Writing the Body

Allie Rowbottom

Feb 29, 2012

Many readers of this post, by virtue of its place of publication, are familiar with the slow bodily decay that grad school entails. For example, as I write and revise these very words, I am simultaneously polishing off a pint of (vegan) ice cream, as has become a bit of a mid-semester habit of mine. Perhaps you, readers, grad students or not, have experienced similar slips into similar habits and have therefore taken steps to rectify the mind/body disconnect consistent consumption of large quantities of ice cream connotes. Perhaps you have found this mind/body-rift-bridging challenging, given the piles of other work required of you. Perhaps you therefore find yourself looking in the mirror at three in the morning, at an unrecognizable face, one at once familiar and, in some indistinct but unmistakable way, altered. Perhaps it's the presence of the bruise-like half moons now permanently in residence under you bloodshot eyes. Perhaps it's the extra pillows of cheek-padding which have mysteriously formed along the side of your face and indeed, the underside of your neck as well. Perhaps, as you reader/grad student examines yourself, you wonder how, when you feel so exhausted, so drained, so weak, so utterly depleted, all this excess can exist in close proximity to your wane and withering body. We all deal with this question differently. For example, for a period of time during my MFA years, I actively pursued a nonfiction project built around my yoga practice. I fully realize that a large portion of my audience here may now be eye-rolling. In my defense, I figured that melding my physical and intellectual lives might affect better balance and, as such, better writing, preferably in the form of a published piece somewhere smart and sophisticated. I abandoned this project, however, after realizing I'd long ago been beat to the punch or, should I say, to the chaturanga dan dasana. Yup, the "yogoir" is indeed a fully fledged literary trend. In addition to Elizabeth Gilbert's astronomically successful and somewhat yoga-themed Eat Pray Love, journalist Claire Dederer has recently published Poser, My Life in Twenty Three Yoga Poses which takes its place in the annals of Yogoir history alongside older titles such as Finding my Balance, A Memoir with Yoga by actress Mariel Hemingway, and Lucy Edge's Yoga School Dropout. Suzanne Morrison's Yoga Bitch: One Woman's Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment, and Neal Pollack's Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude have likewise both come out in the past year or so from major publishing houses, a point which only goes to show that the yogoir, much like the westernization of the ancient physical practice it aims to discuss, is a growing American phenomenon. Here's where the potential problems arise. As if the word memoir wasn't already fraught with enough connotation of self indulgent linguistic navel gazing, now we have a subgenre which not only entails the literal and physical act, but also the unconscious appropriation of a sacred, ancient practice. Indeed, the combination of life-writing with yoga, a highly personal practice, might seem to miss the point entirely. If you have to write about your yoga practice, confessing, in a sense, the importance of a seemingly self interested, self important practice to your self important life, rather than quietly putting the lessons you learn on your mat to use in service oriented situations, have you perhaps missed the point of studying yoga in the first place? I say no. Not because I am particularly fond of the yogoir, nor because I am a nonfiction writer and lover of artful life-writing, nor because I think that writing, at its best, is itself a service oriented task, but because I feel the need to both address and applaud an oftentimes forgotten aspect of writing: that of embodiment, the yoking of the writer's physicality to the transcription of her thoughts. As mentioned, like many readers of this post, I am in grad school. I have been in grad school, albeit in different locations and programs, for going on four years now. This has provided me with ample time to observe the disintegration of the graduate student body. Let me rephrase that, I have had, over the years that I've pursued graduate studies, ample time to observe and participate in the disintigration of individual student's bodies. Whole days and sometimes nights spent indoors, hunched over books; dietary habits dictated by meager fellowships and looming loan payments; stress induced ailments of all kindsĀ½these things take their toll, oftentimes in the form of widening girths, slumped shoulders, seized sciatic nerves, and so forth. We live so entirely within the realm of the mind, concerning ourselves exclusively with matters of the intellect, that our bodies oftentimes fall by the wayside. Then, the inevitable frustration arises. Writer's block, for example. Or the rare occasion for rest and rejuvenation presents itself. We are at a loss. We may have a nervous breakdown. I propose this tendency may, at least in part, be exacerbated by the mind-body disconnect grad school, and indeed many professional academic lifestyles, entail. It seems we think it our lot to suffer physically for the sake of our art. But what of writers who instead considered it their duty to feel and experience for the sake of their art? I'm not thinking of food and wine critics here. I'm thinking of Guy Debord and the Situationists, or Beaudelaire and his Flaneur, or even nature writers like Annie Dillard and Rebecca Solnit, whose long walks through physical space frame and inform the thematic transitions they make in their essays. I'm thinking too of Whitman's body-conscious poetics, or of Alice Notley who took hallucinogens and shamanistic pilgrimages for her poetry, underwent hypnosis to travel into history and return with lines like time's illusion, like Whitman's occult convulsions. In them she speaks about breaking through and reclaiming, about embodying and enacting language and memory, space and time. About doing all that, all at once. Don't these writer's have something to say about the potentiality of "embodied writing"? About the opening afforded by performing with words one's physical experiences? Many of us have written a page or two or thirty under the influence of a bottle (or two or thirty) of salty red wine, but how often have we done so after a ninety-minute vinyasa asana? Or a sequence of inversions in which we literally turn our bodies upside down, examining our surroundings from a different angle, reversing the blood flow, recycling what may have lodged itself in our veins, or brains? Maybe the yogoir isn't really a representation of embodied writing. Or even good writing about bodies. But it certainly represents a movement towards a kind of writing I feel drawn to explore, elaborate on and even defend. Much in the same way it seems unfair, uneducated, to reduce memoir to solipsism and self indulgence, it seems unfair to do the same of the yogoir, or at least the merger of intellectualism and physicaliity, the embodied writing, it may enable.