December 11, 2011

From the Mat to the Canvas. ~ Laura Alvarez

Five ways yoga made me a better artist.

I’ve been an artist most of my life. But when I walked into my first yoga class, I hadn’t painted in years. I felt drained of creativity. I never dreamed that yoga would prove to be the catalyst that brought me back to my art, but that’s how it transpired. Here are five things I learned in yoga class, lessons that made me a better artist and a better person.


My yoga teacher amazes me. She seems to know, just by the way a person walks into the room, what he or she needs. Each of us, with our different body and history and perception, need something slightly different from each asana (yoga posture), and she knows this. She would never expect all of us to do the postures exactly alike; in fact she repeatedly reminds us to meet our body exactly where it is.

So many people look at art as a means to an end; we want to learn to “paint like Picasso” or “draw like Da Vinci.” This puts a pressure on us that can freeze our creativity. But the true value of art lies in self-expression. We should no more expect our work to look like another artist’s than we should expect our body to move like the yoga teacher’s. When I meet myself where I am, the art that comes out of me has a beauty unmatched by any imitation, no matter how skilled.  Just as the value of yoga is in the process, the value of art is not in the frame-able end product. It is in the act of creation itself.


One of my favorite things about yoga class is the way space for the practice is created. We don’t just jump into movement; we take a moment to become present. Small rituals like the ringing of a bell help us transition from the business of the day to the stillness of meditative movement. Ritual defines space, and as I make a habit of these rituals they begin to define me, as well. The very fact of practicing something daily reaffirms its importance in my life. Over time, yoga becomes part of me: an integration, not an occasion.

It is the same for my art. If I set up a space and make a ritual of painting or sketching a little every day, art becomes an inseparable part of my life, as natural as eating or sleeping. For every completed canvas on display in Picasso’s studio, there were thousands of sketches tucked away in a drawer. Just as the thousand iterations of the same asana enable us eventually to accomplish incredible feats of flexibility, the daily practice of drawing develops into beautifully skilled self-expression. Making a ritual of my art practice consecrates its importance to my life and reminds me to respect my own creativity.


As much as I enjoy my quiet time at home on the mat, there is something I gain from the classes I attend that feeds me in a different way. Being present in a room full of people who have made the same commitment keeps me accountable. Watching others move through the postures teaches me things I couldn’t learn alone, not to mention the joy I experience in laughing with others, and seeing that others share my frustrations and triumphs.

As important as my daily rituals are, there are times when I get too lazy or too busy to do them. At these times I have learned to make art with friends. Being in community brings out questions and answers I might not find alone, and laughing with my friends helps motivate me to keep going and overcome the places I am stuck.  Watching others create inspires me to do the same. Everything is easier with a support system!


One of my favorite things about doing yoga is that it is not goal oriented. Everything else I do seems to have a target, a means of assessment. But in yoga class I am constantly reminded to breathe, to be in my body, not to think about the next movement until the one I am in is complete. I am not going anywhere. I am just experiencing where I am. This can be a revelation amid the goal-oriented stresses of the rest of life.

Now, when my students arrive for art class, I do not tell them what we are going to be doing or give them a list of steps to follow. I listen to them, watch where their enthusiasm lies, and build a class based on what they already want to do. That way the joy of creation takes precedence over reaching some pre-defined goal and everyone has a lot more fun. I do the same in my own art. There is rich ground in defining a need and exploring it, rather than choosing an endpoint and working systematically toward it.


One of my great fears when I first started yoga was that I would be the least flexible person in the room, or the most clueless. Everyone already seemed to know what to do. There seemed to be a whole world of yoga fashion and politics and vocabulary to which I was uninitiated. But these fears were soon alleviated by the teacher’s instructions: “don’t judge yourself by what everyone else is doing.  Meet yourself where you are.  Close your eyes.  Focus on your own experience, not comparing yourself to others or judging yourself.  The most beautiful things happen when you are authentically yourself.”

Just as competitiveness can lead to injury if your neighbor happens to be a lot more flexible than you are, comparison to other artists’ work can kill creativity. There is only one goal in art: to find our authentic expression in the world. We can do this in art as we do it in yoga, by meeting ourselves where we are and not comparing our work to that of those around us.


These days I pay attention to my breath while I draw. I see brushstrokes in the clouds.  Yoga and art are both processes that don’t stop; they have increased my appreciation for life, changed my very way of being in the world and enhanced every aspect of my experience. At the end of every yoga class my teacher encourages us to thank ourselves for making the effort. Thank you for making the effort to read this, and may what I’ve shared here benefit your life as it has benefited mine.

The artwork in this post is by Laura.

Laura Alvarez is an artist, musician, and budding yogini based in southern California.  She  received her M.F.A. from San Francisco Art Institute and now both paints and teaches adults and children out of her studio, Paradiso Arts, in Santa Monica.  Her schedule of classes is available here.

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