Yoga to unlock your creativity
For two decades I have moved in my favourite two realms: yoga and creativity. As a writer and performer, I’m a creative soul. As a yoga student and teacher, the path of yoga practice has been my life. I often get asked when I am going to choose one or the other and my answer is a resounding “never!” I believe the two are inextricably linked and that yoga can crack open your creativity, taking you into a flow state, which is crucial to the creative process.
The elusive flow state is a buzzword of late. We’ve seen the increasing popularity of “flow” asana classes: books are being written about it, scholars are unpacking it and psychologists are advocating it. Apparently it’s the way forward and everyone wants to know how on earth to get there.
The flow state is that feeling of “being in the zone”. It’s when you’re completely immersed in “doing” to the point where you are just “being”; when you’re so engaged in the activity that everything else kind of disappears. Does this sound familiar to any yogis reading this? It should. It’s reminiscent of the experience that Master Patanjali talks about in the Yoga Sutras — when the seer and the object merge into oneness — or deep dyhana (meditation) and samadhi (bliss). And moving towards this state is fundamental if you are interested in creativity.
The importance of creativity in the future
There is much evidence to suggest that the importance of unlocking creativity is not only reserved for painters, writers, singers and performers; rather, it will be fundamental to surviving the workplace of the modern world. Michael Gretczko of Deloitte believes three things will be required of the workforce of the future: agility, multidisciplinary skills and social awareness. In other words, he suggests that those who don’t have a creative mind — the ability to think outside the box and have curiosity across many fields — are going to struggle.
Practices to unlock creativity
In order to move into a creative flow state, you are required to direct all of your attention, all of your awareness, to one place and immerse in that experience of dhyana. However, in every moment of every day, the mind wanders; thousands of different things demand your attention and the mind follows.
Yoga gives you practical tools to harness the mind, moving towards the first step, concentration, or dharana. It suggests the practice of pratyahara, closing down the senses that have the tendency to move outwards and drawing them inwards. And it shifts you into the parasympathetic nervous system — or your rest and digest. So you can literally digest the world from a creative perspective.
Sitting in meditation, you notice how challenging it is to have a one-pointed focus, or dharana, even just for a very brief moment. But every time you sit and practise you flex that meditation muscle. Meditation is a powerful way firstly to notice how the mind is and then to experience with painful honesty the “citta vrittis” (as Master Patanjali refers to them) or whirlings of the mind — the thoughts that go round and round. Once you see how distracted the mind is, you can start the process of learning to focus on one thing. That thing could be a simple mantra, watching physical sensations on the body or focusing on the breath.
There are many different disciplines of meditation to choose from. What’s important is that you start to notice where the mind has gone as it wanders off and then gently, lovingly bring your attention back to whatever you were focusing on. In addition, meditation has been proved time and time again to move people’s brains from beta to alpha state within moments, which is more conducive to relaxation, clarity of mind and creativity.
- Choose a comfortable seat. If you wish, set your timer for five or 10 minutes.
- Be still.
- Notice the breath. Watch it move in and out. Don’t modify the breath; allow it to be natural. As you inhale, think of the word “inhale” and, as you exhale, think of the word “exhale”. The mind will wander. That’s OK; that’s the job of the mind. Just notice where it has gone and bring it back to the breath: inhale, exhale. Over time, build up the length of your meditation. Even if you only do five minutes a day, you will be honing this skill in concentration and focused awareness.
In 2012, Italian cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato did a study which revealed that open-monitoring meditation had a profound effect on increasing creativity. Open-monitoring meditation is simply becoming more mindful and aware in every moment: feeling your breath as you read this article and the pages under your fingers; noticing your thoughts, bringing a quality of concentration to everything you do. It can be incorporated into every moment of every day.
Yoga nidra means the yoga of sleep. It is a guided meditation practice taken lying down on the back. There is boundless evidence suggesting yoga nidra is incredibly powerful at unlocking creativity. Sri Shirish Kumar Gupta (MSc Applied Yogic Science, 2003–2005) conducted an experiment into the effects of yoga nidra on the creativity of school children. Overwhelmingly, children who had practised yoga nidra before creative exercises performed better. Many studies have sought to understand how yoga nidra increases creativity so greatly but, fundamentally, the agreement is that it awakens the whole brain.
By balancing your svadhistana chakra through yoga postures and stilling the mind through meditation, you can harness your awarenes and find creativity.
