Authors and yogis Edward Vilga and Sarah Herrington discuss the yoga of writing, spontaneity versus structure, and gender issues in print and readership.
Edward Vilga: I feel I’m a writer first and then a yoga teacher. Is that how you feel?
Sarah Herrington: Yeah, I’ve been writing since childhood. When I began practicing yoga and meditation regularly in my early twenties, it began informing my creative work.
EV: We’ve both written instructive yoga books and creative books, articles, stories, and even poetry in your case. Do you notice the crossover or cross-influence in both the process and product?
SH: Definitely. I often practice writing after yoga practice, when my head is clear, my heart feels open, and I’m more in touch with my subconscious. Often lines or images will come to me during yoga practice, which can be tricky because I don’t want to be writing things down during class. I figure if something stays with me by post-Shavasana, it’s meant to be. And then yoga themes have worked their way into my poetry, essays, stories. It’s a lens of experience, so it makes sense. Both yoga and writing are such deep practices, there’s this sensation you’re always at the tip of them. There’s so much more to explore. They are nourishing practices, lifelong practices, and I’m thankful I found both. That’s part of why I teach, to give back, to share.
I just finished your novel, Downward Dog, in one gulp. The main character is a yoga teacher. I know it’s fiction, but what are the parallels to your life?
EV: Well, the novel’s about a yoga instructor who lives in New York City, as I did before relocating to the West Coast, who teaches a lot of private yoga and group classes, as I’ve done. And our hero also went to Yale, which I did, too. But other things are different. He’s younger than me. He’s a womanizer. As with all writing, I think all characters are you but they’re also not you.
In terms of process, most of the writing happened after I finished teaching my Saturday evening yoga class in NYC. I’d come home and write, my Saturday ritual for months. I often went to my favorite bar and read through pages late at night — something my main character would definitely have done.
Some folks might think that the protagonist is like a granola-loving, hippie type. But he’s more of a bad boy. He loves the nightlife, flirting, and drinking. I think the tension between the two worlds adds interest.
SH: The yoga world is complex. Some of the gender stuff in your novel is interesting to me.
EV: I began finding a niche of teaching lots of men because they can identify with me as a guy. Some were gay, some were straight. But they were all men who didn’t identify as much with the stereotype of a willowy, young yoga girl as they did in a guy.
SH: For me, yoga ignites my heart, and I want to write from that. I’m curious how going deeper into yoga affected your writing.
EV: I wasn’t thinking about it directly at the time, but in retrospect, I realized that yoga gave me a sense of increased commitment. I read my first yoga book as a curious and disgruntled teenager trying to answer life questions. As for my physical practice and going to classes, that happened in my late twenties or early thirties. Then I found teachers that really spoke to me and I started going every day. I got into teacher training and I went the distance and never looked back.
Maybe the most important thing I gained from my yoga practice that spread into my writing practice was that sense of discipline, of consistently showing up. Has yoga made you a disciplined writer?
SH: I’ve always written, but since adopting a yoga practice, I began seeing writing as a practice. I became more consistent; the writing was less of a series of inspiration-fueled sprints and more steady, balanced. Now, I show up to the page like I show up to the yoga mat. I’m ready to practice, be present. It’s more about process than product. Yoga teaches me to show up no matter what.
EV: Another thing that was helpful with yoga was the idea: “No matter how challenging this pose is, I can be with it for a few more breaths.” Somehow that shifted things for me with writing. It’s easy to walk away from things that you aren’t immediately good at.
EV: A master teacher of mine once said, “Give yourself permission to be the student.” The other thing about yoga that helps my writing is that it’s given me permission to be the student.
SH: For me, it’s also about permission to not be a perfectionist. I began to connect the lesson of not being afraid to fall out of pose, or look silly in yoga class, with not being afraid to write bad first drafts or experiment on the page. The important thing became showing up no matter what, and staying open.
EV: Yes, that combination of intense discipline and also a willingness to make a fool of yourself. The balance of hard and soft.
