12/17/2014 08:09 am ET Updated Feb 16, 2015

What Yoga Is Teaching Me About Writing a Novel

I lowered myself to the mat and felt every joint complaining.

"Honor your intentions," the instructor was saying. "What intention are you bringing to the mat today?"

"Just to be able to get off the damn mat again," I muttered.

I never intended to be here, on this yoga mat. Yoga, I always thought, is for sissies. Or maybe for Californians. I'm a runner, a hiker and a backpacker. Or, in bad weather, a gym rat. I lift and climb. I don't bend and stretch.

That's for sure. My downward dog looked like it was dying, compared to that showoff next to me in her spandex and braids, her butt in the air. My Happy Baby pose was a dead opossum.

Meanwhile, the instructor looks like she's floating."If you can't hold the bottom of your foot, hold your thigh or your calf," she croons. "Make this accessible. Have a conversation with your body."

My body wasn't interested in conversation. It was too busy yelling. "Are you trying to kill me?" it screamed. "That hurts!"

"We are chest breathers," the yoga instructor said. "Make this moment, this time on the mat, about filling your body with the oxygen it needs. Focus on your breath."

Oh! She was right, I realized the next day, as I was charging through my grocery store and Christmas shopping lists. I was practically panting from stress. I made myself stop and have a cup of tea.

Gradually, I am discovering that yoga isn't only about breathing and posture, but, like everything important in life, it is about intention. About embracing everything this moment has to offer. And that's having an enormous impact on my writing.

In my work life, I'm a novelist on deadline. A tight deadline. I've been trying to wrestle my characters into submission, warning them that they'd better behave or we won't make the editor's deadline. They were fighting with me until I began asking them the same simple question my yoga instructor was asking: "What is your intention?"

In this way, I discovered that one of my characters had been unfaithful to her husband. She was trying to understand why she'd stayed with him despite having fallen in love with another man. Another character needed the time and space to understand why she'd abandoned her daughter.

"Make this accessible," I begged the women who lived in my head, the characters I wanted to see come alive on the pages of my book. "Breathe."

Sure enough, as I stopped trying to force them, they did. Instead of sitting at my laptop for hours at a time, feeling frustrated because everything I put on the page was crap, I took deep breaths and let the words flow without worrying about what they looked like on the page. That could come later. Right now, I just want the plot and characters to be accessible to me.

I also started taking more breaks. Instead of hunching over the laptop all morning and then through lunch, too, I got up, stretched and walked the dog. Yesterday I was outside, wandering aimlessly around the neighborhood at my Pekingese's pace, when I saw my way through to the end of the book. It was as if doors had opened to show me a whole new room. Or maybe a new world.

That's exactly it, with yoga: it opens doors and windows to let in the fresh air. To remind you that you are not important or extraordinary or even necessary. You are just you, living in the world for a short time, honoring your body and mind so that you can love and do good work while you're here.