The Body is Creative Innovators’ Indispensible Tool

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.

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  • Thinking about thinking as only a head game is outdated thinking.
  • Thinking about creating and innovating as only an intellectual act is outdated thinking.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.

Welcome neuroscience.
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.

Welcome neuropsychology and positive psychology. Exercise contributes to greater happiness and well-being, and the science is clear: We’re motivated by joy more than money.

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. Hello, yoga?

from about.com.yoga

It’s no coincidence or simple placebo effect that Warrior II poses evokes confidence and courage in most if not all of the artists, writers, and designers with whom I work.

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.

Take someone like Tara Sophia Mohr. Studied Shakespeare at Yale. Studied business at Stanford. She’s a poet, writer, and dancer but also a smart business and personal coach with both feet on the ground.  She brings a solid yoga background and practice to the coaching room.

If you can get beyond your skepticism or cynicism about New Age platitudes, you might discover some new truth in some ancient practices.

And if you don’t want to leave home to learn, but really want to learn from some of the best available teachers in health, wellness, yoga, and meditation, you can check out Yoga Hub’s mammoth Virtual World Yoga and Meditation Conference. http://url.ie/8k0v (Full disclosure: I’m teaching a Yoga as Muse tele-workshop at the conference this February and do get paid only by a percentage of people who register using my affiliate link and/or use this discount code for $50 off the fee: Code: JFR219 for $50 off. But I wouldn’t be part of the conference if I didn’t think the organizers were stellar teachers, professional marketers, and tech-savvy innovators).

I can get sort of zealous about embodied creativity, but the results from the people I lead in different parts of the world speak for themselves.

We creative people who bring our bodies to the designer studio, the architect firm, the classroom, the ivory tower, the boardroom, or the brainstorming session are not alone. At last. And for good reason.

We have at least ten years of science and two thousand years of wisdom on our side.

Drop in the Hut
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?
Why do we (myself included) keep needing science to prove what our gut already tells us?

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  1. The head needs science, because of the split between the head and the body. In my work teaching Creativity in Business (a course from Stanford GSB) in corporations, to 9/11 families and to evening students in Stanford Continuing Studies, I find that most of us try to ‘think’ creativity, yet that’s not the source. Creativity can’t be defined or measured, yet that’s what our heads/minds want to do with everything. Comparison gets in the way of creativity…make that ‘kills creativity…and that’s what our brains are really good at.
    As long as we believe the mind is the master, we’ll continue this split. It takes wholeness, the mind, the body, the spirit and yes, even emotions, to become fluidly creative.
    One of the reasons I now work with women and creativity, is precisely this…we express our creativity by way of our bodies: hands, hearts, etc. The female body IS different than the male body. If we believe, as women, we are simply our heads, and we attempt to express from this place, our creativity will never be infused with the richness of the female body and the powerful ways it creates (babies and much more). I am not a man, but I know that the same is true for men. When men express their creativity consciouslys through the whole package, body, heart and spirit, too, what comes forth will be richer.
    This may sound woowoo, yet it was Einstein that said “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
    The body allows us to bring forth our intuition.
    Thanks for a great post.

    1. Julie: Thanks for your insights. Around 1973 or so, Adrienne Rich wrote something about how women must recognize the genius of their bodies so they can create new lives, new thoughts, new societies.

      I appreciate your sensitivity to women needing to honor their bodies. Many men also need to acknowledge their whole emotional bodies.

      Woowoo, yes, maybe. But only in the ways we talk about it. The science I’ve cited would’ve sounded woowoo to most scientists only fifteen years ago.

      Thanks, again.

  2. When I get stuck at my desk I put on some great dance music (Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, or Sly Stone do the trick for me) and get up and dance…I come back warm, thirsty, out of breath, hair messed up, and a whole new me. I return with a sense of the larger world and the energy available to support me. Sometimes only then do I realize I’m hungry or in some other way my body needs some attention before I can regain focus. Or sometimes when I turn off the tunes & sit down again I can see clearly where I got off track.

  3. Great article. I’ve long been a proponent of using movement throughout the day to stave off fatigue and stress, change up thinking and get the blood pumping after being sedentary for too long. As a Yoga teacher it’s a big part of my coaching for travelers and commuters. Our lives are so busy that it’s often hard to get a full Yoga class in consistently. What is important it making your practice work for you and that may mean small, targeted stretches at your desk or only 10 – 15 minutes on the mat. It’s sustenance in difficult times and with intent will carry you through to a fuller practice. Breathe!

  4. Elaine: I resonate with the “small, targeted stretches.” My teacher, Sri TKV Desikachar, told me, “After 30 minutes, you’re practicing something else.” I’ve never forgotten that.