find, or not find when we open our journals. And fear can be such an inhibiting factor. It can mushroom and make you want to stay away from the page for as long as possible. And there are some writers I know who admit they procrastinate all day to stay away from that page!! (laughing)

Priya: Yes...(laughing)

Bruce Black, Writing Yoga

Bruce: And then they finally can't put up with it anymore and they have to sit down and write. But fear is an enormous obstacle to many writers. And I think what initiates the fear is the unknown. Facing the unknown is difficult. I think what's helped me a lot with regard to facing fear is to create daily rituals that help me ease into the writing. One of the things I do is kind of a meditative walk in the morning to think about issues that are playing in my life and where I'd like to explore. And sometimes, that alone will create energy and excitement to say "I have to get back to my desk to explore this idea". I carry around an index card or a scrap of paper and I might just make a note or two with a word that's a prompt so that when I get home, I can begin writing. That prompt is a help.

The other thing that I find helpful is that over time, I've come to trust the process of writing. That's basically evolved out of my experience with yoga where I have to trust that even if I don't know a pose, I'll be able to do it eventually. I used to be terrified of learning new poses. And my teachers helped lead me into poses in ways that I began not so much to lose my fear of the unknown, but understand that I could face the unknown and still survive.

There's also the fear of what you're going to produce and whether it's good or not. Yoga helped me in that way too of trying to assume a non-judgmental perspective on the words. It ultimately doesn't matter whether somebody else thinks it's good or not good. Or whether I think it's good or not good. The only thing that matters is that the writing helps me discover what I need in the moment that I'm writing it. It's like when you do a yoga pose and it's in a flow of asanas, and you move from one to the next. You have to let go of the one you're doing to go into the next one, and then you have to be in that pose before you go into the next. So it's a process of continually letting go, exploring the unknown, letting go and exploring the unknown. The same process is transferable to the page. If you're writing for five minutes, it's a five minute pose. Now let it go‚ and move on.
"It was in Jaye's class that I began to see how each of us chooses the voice that we hear, the voice that we want to listen to. It's not quite as easy as tuning a radio to the AM or FM station that you'd like to hear. But it is like tuning into a voice that helps you understand the world and yourself rather than a voice that clouds the world (and yourself) with doubt, fear and anxiety.". - Bruce Black, Writing Yoga

A s I close this post, I'm reminded of a quote from Ravi Ravindra's The Spiritual Roots of Yoga, a book featured in the first interview on this blog:

"It is understood in the practical schools of yoga that one needs to prepare the whole of the psychosomatic complex in order not only to understand truth, but also in order to withstand truth" - Ravi Ravindra, The Spiritual Roots of Yoga

And maybe this quote hints at why a book about observing yoga, writing yoga, is especially useful. Bruce Black understands that practice is a preparation for hearing the truth of the voice; and that we cannot afford to underestimate the power of that voice, or the strength we will need to withstand living with it. And so Writing Yoga is right to get people going on this; because there's plenty of work ahead.
For many of us, the final frontier, the blank page, can cause panic. Short of breath, we scramble to find a form or structure to hold it all... maybe give the abyss a name; or an asana. And I guess if you can manage the unknown in bite size bits; in five-breath asanas, or illegible scrawls on scraps of paper, then you have the makings of a personal yoga journal that keeps your authentic voice within earshot.

Meanwhile, I tell myself the voice to trust is the one that is tethered to the heartstrings. The inner voice is the one that detangles dis-ease, strengthens your will and steadies your constitution. Before you drift onto the frontiers of sleep, your inner voice repeats the bedtime story that floods your mind, and reminds you of the grandfather's voice you thought you lost. And suddenly you see that all you've learned about yoga poses can be gathered together, the multiple diagrams collapsed into a single line and folded into a back pocket... for safe travel into the unknown.


• Visit Bruce Black at one of his many blogs: Writing Yoga,
Wordswimmer, and The Jewish Writing Project

• Read about other forthcoming titles on Rodmell Press

• Visit Garden of the Heart Studio

photo creditsof Bruce Black's family members: courtesy of Bruce Black


  1. Wonderful interview! Felt you 'jumping' off the page.

  2. Amen to this, Bruce: "The other thing that I find helpful is that over time, I've come to trust the process of writing." That really is the bottom line for success as a writer. Thanks for this enlightening interview!