Avital Sheffer deepens her squat, lengthens her tailbone and brings her pelvis a little closer towards her heels. She reaches her arms above, invites her heart to beam a little higher while reining in her lower ribs for a lovely Utkatasana (Chair Pose), and then reaches for the ceramic glaze. That’s right—ceramic glaze. In this artist’s toolkit, yoga and yogic awareness is an aligning force between a creative idea and the manifestation of its physical form, in this case, voluptuous ceramic vessels that echo ancient forms.
As she describes it, Sheffer’s process of working with clay is “infused with yoga awareness”. Sheffer, 62, who lives on the north coast of NSW, has been the recipient of numerous awards and has, since 2004, exhibited her work extensively both around Australia and internationally. The curvaceous ceramic forms that she creates have become part of major collections in such places as the National Gallery of Australia, as well as in private collections around the world.
Sheffer practises vinyasa flow yoga two to three times per week and when her schedule is fuller she aims to incorporate some shorter sessions when time permits. Where possible, she brings the physical aspects of yoga into her daily activities, including her work. For example, certain yoga poses do become helpful for her when sculpting and, while they might not be performed with the same intensity that a class situation encourages, there is a distinct connection between her inner creativity and this yogic awareness. For Sheffer it is about interacting with the vessel, so that she moves around it in a way that very much takes into account both her centre and that of the work. She has found herself practising inversions in front of her ceramics to witness them from a reversed angle and solve an issue she has been trying to overcome in the process. She describes the clay as becoming an extension of her body—a form that she must work fluidly with in order to form a relation to the outside world. “The two are always interwoven,” Sheffer says. “My creative ideas and problem-solving techniques come out of this stillness. This is when I can tap into the deepest intuition, where new ideas miraculously surface.”
Yoga has long been known as a tool for stilling the fluctuations of the mind and for unblocking prana, our essential life force. But yoga also has the ability to unlock creative power for us all, not just for committed artists like Sheffer.
A Force for Good
Creativity is not some sort of exclusive birthright bestowed on a select few–rather, many would argue it is in the essence of every human being. Julia Cameron, author of the spiritual bible for unleashing creativity, The Artist’s Way, describes creativity as “a spiritual force”. She asserts that we are all “infused with a creative force and when we’re not following our creative dreams, we’re shutting ourselves off from a profound source of divine energy.”
Connecting with this creative force is challenging if we are doubtful of our ability to express ourselves creatively or impatient to attain a certain level of skill. Likewise, blocked energy channels in the body will impact the flow of prana (life force) and hence our true creative nature. So, how can yoga help us to get to know our authentic, creative self–sack our inner “art critic”, and optimise our creative potential?
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali states that dedicated yoga practice enhances our self-awareness and works to diminish any fluctuating thought patterns. This refers to our attachment to relegating every thought and action as either negative or positive–including in terms of our own potential. In Sutra 1.13 Patanjali says, “Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations” (tatra sthitau yatnah abhyasah). With ethical discipline and persevered effort (abhyasa) and its crucial companion vairagya (non-attachment) we are able to release the fears and aversions that are obscuring the true self.
As this sutra suggests, consistent effort may be required in order to uncover your true (creative) soul. Most importantly, the incredible power to feel that you are living in tune with your true creative nature is accessible to all.
Sheffer, who emigrated to Australia from Israel some years ago, first felt a dramatic creative force during a return visit to Israel where she visited the museum in Jerusalem that housed the Dead Sea Scrolls. She was 43 and busily working as a homeopath, gardener and mother. “I was so overwhelmed by the containers that had once held the Scrolls, the protective layers of material that kept them safe for so many years, “ Sheffer recalls. “I instantly felt a need to create such vessels.”
Upon her return Sheffer undertook ceramic classes and began making her first vessels. As a student of yoga since her late 30s, and sufferer of ongoing lower back pain, Sheffer found that her very physical art practice was complemented by yoga asana. Gradually she recognised that her practice echoed the need she felt to create. More so, she discovered that while her ceramic vessels did not house ancient scrolls of wisdom, her own body did—it held her own source of inner wisdom or true self.