SH: Yes, as in the Sanskrit yoga sutras: Sthirum Sukham Asanam. In the poses — and life, really — cultivating a balance of effort and ease. Same thing for writing.
EV: I think about this a lot with my writing in terms of how much to structure and how much to just flow with the creative process. I have a background in screenwriting courses, which are extraordinarily focused on structure. I’m strongly biased because of that training toward figuring out the mechanics and outlining what’s going to happen. Yet, I recently reread Stephen King’s book On Writing. What struck me was he’s often unsure how his novels will end.
I work as a creative consultant, and I’m currently consulting on a couple of projects with people who want to work that way. How much outline do you really need? One danger is you’ll box yourself in and the other one is you’ll meander around before you figure what your book’s about.
SH: At the moment, I usually start a piece from an image or a line with no outlining. I start by just writing, letting myself go. I think a lot of the best material comes from that flow. Afterward I’ll apply structure. It might seem backward, but it’s worked for me lately. Of course this could change tomorrow.
I write really well in this way after a yoga practice. Yoga opens me up, connects me maybe to what Jack Kerouac called “Big Mind.” I think I’m more on the verge of my imagination after practicing yoga, or seated meditation. I write. Later I’ll go back and see what I can move around. Then, it’s leaning in, carving.
Did you outline Downward Dog?
EV: The essential premise of the novel came to me — a yoga teacher who’s also a bad boy — and instantly I knew a lot about the character, this guy trying not to be a womanizer but surrounded by constant temptation, and having all these people project different things onto him in his role as “teacher.”
I outlined it extensively. I was just convinced that this what you do. You figure out the plot of your story in great detail before you start writing.
The two things that are easiest for me as a writer are character and dialogue. Those are at my fingertips. The action/plotting stuff I have to work at, but it’s not what compels me first, even though all my training told me it was vital.
I watched a documentary about Michael Jordan and it spoke to my writing. There was one thing he wasn’t great at and so he just practiced it until he got amazing at it. That’s how I felt with plotting the novel, thinking, “This isn’t where I feel strongest, so let me start here and make it really strong.”
SH: I noticed how lively and engaging your dialogue is since that’s not one of my first “go-to’s.”
EV: Thank you.
SH: There are two scenes [in Downward Dog] that stuck with me after reading them. One is the scene where Monique redefines her relationship with the main character. It creates a boundary and changes the course of the story. Also, I love the scene toward the end — I’ll be careful because I don’t want to spoil it.
EV: Good idea!
SH: But the moments with the two yoga studio owners, who are like gurus to this guru. That was a deep and powerful scene that really delivered us to the end of the story beautifully.
EV: Thank you.
SH: Also, I felt that New York was a magical backdrop, a kind of character. I’m working on some young adult fiction now where New York is definitely a character, so I noticed that.
EV: My main character had to be in New York. Yoga in L.A. is quite different than in New York. The energy of New York always has that edgy quality, that fast-paced aspirational quality. Although he’s also attracted to timeless bliss, he wants to be on the leading edge, he wants to be a player.
SH: Interesting contrast. Part, I think, of what makes mindfulness in New York so fascinating and essential. I wonder if you have anything to say about your female characters.
EV: I like the women in the novel a lot too. I think that’s partly why it’s been optioned for a film before it was published. One thing you always hear is that there are no good roles for women. Well my novel certainly has a ton!
When my agent sent my novel out, I got lovely comments on several rejection letters, saying things that I want to have framed, about it being funny and passionate and fresh. But I got several that said this is a book for women because women read fiction and we’re not sure that women will read a novel written by a man where the main character is a man. On the other hand, I also got rejection letters that said we love this book, however, this is a book for men and we’re not sure if men would want to read a book about a yoga teacher.
EV: The editors not only had different ideas of who the audience would be, they were obsessed with readers making choices based on gender. I don’t remember the last time I was in a bookstore and said I really need a book written by a woman or a man.
SH: Me either. How did that feel to you?
EV: It felt funny and then enraging. I almost wished I could get these editors together to sort it out. Ultimately it’s the perfect yoga example because all you can do is let go and trust.