How Plotting a Novel is like Planning a Yoga Class

For me, teaching yoga and writing fiction are about the deeper aspects of being human, not simply about executing poses or providing entertainment. The asana practice or the entertainment is the container for the inner process.

There are two main ways I approach my work in both cases: structure and improvisation. For example, I have general sense a story is about a certain theme and a certain problem affecting a set of characters in a specific setting. There’s interaction among these elements, and sometimes it can surprise me. A yoga class also tends to have a theme, such as a class focused primarily on hip stability and mobility or a class building up to a new asana. How I teach it is affected by the student or group of students.

A story has a beginning, in which the protagonist is in her normal world, in a situation where her strengths and her shortcomings feel comfortable and familiar. But then something changes, making it necessary not only to take action, but to do things she’s not comfortable doing, things that stretch her creativity and courage in confronting a problem that has high stakes for her and for people she cares about yet. The pace increases and the demands become greater as the story progresses.

I start a yoga class with awareness of posture and breath, meeting the students as they are, letting them find where the knots, restrictions, and imbalances are. I observe them and consider what they might need in their asana practice to release some of the habits that tighten their necks, backs, or shoulders. I also take requests, because the students may have concerns and needs I can’t otherwise assess. The first portion of the class focuses the mind, warms up the muscles, and lubricates the joints prior to any significant physical demands. The middle portion of the class is the hardest, with poses that challenge strength, balance, and flexibility.

I respond to my students’ questions and to what I see in their practice with further explorations and modifications. I may need to change direction in midstream, depending on how they respond to my instruction and on how they’re feeling that day.

Similarly, I improvise in writing my books as I discover how my characters respond to what I’ve given them so far. They have as much say in the plot as I do. But if any key elements in the course of a mystery or of a balanced yoga class are missing, my readers or my students will end up feeling unfinished in some way. So, even as I invent, I rely on structure.

Beyond the midpoint is the peak of the experience. The crisis in the plot. Or the asana we’ve been building toward. Everything that comes before leads up to this. Nothing is extraneous. The challenge is equal to the student/protagonist’s ability, though at times it may feel to them as if it’s beyond their reach. That’s where growth takes place. And both are solving a puzzle, whether it’s a mystery or how to organize ardra chandrasana or how to quiet the mind and be fully present.

Then there’s the denouement of the plot or the cool-down and relaxation portion of the class, as everything that came before is integrated and resolved.

*****

A number of my characters practice yoga, though so far my protagonist, Mae Martin, doesn’t. Her friend and mentor, Dr. Bernadette Pena, introduced in The Calling, is an advanced yoga student. Mae’s young neighbors in Truth or Consequences in Shaman’s Blues are devoted to yoga as part of their recovery from addiction. Jamie Ellerbee is one of the most complex characters in the series. Yoga plays an important role in his healing journey, especially as he first begins his studies in Soul Loss.

Carport Yoga

After a long hiatus, I finally taught yoga. Not in a studio or a spa like I used to, though. Group fitness classes are specifically not allowed under current public health orders in New Mexico, a decision I support. But personal training is allowed. I taught a private outdoor class in a student’s carport, twelve feet apart so we could be unmasked even with deep breathing and with my voice projecting. A typical New Mexico carport is a detached shade structure, open on all sides, not part of the house, so the breeze blows through. Perfect for outdoor yoga. The cat walked through, giving us a humans-are-weird look. It was the first class I’d taught since early March, and she hadn’t taken a class since the end of February. I look forward to doing this weekly, the exchange of positive energy that is teacher and student.

Road Trip

I recently took a week and a few days to go back to Virginia and North Carolina to visit friends and collect some art I’d stored in one friend’s house. I enjoyed the reconnections with people, and the brief exposure to snow and cold and to architecture that was neither adobe nor trailer. T or C, with a population of a little over 6,000—it’s been shrinking—seems tiny next to Harrisonburg, Virginia (pop. 52,000), though it’s also considered a “small town” by some people. To me, Harrisonburg felt downright urban. So many ethnic restaurants with healthy choices, so many building over two stories tall, and so many traffic lights. (T or C has one.)