I am an Artist!
What happens if you say that out loud? Do you feel uncomfortable, proud, defiant or simply happy? It’s important to first of all look at how we are labelling the word. It’s interesting to note that “artist” refers both to someone whose work exhibits exceptional skill, as well as someone who is an expert in trickery or deceit. If we can loosen the belt of preconceived attachment to “artist” a few notches, and get comfortable with it, then suddenly we have space to create.
The term “creative” is also expansive, not just a reference limited to the fine arts, such as painting or drawing. In fact, take a sheet of paper and list as many creative pursuits as you can. Examples might include learning about Sicilian seafood cooking, planting herbs, pattern making, crafting jewellery from objects found in nature or studying Ayurvedic treatments. Perhaps you resonate with one of the items on your list and would like to further explore this spark of connection? As spiritual teacher Osho identifies in his book Creativity: Unleashing the Forces Within, “it does not matter whether you paint, sculpt or make shoes. What matters is, are you putting your very soul into what you are creating?” It is this pure energy that, through conscious awareness, allows us to create objects or ideas that are imbued with divine energy.
Here is where yoga can act as the umbilical cord from your inner creative resources, nourishing your artistic pursuits and encouraging expansion of the mind.
Face Your Fear
Yoga both supports and cultivates a connection to the divine. As any student of yoga knows, when one is present in the moment, when breath and movement conjoin, suddenly a level of awareness emerges that permeates other aspects of our lives. For artists who also use asana and yogic philosophy outside the yoga studio, this can mean a greater connection to their work—a channelling of the creative flow directly from the divine self. The same is true of anyone who has trouble identifying as an artist and instead wants to reconnect with the creative part of his or her soul.
“Discipline is needed because you can’t just jump over hurdles, you have to get to know them.”
American artist, author and yoga teacher Linda Novick encourages this novice state, which in yogic philosophy is related to santosa or being content with one’s life and experience. “With this attitude, every art project will be fresh and new,” she states in her book The Painting Path. If we shift focus from our tendency to worry about the end result, we give ourselves permission to fail—an incredibly important part of the artistic process.
This sentiment is echoed by Sarah Armstrong, 43, an Australian author and journalist who teaches writing and yoga. After working successfully for nearly a decade as a journalist for the ABC, Armstrong resigned in 1997 and moved to Mullumbimby in northern NSW to explore writing as a full-time career. There she completed her first novel, Salt Rain, which was published in 2004 and shortlisted for three national literacy awards. Armstrong has been practising yoga for 20 years, not rigidly sticking with one style, but using elements of different yoga teachings to inspire a mostly home practice. These days she is kept busy with the demands of a young baby, but still manages a couple of asana sessions each week. She continues to teach regular writing classes as well as workshops and retreats with a focus on yoga and writing, both on the north coast of NSW and in Bali.
During her retreats and workshops, Armstrong encourages students to explore things that stand in the way of the development of their writing, such as fear.
“First drafts are ideally chaotic and messy, and nothing like the finished product,” she says, “In-between is where you find the interesting stuff.” Armstrong is passionate about utilising yoga as a tool for unlocking creativity because “yoga takes people to a place of spaciousness and stillness in the mind that is fruitful for new ideas.” She adds that the advantages of yoga’s profound ability to locate the source of any emotional tension in the physical body and ease it out occur when the student practises with awareness and “willingly connects with subtle fears that can be overcome with persistence.”
In order to explore these fears we need an amount of tenacity because each time we return to the mat, we are confronted with the same possibility of failure. That is, what might feel fluid and satisfying one day may feel overwhelmingly difficult the next. It’s the act of being present that counts, of facing the frustrations with curiousity—not whether you push up easily into Wheel Pose that day.
