Awakening the Artist
Tap into higher inspiration and refine your artistic skills with yogic tools and teachings that empower creative expression
By Karen Macklin
There’s an incredible high that comes with being in the flow of artistic expression. Whether you’re an amateur photographer, professional filmmaker, summer knitter, or weekend woodworker, art-making can give you the feeling of being completely present, awake, and alive. And while yoga is often thought of as a tool to help us find ease in the body, quiet the mind, and get in touch with our true nature, it can also be a way of helping us tap—and mine—our creative selves. Meditation and yoga grant us access into the deep places of our psyche and consciousness that inspire creative ideas to emerge, while simultaneously offering us tools to work with some of our biggest obstacles as artists. No matter what kind of art you call your own, your yoga practice can more fully connect you with your creative mind, body, and soul.
Dropping into Creative States
Artistic expression can be deeply fulfilling, but accessing creativity isn’t always easy. Creativity arises naturally in states of stillness and presence, which can be elusive when we are distracted by daily preoccupations and scattered thoughts. This is why yoga is such a gift for the artist. When we practice awareness in asana, pranayama, and meditation, we learn to see—and let go of—the distractions of the mind. It is from this place of clear seeing that inspiration springs forth.
“The universe expresses itself as spontaneous creative energy,” says Sean Feit, a yoga and meditation teacher who is pursuing a doctorate in Performance Studies at University of California, Davis, with a focus on the intersection between interdisciplinary performance and contemplative practice. “The task of the yogic artist is mostly just to get out of the way.”
The ability to quiet the thinking mind also gives us access to a felt sense. Word, color, or movement choices don’t come from practical considerations—they come from intuition and a deeper place of seeing. “When I’m really in the heart of creative practice,” Feit adds, “I am tuning into my aesthetic ear, eye, and mind. The practice of quieting the surface chatter of judgment, planning, and comparing feels completely integral to my ability to tune into that place where inspiration is present, where creative choices are happening.”
Asana and pranayama help fuel the creative process by increasing and directing the flow of prana, the intelligent life force, through the energy conduits in our body. Santa Fe actress, television writer, and yoga teacher Emily Branden says that a regular vinyasa practice is essential to her creative work. “That continuous flow of breath and movement really gets my energy flowing and allows me to open up to that channel, that connection with the Divine,” she says.
Anne Cushman, a California-based yoga teacher and author of the novel Enlightenment for Idiots, explains that yoga practice helps us overcome creative blockages in our mind and body and significantly enhance energy, focus, and originality. “Yoga gets the energy body moving, and the energy body is the source of creativity,” she says. When we take new and expansive shapes with the body, Cushman adds, we are influenced to take new and expansive shapes with the mind. “There’s a way in which asana breaks up the habitual patterns of thought that keep that sense of freshness and creativity constricted…. It’s as if writing is a crop I am trying to grow, and by doing asana, I open the irrigation gates and all of this water flows into the field. When I sit down to write, I am more available to myself and to that creative flow.”
Asana isn’t the only tool yoga offers for opening to inspiration. Senior Kripalu yoga teacher, writer, and classical pianist Stephen Cope practices chanting before undertaking a creative effort. The repetition of sacred syllables, he says, helps boost his energy while simultaneously focusing his mind. His favorite pre-writing chant, Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya, honors the divine in all beings. Painter Hari Kirin Kaur Khalsa, meanwhile, starts her day with a meditation from the Kundalini tradition that, she says, connects her to the universal creative force
Of course, inspiration will only get an artist so far. In order for that energy to manifest as a work of sculpture, poetry, or musical composition, artists need to be able to focus intensely on their work for hours at a time. The deeper practices of yoga, including dharana (deep concentration) and dhyana (experiencing a sense of oneness with the object of our concentration), are particularly powerful for training us to access, and remain in, a focused state of creative flow.
Refining Artistic Skills
New students of yoga often report that they can suddenly experience a different range of sensations in the body, and that they feel more perceptive and sensitive to their surroundings. Discomfort that once felt like general lower back pain might now be felt specifically in the kidney; sunsets might seem more colorful; heartbreak more complex. According to Cope, this deepening of awareness can help us refine our artistic skills.