I dropped in on former colleagues, and due to snow, I was grateful that retired faculty have access to the college fitness facility. Running on an indoor track takes mental endurance, and if there hadn’t been so many students playing basketball to keep me amused, I wonder if I could have managed my usual distance. I taught a couple of yoga classes at the studio where I used to work in Harrisonburg, and it was a special and meaningful opportunity.

Part two of my road trip took me to Asheville, NC, where I found myself wondering what a trip to the mountains of North Carolina would be like for Mae Martin, my series’ protagonist.  (I was visiting the friend who inspired  the character.) Mae grew up in that area and she has connections in Asheville. What it would feel like for her to go back, after living in New Mexico? Asheville is a lot like Santa Fe and T or C in some ways, with its artists and yoga teachers and massage therapists, but in many ways it’s entirely different. The mountains are old and green. And the smaller towns beyond the city, such as the place where Mae’s grandparents lived, are another world, culturally and spiritually as well as physically, from the funky, eccentric town where she’s made a new home. (I moved her to T or C years before I made the permanent move myself.)

And what about a road trip itself as part of a story? Travel is inherently challenging. I drove through rain in the Blue Ridge on my way in, and on my way back through wind that started to peel the rubber rain-channel seal off my windshield, wind that made it hard to open the car door when I stopped for gas, wind that made big truckers struggle to open and close the doors of the truck stop. There were two wildfires on the outskirts of Amarillo and the flames and smoke mingled weirdly with the sunset. Any events in a story that I could set in weather like that would be doubly difficult for my characters, and it’s my job as a writer to make their lives difficult.

The outcome of all this? I’m glad to be home in this peculiar town with its colorful people and murals, its hot springs, and its art and music scenes. I was glad to see my T or C yoga students, to run in the desert again with the lizards and jackrabbits and roadrunners, and to go out dancing at the T or C Brewery. The art I brought back is either consigned for sale or on my walls, and I feel even more at home now with the pieces I chose to keep all around me. More complete, focused and inspired to create, with new ideas for the work in progress.

Namaste, Y’all

I have a file called Blog Posts Yet to Post where I store drafts of ideas and eventually find some worth revising and using. Today, in search of this week’s post, I found three rough drafts about moving, and I since I’m getting to the end of that topic, I didn’t need three posts. One was about sorting through my books and deciding which to keep and why, one was about parting with some of my art, and one was about no longer working as a professor. I’m so happy about the latter, there’s not much else to say. I went into my office this afternoon just to use a desk with a proper chair (I’ve sold almost all of my furniture) and that felt good, but I won’t miss sitting there for hours reading student papers. Or emails. I will stay in touch with some special people I got to know through the job, but it’s easy to let go of the work itself.

A friend who is going to open a used bookstore bought about eighty books. Those were easy to let go of, too. Parting with a piece of art is harder, sort of like cutting scenes when revising a book, but I decided not to challenge certain fragile things to make a trip to New Mexico. The Santa Clara Pueblo buffalo dancer, a small statuette made of black pottery, broke a hand, a foot, and a leg on his way to North Carolina from Santa Fe many years ago. I repaired him as well as I could. The powerful energy I felt at a buffalo dance was unforgettable, a force that swept through my whole body to the bones. He holds that sacred feeling in his glued-together form. I was happy when a neighbor who teaches history in the public schools and loves Native American history wanted him and several other items. When she came to get them, she asked which piece was made by which tribe, and appreciated the buffalo dancer for what he means, cracks and all, not for collectible value. I packed him carefully, wrapped the tiny Acoma cats so they wouldn’t break, and sent the collection off with someone who will feel the spirit of New Mexico in it.

Friends value us that way—for our spirits, flaws and all, not expecting or needing perfection. Letting go of people is harder. My closest friends in Virginia (and North Carolina and Georgia) will come out to see me eventually, but I won’t see them as often anymore. One who has helped me with the multitudinous hassles of the moving-out process has grown even closer as we’ve worked on things like my moving sale, and I will miss her all the more. I’ve said most of my goodbyes on campus, but I still have two more yoga classes to teach, to students who have been with me for years. I have friends to rejoin in T or C, and I’ll find new yoga students there, but it will still be hard to say the last “namaste” in Virginia.