The shift in awareness that yoga encourages us to locate, ignites the same source of inspiration that we can utilise to be more creative in our lives. The most powerful connections occur when they emanate from a source within us, which Armstrong refers to as our “natural writing voice”. In her own experience, she found that both improvisation and yoga classes helped shift space in her own mind to allow her to locate the stories within and translate them into written form. She says, “I found that doing improvisation also helped my yoga practice. When I dealt with my own writing critic, I found myself accepting and comforting myself on the mat rather than comparing poses with the person next to me.” From this place of acceptance she felt able to locate the stories from within, as if discovering them from the stillness. However, she acknowledges that this is also the point where the hard work begins.
An Artist’s Progress
“The real artist thinks certainly of totality, but never of perfection,” writes Osho. “He wants to be totally in it, that’s all. When he dances, he wants to disappear into the dance.” Allowing for failure might be scary but it means enriching our abilities and nurturing our creative talent. The act of continually seeking means developing more skills and honing an ability–something that cannot be achieved without making continued attempts and yes, acknowledging that some of them may not look like the perfect vision we had in our mind before starting a project.
The clearer and healthier my mind and body are, the more open and successful my creative abilities become.
Sheffer, who fell in love with clay as an artistic material, refers to her first attempts as “technically hopeless”. But her passion for clay and continued long-term effort to learn how to work with it means that today she is successful at her creative outlet. Like mastering a yoga pose, creativity requires muscle as well. She says, “the notion of training seems to have gone out the window–we forget that in order to express ourselves through [our chosen] medium, we need to be prepared to put a lot of work in to develop a lot of skill.”
Sheffer identifies one trait as essential for stepping over the hurdles that arise when practising a creative outlet. “Discipline is needed because you can’t just jump over hurdles, you have to get to know them, because to obtain a deep acquisition of skill and knowledge there are no shortcuts,” she says.
When Armstrong began taking her writing practice more seriously around 14 years ago, she struggled immensely with writer’s block. For her, discipline was also necessary but so too was disengaging with the part of her mind that just wanted to write a perfect story. She discovered a process called “free writing”, which allowed her to write without letting the pen stop, and through this process she found her fear of failure evaporating. This shift of mind space occurred simultaneously with her return to practising yoga, and as these tools worked simultaneously she felt them shape her new level of acceptance. Armstrong is now able to pass on this knowledge in her yoga and creativity retreats that she holds regularly. An important message that she teaches is to remove the objective mind from the creative process. “There are many paths to get the mind out of the way, including yoga and free writing,” she says. “But this is a business of trying and failing and continuing to work on it.”
The word discipline tends to conjure images of punishing boot-camp leaders and stern teachers instructing weary students on the benefits of self-control. So maybe it’s a good idea to look at meanings that encompass more nurturing qualities, such as develop, cultivate, raise and foster. Osho describes creative discipline, not as a narrow path from idea to completion but, as a wide empty plain where one can run around spontaneously, zigzagging their way to creative expression. The freedom to change direction at any time is encouraged, as is letting go of what you’ve already learnt and starting with a fresh, clear mind.
Yoga takes people to a place of spaciousness and stillness in the mind that is fruitful for new ideas.
Traversing between creative genres has certainly been rewarding in the long-term for artist Kylie Mouat. After leaving her teaching job three years ago to pursue her own arts practice, Mouat, 37, struggled to decide which creative form she should focus on. She studied dance, drama and art in New Zealand before moving to Melbourne in 1998. Instead of enjoying the process, Mouat found that her scattered desires were generating unnecessary tension, which was only resolved when she surrendered to the option of working in whichever genre inspired her at the time. There was no need to make a firm decision, but rather to trust and explore her inspirations. “Practising yoga definitely helped me come to that conclusion,” she admits.