A study by Hans C Lou in 1999 established that yoga nidra calms the prefrontal region and stimulates the posterior visual system, which is a state of awareness comparable to REM sleep. A study by Kamakhya Kumar claims that yoga nidra “awakens inherent creativity”. What we do know is that it is very powerful in unlocking creativity and is a practice almost anyone can do.
There are many different guided yoga nidra sound files online. I suggest getting on to your favourite music platform and listening to different voices to see which one appeals to you.
Pranayama (breath control) is incredibly powerful at clearing the mind and restoring energy — prana or life force. Different pranayama techniques stimulate creativity in different ways. Full yogic breath allows a deep reset of the central nervous system, pulling you into the creative rest and digest state. Nadi shodana, another pranayama technique, brings balance and clarity to the mind and body. Kapalabhati clears out the cobwebs of the mind and wakes you up when you are feeling dull or sleepy. You can use all of these practices to serve the creative process, depending on what you need in that particular moment.
Asana, the physical practice of yoga, is masterful at directing where your attention is right now, in this present moment. On the mat, drishti (where you look), pranayama (controlling and modifying the breath), alignment (placing your body in a safe, intelligent manner) and concentration on bandhas (energy locks in the body) all teach you to harness your attention. You can reclaim your wandering mind and start directing it where you choose, instead of the mind just being pulled all over the place.
According to yoga physiology, the chakras or energy centres are the lenses through which you perceive your world. The second chakra is the seat of creativity. By balancing this chakra, you unlock creativity. The following asana sequence will purify this chakra to do exactly that while also encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system to engage so that the mind and body can move to stillness and clarity. During this practice, pay particular attention to the breath. Keep gentle awareness on the bandhas and your drishti (where you are looking).
Yoga sequence to unlock your creativity
Begin in a lunge with your right foot forward, back knee down to the earth. Have the right foot a little over to the right, toes turned out slightly, and hands set shoulder-width apart, on the inside edge of the right foot. Set your knee above your ankle and hug the outer right hip and knee in towards the arm. Close the eyes and take an internal gaze down the tip of nose. Take five conscious breaths.
Start to open the knee out to the side, maybe allowing the inner edge of the right foot to become lighter, with more weight to the outer edge of the foot. Keep closing the eyes, gazing inwards and feeling for that sweet spot, the place where you feel the deepest sensation and pause there. Dive into the needle and take five conscious breaths.
Half splits (ardha hanumanasana)
Bring the knee back to centre and turn the toes back in so the second toe is in line with the centre of the heel. Bend your back knee as you extend your front leg, flexing the toes back to your face, with the quadriceps lifting up away from the kneecap. Set left hip above left knee. Lift and lengthen the spine to get longer in your side waist on an inhale. Come to fingertips or bring the earth to you with blocks. On an exhale, keep all of this alignment and fold forward from the hips. The spine and neck are long. Softly gaze down the tip of the nose with eyes closed. Take five conscious breaths. On every exhale, focus on the lower belly and middle belly lifting in and up.
Low lunge (anjaneyasana)
Bend the front knee once more and set it above the ankle. As you lunge, reach the arms up, hugging the outer arms in to activate the muscles of the inner and outer arm. Lengthen the tailbone by picking your frontal hip bones up away from the earth. Ground the left shin down to energetically lift up. Feel a long line of energy from your toes all the way up to your fingertips. Gaze up to your fingers. Take five conscious breaths, zipping up the lower belly.
Come back to all fours, reset and repeat the three: runner’s lunge, half splits and low lunge on the left side. Once you complete the left side, sit with your legs extended in front of you.
Seated forward bend (paschimottanasana)
Flex toes back to your face, lifting the quadriceps up away from the knees. Press palms down into the earth, either side of your hips, to lengthen the spine. Keep this length and fold forward, hinging from the hips. Catch thighs, shins, ankles or feet with your hands, ensuring you keep the spine and neck long, shoulders away from the ears and collarbones broad. Keep a soft gaze down the tip of the nose, or eyes closed. On every exhale, lift belly to spine. Take 10 conscious breaths.
Butterfly forward bend variation (tarasana)
Bend knees into your chest and allow them to open out to the side. Create a diamond shape with the legs. Curl forward, allowing the whole spine to curve. Palms can face up. Soften the shoulders, face and jaw. If it feels more comfortable, rest your forehead on a block or whatever you have that can bring the earth to your forehead. Allow the body to relax down and shift awareness to the breath. Close the eyes. Take 10 conscious breaths.
The yoga practice unlocks your creativity in many ways but fundamentally it helps you do the dance between the internal and external — pulling your awareness in so you can move back out to see, and express, your understanding of the world in your own unique way.
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