“In yoga practice, you’re focusing attention on a more subtle realm than usual,” says Cope, who is also a psychotherapist and author of the popular book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. “You’re standing in trikonasana, and you’re feeling the lines of energy through your legs and your arms. You’re focusing on the subtle movements of the breath. This is mental training to focus on aspects of awareness that are usually outside our perceptual range.”
As we become more perceptive in our yoga practice—by examining our thoughts, movements, and breath—we become more perceptive in other areas of life, including creating art. Musicians may become more adept at distinguishing between subtle movements of the fingers on their instruments; visual artists may tune into a wider range of shapes, colors, and textures. By mindfully observing and inspecting the full range of our experience on and off the mat, we pave the way to creating more authentic and nuanced art.
Creating Conscious Art
Yoga does more than sharpen our technical skills as artists; it can also influence the themes we choose to express, the type of work we create, and the intention behind the art. While some find that their spiritual practice leads them to create mandala paintings or poems dedicated to the Divine, the work doesn’t have to contain spiritual imagery or focus on joyful themes in order to express yogic sensibilities. “A piece of art that is about destruction can be infinite and uplifting at the same time, if it contains great awareness and comes from your whole humanity,” says Kaur Khalsa.
Many artists observe that yoga has subtly or significantly shifted how they approach their craft. Jeffrey Davis, a New York–based writer, yoga teacher, and creativity consultant who authored the book The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practice as Muse for Authentic Writing, says that yoga changed his voice as a writer. “My poetry became less intellectual,” he says, “and my writing became more alive in image, detail, and syntax.”
A pianist, composer, and performance artist, Feit notes that yoga and meditation guided him to be less structured and linear, and more improvisational. These practices, he says, have shown him that inner life is fluid and doesn’t follow traditional narrative lines.
Visual artist and yoga teacher Amanda Giacomini is currently working on a series of paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses. She says yoga practice and philosophy have not only influenced her subject matter but have enabled her to create more from a place of bhakti, or devotion. “I noticed that in art school there was an obsession with the individual’s personal stories,” says Giacomini, who admits that her own work as a young artist did much of the same. She took a semester off from art school to travel to India and learned that the purpose of ancient art there was to evoke a state of bliss in the viewer. “This was the kind of art that I’d been longing to make,” she says. “To make something that would really uplift people’s spirits.”
Feit also says that he’s become more conscious of the intention behind his work, placing increasing emphasis on crafting a meaningful and illuminating experience for his audience. “I have a desire for the work to provide momentum toward well-being rather than toward distress.” Kaur Khalsa believes that the yogic artist has an opportunity to inspire peace and connection in a world that is currently filled with economic strife, war, and environmental troubles. Her latest collaboration, Wherever You Are Is the Center of the World—an installation of eight paintings, each with 40 representations of randomly selected locations in the world—aims to convey a sense of interconnectedness and harmony. “As artists, our expertise is that of imagination, and human imagination needs to take a leap,” she says. “I feel that it is our responsibility not to make work out of an individualistic place, but to begin to help people expand their imaginations, and understand that we are all connected.”
The Art of Non-attachment
The creative journey is one in which we expose our souls to the world. This can be a tremendously rewarding aspect of being an artist—to have the opportunity to connect with others on a deep yet subtle level. But it is also the reason why emotions like doubt, fear, and self-judgment—emotions that can cripple the creative impulse—are all too familiar to artists.
Yoga offers a powerful antidote: the practice of vairagya, or non-attachment. This principle teaches us to cultivate dispassion and let go of expectations by diligently observing the mind without reacting to, clinging to, or rejecting anything. With regular practice of vairagya, we begin to recognize that our negative emotions are not permanent truths, and we can more easily allow them to dissolve when they come up in the creative process.
“When you experience judgment or perfectionism or self-criticism, it’s just another thing to notice,” says Feit. “If we notice it, it starts to lose its power. That’s one of the things that the yoga practices can teach us as artists: to bypass the judge and just make the thing and let the chips fall as they may.”
True vairagya, of course, means resisting attachment, not only to failure and negative emotional states, but also to success and inflated feelings of accomplishment. “Whatever your art is, there are those moments of difficulty when it all just looks like garbage, and moments of delusion when it all looks great,” says Kaur Khalsa. “You need a way to ride those ups and downs, and yoga gives you that.”