Like many, Mouat discovered yoga after injuries prevented her from doing her usual exercise routine. In 2003, frustrated at these restrictions, she agreed to a friend’s challenge to try a yoga class. Her expectations of a “cute stretch” were evaporated after trying out a power-flow class. Mouat enjoyed the physical toning that vinyasa-based yoga provided, as well as the mental challenge of longer pose holds. Still practising eight years later, Mouat continues to enjoy the physical accomplishments that come with a dedicated practice, but she acknowledges that the biggest impact has been on her mental state. “The clearer and healthier my mind and body are, the more open and successful my creative abilities become,” Mouat says. On this artistic path, Mouat has worked in various mediums including photography, collage and paint, and has also incorporated her passion for minimising waste (by using off-cuts of wood or leftover house paint) in her work. She regularly exhibits her work and is often commissioned to do more. Mouat is grateful that the development of her career is being aided by the grounding qualities of yoga, and its ability to keep her focused on the present moment. “I’m addicted to the all encompassing world of yoga,” she says. “The asana practice, the philosophy, the humour and humility—the strength it gives me both mentally and emotionally, which allows me to fulfill my creative potential and be true to myself.”
Both yoga and creativity are undeniably individual processes. It was the famous abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky who recognised that we must fully address our own needs when being creative. The gift of creativity we all possess should be used uniquely, reminding us that “absolute freedom, whether from anatomy or anything of the kind, must be given the artist in his choice of material. Such spiritual freedom is as necessary in art as it is in life.”
Similarly to yoga, true creative expression is derived from an internal freedom–as opposed to external competition or comparison. Not only can self-driven, intuitive artistic pursuits be undertaken at any age, but when combined with the dedication that yoga practice demands, they can also be a powerful tool in revealing our own confidence and creativity.
Sascha Wyness is a yoga teacher, freelance writer and art curator based in Melbourne.
5 Tips for Unblocking Creativity
1 Open your mind to your creative potential. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests writing three pages of free-flowing thought as soon as you awake. It’s amazing what can be achieved through this simple process.
2 As with your yoga practice, practise tapas or discipline. Set aside time in your diary and treat it as an appointment with your inner-creative self.
3 Meditate on enjoying the journey, rather than the destination. Let your inner child resurface, and allow yourself to explore and play with new ideas (See Flowing Mind, below).
4 Practice ahimsa, or non-judgement of yourself and your thoughts. It doesn’t matter if the end result is unlikely to reside in the Australian National Gallery, what matters is that you express yourself. Use the CoBrA art movement of the late 40s as inspiration–they painted against the rules of academic art in an expressive, unconstrained and childlike manner.
5 As Sarah Armstrong suggests, use yoga as your counterpose. If possible set up a mat near your creative space and practise before beginning your creative appointment. Allow your practice to keep you in the present moment.
by Stephen Cope
The next time you are struggling with a creative project, try this guided meditation first. It will help you get into a flow state—tension and anxiety will be transformed into absorption, exhilaration, perhaps even joy.
What would it be like if you undertook each task without grasping for an idealised outcome?
Meditation: Sit in a stable, upright position, on a meditation cushion or in a straight-backed chair. Close your eyes. Take a slow, deep breath, way down into the lower lobes of your lungs, and let it out with a big sigh. Let your shoulders relax and fall away from your ears. Relax your brow and your jaw. Let your body breathe normally, with no attempt to control the breath. Allow yourself to be with the breath and the body just as they are, without any attempt to change anything. Let yourself be at ease: just sitting, just breathing. Allow yourself to simply “know” the breath—the bare sensations of rising and falling in the belly, in the chest, and at the tip of the nostrils. Allow your mind to fill up with the knowing of these sensations in your body. Let your awareness explore any other aspects of the field of experience that draw you—sounds, smells, the touch of the sitting bones on the cushion. When you’re ready, let the breath deepen and slowly open your eyes. For a moment, let your eyes fill with sights, colours, and shapes, noticing how you “know” these objects—directly, immediately, without effort.
Reflection: Now take a few minutes to notice what it’s like when you’re not trying to achieve anything at all. Notice that the mind knows the world quite directly, without effort. Notice that this knowing quality is the true nature of the mind, and that it emerges most profoundly when you stop grasping—holding on tightly to some ideal image of what the outcome should be, or judging or conceptualizing your experience. What would it be like if you undertook each task without grasping for an idealized outcome, without the usual self-conscious commentary? What if you practiced simply being present, absorbed, and profoundly involved without leaning toward the outcome—taking delight in the task itself?