Do you find anything unusual about this photograph? It appeared in David Segal's excellent recent New York Times Magazine's article on how creativity thought leaders are changing the way creativity happens in corporations. The article features Dev Petnaik's innovative team of creativity consultants, Jump Associates. This photograph shows the team performing yogic stretches before their brainstorming session.
What's the connection? Why would one of the nation's top-notch creativity teams (paid around $200,000 a day for some sessions) stretch before brainstorming? How does engaging the body stimulate creative innovation?
Probably for the same reason that this nation's most prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates runs almost every day to revise and revision her stories, articles, and plays.
For the same reason that prolific, imaginative novelist Tom Robbins practices yoga and meditation.
Or why Pulitzer Prize-winning Ellen Gilchrist allegedly brought her yoga teacher to a writer's conference to say, "This person saved me from self-destructing."
Or why Sting and Sarah McLaughlin swear by yoga.
Or why one of America's top marketing gurus Jonathan Fields and one of America's most divine social media divas Gwen Bell get to the mat to move their minds each day.
Or why umpteen thousand other writers and artists and designers and scientists either run, practice yoga, or work out to keep cognitively fit and flexible.
Over ten years ago, when I was testing out Yoga as Muse workshops and courses with other writers and artists, I felt almost embarrassed like some writer gone New Age daft. Still, I couldn't deny in 1999 what this head-heavy writer was experiencing or the new research I was putting together or the results that Yoga as Muse gave others.
Now some things are clear. The world of science continuously confirms what some (but not all) Eastern wisdom traditions have told us.
* Thinking about thinking as only a head game is outdated thinking.
* Thinking about creating and innovating as only an intellectual act is outdated thinking.
Welcome new (and ancient) knowledge.
The field of neuroscience suffered from its own prejudices for close to a century. Anyone who implied that 1) the body influenced the mind or that 2) new brain cells could be created in adulthood or that 3) new synaptic grooves could be created with intentional and repetitive actions basically got black-balled. (Norman Doidge reviews this history in his highly readable The Brain That Changes Everything.)
That all changed in 1999 (the year, btw, yoga was turning me on my head). Since then 90% of neuroscientists acknowledge that exercise that gets the heart beat pumped stimulates new brain cells. The science is clear: You can teach an old horse new ways to jump by getting him to jump. (also reviewed in Barbara Strauch's highly readable book)
Intentional movement stimulates more portions of the brain, too, which stimulates the association cortex - that hub for novel combinations, metaphors, and associations that brilliant logos and advertisements and Max Ernst paintings and poetry are made of.
Some exercises and yoga tools slow down our brain waves and relax the brain's and body's fight-or-flight response so we can create in a state of focus (necessary for any creative flow work) and in a hypnagogic state - where the unconscious freely talks with the conscious mind. And so we can become more aware of and reverse the emotional demons that sabotage our creative productivity.
Welcome embodied cognition. A slew of cognitive scientists and philosophers have followed the trail laid out by 20th century thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau-Ponty dared to change the way philosophers thought of the body-mind schism that well-intending Descartes laid out in the 1600s - and that influenced staunchy scientists in all fields until just ten years ago. He in essence said that 1) the body shapes the mind and 2) the environment is part and parcel of the mind. "The painter," he elegantly writes, "brings the body with her."
Now scientists such as Mark Johnson and thinkers such as Andy Clark have made the case that our body is directly responsible for how we conceptualize ideas and metaphors. Even our posture affects our state of mind. Posture? Enter yoga again.
And welcome the adaptive unconscious. Timothy Wilson lays out an elegant argument for the adaptive unconscious's role in our goal-setting, self-conception, and sizing up of environment and other people. The adaptive unconscious - not the narrative-laden unconscious Freud constructed from reading Greek tragedy - operates mostly from autonomic functions such as heart beat, blood circulation, and other things the body does automatically.
Can you do anything to affect your heart beat and blood circulation? Hmmm. Exercise? Even better, yoga and meditation - since these practices accompany physical movement with awareness of one's mind.
So you can, in effect, affect your adaptive unconscious - that, well, influences about 95% of what you think you're thinking.
Hatha Yogis have known much of the above since at least the eighth century when they radically altered the way that even Classical Yogis viewed the mind-body-spirit connection. In this sense, Hatha Yogis themselves have been creative innovators for centuries.
Hatha Yoga (an umbrella term that encompasses all of the yoga brands that bring the body and breath into the practice) offers hundreds upon hundreds of tools - called skillful means - that we can employ toward creative ends. "Using" yoga toward personal ends is nothing new. They're called skillful means (upaya) for a reason.
If you can move beyond your skepticism or cynicism about New Age platitudes, you might discover some new truth in some ancient practices. The sciences are behind you.
How do you bring your body with you to your creative work?
What are the other links you've discovered between engaging the body and creative innovation and productivity?
I know I'm over-simplifying matters above for the sake of space, but feel free to elaborate in the conversation.
See you in the woods,