Minal Hajratwala is a writer and writing coach. Her award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) was called “incomparable” by Alice Walker and “searingly honest” by the Washington Post. Her groundbreaking anthology Out! Stories From the New Queer India is fresh off the presses in 2013.
As a writing coach, Hajratwala has taught individuals and groups throughout the world, including in the 2012 memoir workshop of the Voices of Our Nations Arts summer program on the University of California-Berkeley campus. Hajratwala spent 2010-11 as a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar in India researching a novel, while also writing poems about the unicorns of the ancient Indus Valley. She is a graduate of Stanford University and was a fellow in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.
Bangalore writer Ankita Bhargava interviewed Hajratwala about her Writing from the Chakras course — a body-based system that leads to fast, energized, powerful breakthroughs by tapping the seven levels of human experience that make up rich, versatile writing.
Ankita Bhargava: How and why did you first put the two together — writing, and chakra theory?
Minal Hajratwala: I’ve always been interested in how we, as writers, can access a greater source so that we’re not constantly just depleting ourselves. And also, how can we make the writing very strong and energized, rather than skimming along at the surface of our experience? I had been working with the chakras in my own performance and writing process, and I approached one of my yoga teachers about doing a workshop together. We got excited about it and came up with a three-hour format alternating asanas and writing exercises.
For example, the root chakra is about the earth and grounding and memory. So we did an asana to energize the muladhara (root chakra), and then a ten-minute memory writing exercise: Write about any kind of memory that arises, beginning with the words “I remember.” For some people, old childhood memories surfaced; for others, it was about recalling an image that arose during the yoga pose. Tapping into the chakra allowed students to go deep very quickly in their writing.
Now I teach the class online, over several weeks, so that people can explore the energies privately and at their own pace. Writing is so much easier when we feel really open and connected to the sources which are infinite and all around us.
AB: So you feel that it actually changes the quality of the writing?
MH: Definitely. As a reader, the writing that I find most powerful is quite visceral — it makes me feel something in my body, excited or upset or aroused.
As a writer, that’s what I want to create — a physical sensation with words — which means I have to be alive to my own body in the process.
When I’m just writing from my head, it’s easy for the writing to stay at an abstract or even cliché level: “His heart broke.” But if I’ve visualized and explored what actually happens in the center of my heart, then I have more interesting images to draw from. I can ask, What kinds of vibrations or sensations or speeding or heat or very tactile bodily sensations or images are present during heartbreak? And my writing about that moment will be more specific, grounded, sensual — maybe, “His chest filled with blue shards.”
AB: It sounds like a very different kind of writing process.
MH: Yes. As I started working with people as a writing coach and teacher, I was always looking for ways to help writers really cut through their fears, their problems, the reasons why they can’t write or it isn’t working. In the middle of all the confusion, how can we have a really true experience of ourselves and what we most want to say? I find that body-based writing helps us stay present in the moment and keep writing, not get waylaid by our doubts and inner critics.
It’s also a way to crack through habitual patterns. We’re used to thinking about plot, character, grammar, and these come with a set of preconceived ideas of what’s good grammar versus bad grammar or what is a strong plot versus a weak plot. Whereas if we talk about a completely different system and we start to ask, What is happening in your third eye area?— then there is no good or bad to that. It’s just an exploration, and brings a spirit of nonjudgmental exploration of one’s own authentic experience into writing. You can sidestep the questions of what will people think and how does my writing sound and is it good or bad today, do I suck or not, and instead get really interested.
It’s so amazing because people have these very powerful internal experiences, and then the driving question for their writing becomes, “How can I move my hand fast enough to capture what just happened!?” They start to develop a new compass and a new standard for their writing that is driven internally instead of externally.
AB: Can you backtrack and explain what chakras are, actually?
MH: The chakras are an energy system first outlined by Indian philosophers, detailed during the medieval period by tantric practitioners. The overall idea is that there is this energy body that is parallel to our physical body, that interacts with our physical body and affects us and we affect it. And the patterns of where that energy body is balanced or imbalanced or blocked are part of our karmic makeup, what we are working on in this lifetime.
There are seven main chakras aligned along the spine, and each one has a color, syllable, and gemstone associated with it. One traditional image is of the kundalini, a snake coiled at the base of the spine. As you work on each chakra, the snake awakens and rises and twines and is energized up to the top of the head, and when that snake is fully alive is the moment of enlightenment. Balancing and opening each chakra is a goal of many different traditions in different ways: yoga, ayurveda, Asian medicine, reiki, and so on.
So all of that is a little esoteric sounding; one doesn’t necessarily know or believe in the whole philosophy to benefit from the experience. It’s also reflected in our day-to-day experience.
In English we talk about “listening to our gut,” and when someone betrays you, you say, “Man, she punched me in the gut!” The belly chakra has to do with personal power, so it’s about whether your power is intact or undermined. And if you have trouble expressing yourself, you “choke,” if you’re sad, your heart aches. So we already know that the throat is the center of expression and the heart is the center of emotion. The chakras are just a formalized way to enter into this body-knowledge.
AB: Can you share a writing exercise from the course?
MH: I call this one the Power Surge. It’s designed as a 15-minute freewrite (no editing/backtracking, just keep writing!).
Write a fight scene of a necessary battle, focused closely on one character’s point of view. Find the initial feeling of uncertainty or fear, then the physical/energetic surge of power that the character feels when they truly psyche themselves up to fight. Where does that surge come from? Where is it in the body? What fuels it — adrenaline, magic, a friend’s advice, a goad from the enemy, a memory, divine power? How does it manifest — loudly or quietly, by striking out or shouting or movement or stillness? Does it ripple through the crowd or stay within the character? Does time slow or speed up? Do the five senses sharpen? This is the heroic moment. It’s the moment when a character rises to meet the challenge that has been before them. The battle can be violent or nonviolent.
AB: What kind of writers can benefit from Writing from the Chakras?
MH: People who want to break out of stagnant patterns. People who want to generate a lot of writing, quickly. People who want to try out a lot of different styles or topics and see what “sticks” or what works.
The course also seems to draw people who are interested in or engaged with some aspect of healing. Writing is not therapy, but a lot of us through our writing are working somehow to heal something — whether it’s personal history, historical trauma, or some kind of conflict in the world. The first time I taught the online course, about a third of the students self-identified to me as survivors of sexual violence, very early on. In working through deep memory and getting into the body, this is what arose and each of those people experienced a kind of transformation in their relationship to that experience. There is something very beautiful about bringing our full, kind attention to a place that has been wounded, whether in our own experience, in our families, or in our culture’s past or present.
The next round of Writing for the Chakras begins June 1, 2013. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for enrollment information.