By releasing us from both disappointment and excessive pride, yoga’s teachings on non-attachment can help us derive more joy from our artistic work. Over the course of three summers, from 2005 to 2007, Stephen Cope and Sat Bir Khalsa, PhD, conducted a study on the effects of yoga training on the performance states of elite musicians. In this study, students from Tanglewood Music Center, a premier postgraduate summer academy located across the street from Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts, practiced asana, meditation, and pranayama, and studied yoga philosophy while honing their craft. One of the main things Cope noticed during the study was how very attached to the results the students were. If they had not played a performance as well as they had hoped (and, he noted, they had impossibly high standards for themselves), they would simply be devastated.
“There is a tremendous amount of clinging to outcome in professional musicians,” says Cope. “They think this is somehow salutary. They don’t realize that grasping creates a restlessness in the mind and actually interferes with their performance.” Cope taught the Bhagavad Gita to the young musicians at Tanglewood, and emphasized the central message of surrendering the results of our actions. “Krishna teaches Arjuna to bring everything he’s got, but to let go of the outcome,” says Cope. “It’s the best teaching for artists. It helped the students to feel free to have joy again in their performances.”
The devotional practice of trustful surrender, in which we offer the fruits of our efforts to a higher source, is one of the most profound ways for an artist to work with non-attachment. Emily Branden has found this practice to be essential to her artistic life. In her early 20s, when Branden was making her rounds along the New York City audition circuit, she was
so filled with anxiety—obsessing over her lines or about how any given audition might or might not jump-start her career—that she would inevitably blow every audition. When she discovered yoga and the practice of trustful surrender, she found not only greater peace of mind as an actor—but also greater success.
“I got much better at letting go of the outcome,” she says. “In the moment, I would just let the creativity flow through me, like an offering, and then leave and say thank you and go home. The more I learned to let go, the more jobs I booked.”
That’s not to say that, as an artist, you don’t tap into your ambition to get your work out into the world, says Kaur Khalsa. “If you want to really change the world with your work, you may have to make a spectacle with it, and that can be very beautiful. It may be your dharma to be really out there,” she says. “There’s nothing unspiritual about that. But surrender your outcome to the Infinite.”
Once we approach creative expression from the perspective of mindfulness and devotion, we begin to see art-making itself as a spiritual practice. In this way, our art serves a higher purpose: it helps us become more present in our daily lives and offers us an opportunity to connect more deeply with the universal creative force that resides in us all.
Yoga and the Artist’s Body
Every artist of every ilk knows how hard the creative process can be on the body. The musician may spend hours craning her neck while holding her instrument; the visual artist can spend a full day on his feet in an enclosed room inhaling toxic paints; and there’s not a writer out there who hasn’t suffered from some kind of wrist or back pain from long hours spent typing on a computer. But while a photographer would never toss around his newest Canon L Series lens, and a guitarist would do anything to protect her custom Gibson SG Special, many artists often forget to protect their most irreplaceable instrument—their bodies.
The irony is that, when the physical body suffers, so does the creative process. It’s hard to work when you’re in pain, and it’s hard to feel fluid and available to new ideas when your spine is contracted or your chest is tight. Yoga asana can elongate a compressed spine, free up tight hips, and give our bodies the stamina they need to endure—and even enjoy—the intense demands of the artistic process.
All artists should find an asana practice that best complements their artistic practice. Painters might practice long holds in poses to train for hours spent standing while working on a canvas, while writers might focus on therapeutic work for shoulders and wrists.
The awareness we cultivate in asana not only helps us release existing physical constrictions, but also teaches us to notice the places where we hold tension or utilize poor alignment when we are actually engaged in the creative process, so that we can avoid harming our bodies in the first place. “I had some physical issues in my neck and shoulders from playing,” says flutist and Kripalu yoga teacher Mia Olson, who wrote the book Musician’s Yoga. “With yoga, I developed more of a mind-body connection. I learned to shift the way I was holding the instrument to cause less strain, and take frequent breaks—to listen to my body instead of playing through the pain.”
Karen Macklin is a San Francisco–based writer and yoga teacher. Her plays, poems, journalism, and creative nonfiction have been published and produced both locally and abroad.