Why you need to try yoga and freewriting

Yoga for mental health: why freewriting and yoga is the mental health practice you didn’t know you needed

Posted by for Wellbeing

Most of us have tried yoga but probably won’t have turned up to a class with a notebook in hand. Perhaps we should, argues yogi, writer and journal coach Ilaria Mangiardi. 

I still remember the sweat on my body and the tears running down my face. That hot yoga class left me in pieces. I had too much to process. I remember asking myself: “Why the f*** is yoga making me feel so emotional?” Turns out it’s totally normal. Certain postures can have us feeling all the feels. After all, yoga is about releasing, isn’t it?

But what if you could organise your thoughts pre- and post-mat so you could taste a moment of peace in between? If you don’t want to contend with your mind wandering during your practice (although that’s expected and welcome), it might be time to add a pen and paper to your yoga kit.

What is freewriting?

As well as being my personal favourite method for emotional release, freewriting is a creative writing technique originally used to overcome the infamous writer’s block. Think of it as a stream of consciousness on paper – the written representation of your thoughts as they come, with no judgment or censorship whatsoever. 

The term ‘freewriting’ was coined by author and professor Ken Macrorie, and has been popularised by academics like Peter Elbow, professor of English emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It’s a great practice to free your mind, whether you use it daily or sporadically.

Why add freewriting to your yoga practice?

During lockdown, I couldn’t keep my hands off of my journal and my yoga mat. That’s when I started flirting with the idea of having them both as part of my routine. They kept me sane and centred. 

For the freewriting part, I used both my journal and 750words.com (a website dedicated to hosting daily 750-word rambles). For my yoga practice, Yoga with Adriene’s short and sweet classes worked best for me.

But it was only when I met and started training with PCOS fitness coach Emma Krishnaswami that I ended up truly combining writing with movement. “I call them check-ins,” Krishnaswami tells Stylist. “I encourage my clients to write about how they feel before and after moving their bodies. It’s a subtle way to shift their mindset. That’s how you become less resistant to change.”

She reminds us that you can also combine freewriting with any kind of movement such as HIIT or running, not just yoga. “Your body is changing all the time. It’s a vehicle for expression, not for aesthetics. If only we could change our thought patterns!”

Fitness is nourishment not punishment, she stresses: “Whether it’s yoga or any other kind of movement, it’s never meant to be what Western cultures use it for. It’s a form of expression, not a way to lose weight and look fit because society tells you so.”

As for me, I’m a sucker for freewriting and yoga combo sessions. I let my thoughts move between the lines and my muscles move through space, with kindness and compassion.

According to yoga instructor Carmen Guda: “Yoga reflects where we are psychically, mentally and emotionally at the specific time we step on the mat. When we transfer the insights we gain and the questions that might arise on paper, transformation can happen.”

And Caitlin Cady, another meditation and yoga teacher agrees. She explains that writing can create what she calls a ‘tangible sense of spaciousness’: “It’s such a powerful companion to yoga. Both are tools for transforming, digesting and alchemising our experiences.”

They give us a space for our creative selves to expand, to let the creativity come out. “Yoga brings our minds back to who we really are. Freewriting can enhance that process even further,” explains vinyasa and yin teacher Cynthia Overeem.

Building body confidence and creativity through freewriting

Since May 2020, I’ve been hosting and facilitating more than 20 freewriting workshops, both in English and Italian. I might seem biased but my students assure me that they’ve benefited from freewriting – with some of them fully embracing the practice as part of their routine.

There are so many benefits to freewriting and journaling. By letting your thoughts flow onto the page, you gain clarity and confidence, improve self-awareness, make peace with perfectionism and discover new perspectives. Research by James W. Pennebaker and his student Sandra Beall even found that emotionally expressive writing may boost your immune system – and that’s just one reason to consider it an excellent ally for physical health.

“Journaling allows us to pay attention to what we’re feeling. This is also why we’re so avoidant of it,” Megan Febuary, trauma-informed writing coach, tells Stylist. 

“When we create space for our voice and story, we are unlocking the door to know ourselves better. Is there anything more powerful? In a world build on scrolling and mindless dissociation, we need a journaling practice that slows us down and connects us back to the present moment.”

Freewriting is all about letting your creativity and emotions run free, which should then allow you to enjoy your workout free from feelings of judgement or overwhelm.
Freewriting is all about letting your creativity and emotions run free, which should then allow you to enjoy your workout free from feelings of judgement or overwhelm.

How to get started with freewriting

It’s important to distinguish between journaling (the overarching term and system) and freewriting (the writing technique). When you freewrite, you tap into your intuition and follow whatever your mind and hands want to write or type about in that specific moment. Sometimes, I get the feeling that words write themselves and I’m merely a mediator or a spectator. 

In The Artist’s Way, writer Julia Cameron recommends indulging in the practice of Morning Pages, the “bedrock tool of a creative recovery”, as she likes to call them. She says there’s no wrong way to do that – so I hope she’s OK with me being a Night Pages ambassador, as I tend to prefer writing in the evenings to ‘undo the day’.

New to the practice? Use prompts. A prompt is an idea starter, an invitation to respond, a kick in the butt to encourage you to sit down and just write. It could be an opening sentence, an image, a conversation you overheard on the bus, a word that keeps ringing in your head.

When I freewrite, I mostly write for my eyes only. I word-vomit my thoughts onto the page, often feeling delirious with excitement because I’m letting it all out – the good, the bad, the ugly. I bathe with my inner child in the creative process sea, and I set it aside. I focus on the direction, not on the destination.

Anything is valid, even the pettiest thought.

Moments and movements: how to combine freewriting with yoga, HIIT or any other kind of exercise

Before movement

Before you hop on your mat, spend 10 minutes as an opportunity to brain-dump or check-in.

Observe how you’re feeling (are you frustrated? are you excited?), or identify something that has been bothering you, and start freewriting. As yoga teacher Trudy Vains puts it: “Writing down what is bothering you send a message to yourself that you are willing to let that go.”

Prompts I find useful include:

  1. Today, I’d like to explore…
  2. Let’s see if…
  3. One thing I love about myself…

Write down one word or affirmation that speaks to you and use it as a mantra during your yoga practice. 

During movement

Select your yoga video or practice. I like moving to Yoga with Adriene who even has a flow dedicated to helping writers

To unlock creativity and clear blocks, pair your freewriting practice with Kundalini. Give yourself permission to stop and take note in the middle of your flow, if that’s what you need. 

After movement

Use the post-mat moment to really observe how you’re feeling and what you’re going to take away from your yoga or HIIT session. 

Febuary recommends: “Write about what your body was saying during the practice. This can also be in the form of a poem or a story. You get to make the rules here. Most importantly, let it be a practice, not a performance.”

Prompts I find useful include:

  1. I’m proud of myself for…
  2. I take care of myself by…
  3. One thing I’m grateful for…

Emma Krishnaswami recommends asking yourself why you moved your body and whether you accomplished the mental state you envisioned at the start of your practice.

How do you feel after working out? Draw a bottle or a glass on a piece of paper, stick in your post-mat feeling and place the picture wherever you can see it for the rest of the day.

Feeling inspired? Why not try freewriting alongside one of our 15-minute mobility stretches. Simply pause the video when you want to write something down and then resume. 

Images: Getty/Claudia Camillo

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