Write Well: How Yoga and Narrative Competence Improve Your Well BeingJan 14, 2023
“In writing our stories, we retain authorship over our lives” - Deborah Siegel-Acevedo, Harvard Business Review
Did you know that students who combined expressive writing with a movement practice to process an emotional experience consistently experienced significant improvements in their physical health, and in their grade point average, when compared to a group who only used movement according to a 1996 study by leading expressive writing researcher Dr. James Pennebaker? Writing about the experience created clear positive benefits.
This isn’t limited to students. Writing has been used for therapeutic benefit for a long time. It draws on our natural inclination to tell stories as a way of understanding ourselves and each other. This can be part of a yogic practice of svadhyaya or self study, where we organize and remember events coherently while examining our thoughts and feelings about them. This makes difficult experiences more manageable, thereby restoring our relationship with ourselves.
Doing so consistently can help improve our sense of predictability in volatile, uncertain statements because it provides structure and meaning to highly emotional events. It helps us arrive at a sense of resolution, where we are less likely to replay events over and over in our minds, which helps us devote less conscious thought to them.
It does not take much to achieve these outcomes. In fact, writing expressively or reflectively for up to 15 minutes, three times a week to organize complex emotional experiences can improve your mental and physical wellbeing according to a 1999 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
So why does writing about what we consider negative experiences improve our wellbeing? Unless the experience is very recent, you are suffering from depression or post/secondary traumatic stress, telling the story can change how the experience is stored in your brain.
By using a set of prompts and guiding ideas, you can write the story of your experience for yourself with concrete, authentic, explicit details that explore how you feel about the events. By telling the complex story from the beginning to the end in a way that feels coherent, you restore your agency and transform from victim to a powerful narrator who makes meaning out of trauma. This can be a powerful way to process the experience and imagine an integrated future.
Research shows that it helps to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and blood pressure while strengthening your immune systems, improving your sleep and boosting your performance through better focus and clarity.
You can increase the healing impact by writing in community, and sharing aspects of your work. Doing so in narrative medicine workshops, like Write Well, can be useful because when you open up to yourself by writing about a difficult experience, you are more equipped to share that story with others. Writing your story can make it easier to reach out to social support that can aid healing - whether you share your story with your health care team, family or friends.
Like yoga, guided writing is an accessible, low-cost technique with the potential for significant positive impact, so it is worth trying, according to a 2011 article by the Harvard School of Medicine.
Yoga has myriad benefits for your wellbeing. Notably a consistent practice increases the gray matter in your brain, which improves your ability to pay attention, to imagine and to regulate your stress levels - all of which are neuroprotective in the long term.
The dharana or focused meditation practices can also help us identify connections that may have eluded us, or arrive at novel solutions when our creativity is flagging. Practicing the yamas and niyamas encourage us to be compassionate, gentle, and curious about ourselves and our writing, so we can cultivate objectivity and kindness towards ourselves and our work.
It can benefit your ability to write about your experiences because as a practice, it serves as an ongoing reminder to move and think mindfully. Many writers, including Neriman K, Ph.D from Reading Under the Olive Tree have noted that a regular yoga practice supports a regular writing practice because the asana practice improves a sense of comfort and connection with the body. This makes it easier to sit for long periods of time and can reduce tension in the wrists, shoulders, neck and back.
In addition to the physical benefits, a consistent pranayam practice can help regulate the nervous system and improve concentration and focus, which supports the reflective exploration that comes from being creative. You can also use your dharana or meditation practice to set your sankalpa or intention for your writing which helps you stay present and be accepting of what you put on the page.
Both yoga and writing provide us with rituals to connect more deeply with ourselves, to realign, and restore order to the space of our bodies and minds so we can heal in a holistic way that celebrates the fact that our body, breath and mind are connected, and that we are connected to something greater than ourselves.
If you’d like to explore combining the practices of writing and yoga, join me on the 4th Sunday of every month for Write Well, a yoga and narrative competence workshop, or book a clarity call and we can explore how we can collaboratively develop a practice to restore your focus and creativity.
Feel more energized, focused and mindful.
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