Yoga and the Creative Process with Amber Fogel
Between apprenticing, teaching, studying, and maintaining daily practice, 2017 was yoga-filled year for me. While I enjoyed immersing myself in yoga, it quickly became apparent something was missing; neglecting my need to create was beginning to affect me on a mental, physical, and spiritual level. It seemed ignoring one passion in pursuit of another was not serving me.
When I finally took the space to create, it was like someone released a kink in a garden hose. I was suddenly flooded with creative ideas pulling me in all directions. I had trouble completing and managing the numerous projects I had going at the same time, and my work was anything but consistent.
I began to wonder: how can I be so focused and disciplined with yoga and be totally chaotic in my creative life? Since then, I've become obsessed with figuring out how to apply what I've learned from yoga to become more effective in my creative pursuits.
I had the idea to ask other, more experienced artists about this problem. One artist that came to mind was Amber Fogel, a dedicated Ashtangi, yoga teacher, and rad artist I follow on Instagram. Given her background as both yogi and artist, I thought she'd be the perfect person to ask, and perhaps her insight would help other creative types struggling in the same way as well.
When I reached out via email, Amber was more than happy to share her thoughts on how yoga and art overlap and how what we learn in yoga can be utilized in the creative process. Here's what she had to say.
1. Briefly describe your involvement with yoga and art.
I've always been into artistic/creative activities. I drew a lot as a kid, loved to color, etc. When I went to college, I started out as a pre-med major (LOL), and a few chemistry classes made it clear that was not the right path. So I declared an art major/business minor the next semester. In my studio classes is where I found my real love for collage, which is the medium I work in today.
Four years ago, I went to a Led Primary Ashtanga class with some friends of mine in Dallas. I went through the whole series that day not really knowing what I was doing, but I loved it. Once I found out Taylor Hunt (my teacher) was in Columbus, I didn't hesitate. I signed up for classes in January of 2015 at Ashtanga Yoga Columbus and quickly fell in love with the practice. I found all the ways I could to immerse myself in it, and Taylor was great about helping me learn how to teach.
As my practice progressed I started to create more art too. The brain space or flow that yoga provides is something that I also experience when I make art, so the two seemed to naturally reinforce one another.
Taylor let me put up some artwork in the stairway at the studio, which has given me the impetus to continue to create new things on a regular basis. Yoga helped me realize teaching and creating are the things I'm supposed to do—my dharma, if you will. I teach yoga at our studio and in recovery centers around town now, and I create art for sale or commissioned work when requested. I also do some design work for a local brewery in town and host workshops that focus on the creative process, yoga or both.
2. Describe how yoga and art intersect for you.
So many ways! But I'll keep it to these three:
1) At the base of both is the adage "99 percent practice, one percent theory." You do the practice (yoga or making art) consistently to gain better knowledge of yourself and your patterns, and to get clarity about what to pursue and what to let go.
2) I see both yoga and art as problem solving, the result of which makes you more intuitive and resilient. When you come up against a pose that's challenging, you're required to examine all aspects of your approach to that posture--mental, physical, emotional--to determine how to achieve it in your own unique way. It's the same when you want to express something through creative means; you examine the tools available to you and determine what combination best expresses your message.
The same judgements that come up on our mat can creep up when we create (this isn't good enough, I don't want to keep doing this, I'm not strong/talented enough, my brain won't shut up, etc.), but in both cases we have to detach from that way of thinking in order to keep going.
3) That sense of peace we look for in practice is exactly what I look for in the creative process. When I'm really into creating, I get the same physiological response as when I do yoga. My breath deepens, my mind clears, time flies without me being aware of it. It's this sense of flow that also ties the two practices together for me.
3. Like me, are there times where your artistic process leaves you feeling a bit scattered?
For sure. Right now I'm working on a series that is based on a poem a friend of mine wrote. When you're dealing with language, so many symbols and materials can be used to convey those words in visual form, and it can be really hard to pare them down into something simple but effective.
Aside from that, even just the process of doodling or playing around with materials can reveal exactly how scattered my thoughts are. This usually manifests in a lot of stopping and starting on projects or switching materials just because I "messed up" on something or it doesn't look quite right. There's no continuity or willingness to see something through to the end.
4. Do you use what you've learned from yoga to help focus your process?
Yes I do. A couple examples...When I sit down to work creatively I first notice my breathing. I look for a steady pace, in and out through the nose, a little deeper than normal. Just getting more oxygen to the brain helps clear the way and calms the nervous system.
When I start creating, I don't necessarily let "mess-ups" stop a project. When we're working on a pose in [traditional Ashtanga] yoga, we try it three times before we move on. I do something similar in creating art--I try different things until I get the effect I want or that is satisfactory for the time being. At some point you have to let go and move on. I can always come back to it later to reassess and try again, just like in yoga. There's a wonderful quote by Ralph Steadman: "There's no such thing as a mistake, really. It's just an opportunity to do something else." This holds true in yoga, art, and life.
5. What other ways has your yoga practice influenced your art or vice versa?
I'd say the biggest influence has been in working through feelings of anxiety and self-judgement. I practice second series, which is the "nerve cleansing" practice designed to help sort out things we carry in our subtle body. Progressing through these postures has been extremely difficult at times--emotionally, physically, and mentally. But I've noticed that while I still get in my head too much about certain parts of it, I don't beat myself up about it anymore.
When I create, I don't get hung up on whether people will "like it" or not. If I did, I would get paralyzed by fear and wouldn't be able to make decisions. I aim to express an idea and work toward that without letting my ego get in the way. If you like it, awesome, but I'm more concerned whether you understand my message. Even with commissioned work, if what I create isn't resonating with the client, I can take that feedback and try again without hurt feelings.
6. What advice would you give for people like me who feel scattered with creating? What would be the first step you’d recommend?
As I mentioned above, tap into your breath. Maybe take ten deep breaths with your eyes closed, or recite your favorite chant... heck, do some sun salutations! Do any brief breathing exercise that brings you into the present moment.
Another thing I like to do is what I call a mental doodle. This is where you get a blank piece of paper and a pen/pencil and draw one continuous squiggly, meandering, wandering line until the paper is as full as your brain. You can vary the pace--squiggle fast or slow, go over an area many times or just once, leave a lot of white or blacken the page all the way. The idea is that this line and the fullness of the page mimics all that you're trying to get out of your head so that you can be more focused in the next thing you create.
Sometimes I even build on this by coloring in the spaces as just an extra little way build on the sense of "flow" that starts by drawing the line. Seeing spaces fill up with color is very satisfying because it offers a sense of completeness. That completeness can counteract the scattered thoughts you may have going into a project.
7. Anything else you’d like to add about yoga and /or the creative process?
Just as anyone can do yoga, any one can be creative. It just takes a willingness to show up and commit to consistent practice along the way. :-)
Thank you Amber for sharing your thoughts with me. I can't wait to try the breathing and doodling techniques you mentioned.
Do you have any tips for leveraging what you've learned in yoga in other areas of your life where you feel scattered? Please leave me your thoughts in a comment, because I need all the help I can get!