This year was the year of so much editing for me. Having two books coming out a few months apart meant that I had barely submitted responses to one set of edits than the edits for the other book would arrive in my inbox (sometimes I could count the breathing space in hours). It was tough for my brain to stay focussed, but it was also tough on my body.
The typical position for working on my manuscript will be familiar to many people–sitting at a desk hunching forward over a laptop. This is a pretty sustainable position for an hour or two at a time, and with regular active breaks you can keep it up for much of the day. There’s a reason we keep coming back to it!
But no posture is sustainable for 9–10 solid hours of barely moving. The body really needs action and variation to stay comfortable, so I moved away from the desk and used the sofa, the floor and the guest bed.
I tend to do a lot of yoga (in fact, I just finished a yoga teacher training course!), so yoga postures were the ones that I chose: they felt familiar to me and helped me connect to other aspects of my yoga practice (like trying to breathe, and remembering that I was doing this work to help others). But I offer this list more as an encouragement for you to find an equivalent group of positions to help you and your body get through some tough writing times.
Listen to your body, and make it more comfortable. I am just describing what worked for me, what works for you could be very different.
A good stretch should feel good, no wincing or holding your breath. It’s a good sign if your jaw is unclenched and you can breathe slowly through your nose during a stretch. Otherwise, make the pose easier or swap it for a different position!
As I was finishing the last read through of my forthcoming book Your PhD Survival Guide, I used MS Word’s Read Aloud functionality, which never tires. That meant I could give my eyes a break, and I didn’t have to stay in a position where I could see the screen. Bravely the voice tackled (and butchered) words like viva voce and phronesis, noticed every time we had an extra ’the’ left over from a previous edit, and dutifully paused at every comma (whether it should have been in the text or not), while I draped myself over a bolster in saddle pose or reversed myself into cobra.
I sat in various postures for the majority of the 18 hours (over two days) it took to finish the edits. I used a variety of sitting poses, including crossing my legs, kneeling, spreading my legs wide, lying down, standing up straight, and more. Plus I tried to move posture every 25 minutes
That helped, but as my hips and back got tighter and tighter, I had to resort to more extreme measures for relieving pain and maintaining mobility.
These are the measures I used.
- Kneeling pose (Vadjrasana, Thunderbolt pose).
Kneel and sit back on your heels. Your legs can be close together, or you can spread your knees wide–see what your body needs right now. Your toes can be pointed (with the top of your foot resting on the floor), or you can sit with your toes tucked. Tucked toes is a more intense stretch, so you might start there for 30 seconds, and then move to the more sustainable untucked version.
- Saddle pose (Supta Virasana, Lying Down Hero Pose).
Starting in a wide-knee kneeling position, gently drape yourself backwards between your folded legs, with your back directly onto the floor or over a bolster, depending on how you feel. (Sometimes I prefer one, sometimes the other.) I would tend to stay draped for about 30 seconds, come up slowly and carefully, take a break and then drape back down. It’s very intense, but saddle pose was the stretch that made the biggest difference. Saddle pose stretches the front of your knees and ankles even more than kneeling pose, brings your quads and deep hip flexors into the stretch, and reverses the typical sitting position of your hips and back.
- Wide legged squat (Malasana, Garland pose)
Stand with your legs wide apart, and slowly squat down as low as you can go. Malasana stretches the groin, ankle, calves and hips, and makes you straighten your back. If you are not used to squatting for long periods (as many Western people are not), having a bolster to sit on and the wall against your back can make this posture sustainable for a bit longer. I tend to sit with my legs crossed and this posture makes them move in the opposite direction.
- Reclined twist.
Lie on your back. Stick your arms out wide in a ‘T’ shape, or bend your elbows to make it less of a stretch. Bend both knees, and then lower them over to one side. Rest here for about 30 seconds, and then lift your knees over to the other side, and rest again. Back, shoulders, ribs, hips, neck all get reversed and elongated in this position. I was too tight to hold a twist for long, but even just moving into and out of a full-body twist from time to time made a difference.
- Prone back bends (Bhujangasana, Cobra pose).
Lie on your front and then push yourself up by your arms until you come into a gentle back bend. Again, you reverse the posture of your ankles, hips, back, shoulders and neck.
These stretches didn’t stop me from feeling sore and tired at the end of the day, but I know from experience that they helped me avoid days of back and neck pain.
If you are here looking for more yoga resources for writers, I recommend:
Anything by Diane Bondy, who specialises in accessible yoga, but perhaps start here with 8 minutes for sore backs. (I am also a fan of her book Yoga for Everyone, which is amazing for finding a version of poses that works for larger, older, inflexible or disabled bodies.)
Yin yoga is particularly good for these kinds of stretches. A 20 minute yin class that includes saddle and supine twists by Corina Benner is on Yoga International (though you need to have an account, sorry!)
Or you can stick with the queen of free YouTube yoga, Adriene Mishler.
And if you are skeptical about all this yoga stuff, feel free to excercise your critical thinking muscles with the Yoga is Dead podcast, hosted by Tejal and Jesal, two South Asian American women who dropped truth bombs all over the internet, starting with ‘White Women Killed Yoga’. 😉