I first met Kirstin Chen when I moved to San Francisco and found her practicing Mysore in the early mornings. At the time, she was working on her first novel: Soy Sauce for Beginners.
Her novel was recently published and it is amazing… I highly recommend it if you need a good book yourself or are looking for a gift for someone.
I love seeing Kirstin in Mysore class before a long day ahead of work. She has a beautiful, long, intense practice and is working on the most challenging postures of second series. I know her days writing require a lot of focus and creativity, and I’ve always been curious about what role her yoga practice plays in her writing process. I hope you enjoy this interview with her!
—Interview with Author and Ashtangi Kirstin Chen—
What role does yoga play for you in your writing life?
Yoga is integral to my writing life. I’ve often said that I’ve learned as much about writing from my Mysore practice as from the three years I spent in a graduate MFA program, and that’s not hyperbole. Daily Ashtanga yoga has taught me the value of showing up, day after day, for a set period of time, regardless of my mood or the condition of my body. Ashtanga yoga has also taught me to trust in the process without obsessing about the end product. I strive to approach my writing in much the same way.
Tell us what your daily routine is like.
Right now I teach part-time at San Jose State University, so I aim to write the three days a week that I don’t have to be on campus. Writing days begin with early-morning yoga. Then I get home and give myself one hour to procrastinate on the internet—reading the news, checking email, scanning social media sites—while I eat breakfast. I used to be ashamed about this wasted time, but then I met the brilliant writer Nathan Englander at a friend’s wedding, and he told me that he reads the Times from cover to cover for two hours every morning before he starts writing. He also said that if anyone interrupts him during that time, he has to read for another two hours to “reset.” I’m sure he was exaggerating, but nonetheless, his admission has taught me to let some things about my routine go, to pick my battles so to speak.
After that hour of procrastination, I shut off the Internet using that wonderful program Freedom and write for two to three hours. When I’m done, I take a walk outside (which I started incorporating into my routine after reading that Times article about how walking can increase creativity), and then I come home, shut off the Internet, and do it all over again.
Do you follow any specific dietary habits?
I try to cook as much as possible, and during the week, I eat mostly vegetarian and avoid grains and processed foods. During the weekends, however, I eat pretty much whatever I want.
Do you drink coffee?
I do, and I have no plans to give it up! I drink two espresso shots first thing in the morning (after my cup of Ayurveda-approved warm water with lemon) and, often, another espresso shot in the early afternoon. I love everything about coffee: the aroma, the flavor, the way it makes me feel like I’m glowing, ever so slightly, from the inside out.
A couple years ago, when juice cleanses were all the rage, I thought long and hard about doing one, but ultimately decided I’d never be able to function without coffee. My coffee addiction—and I fully admit that’s what it is—has also held me back from doing a more moderate, Ayurvedic cleanse. And you know what? I’ve decided I’m totally okay with missing out on those experiences.
What do you eat for breakfast and lunch?
For breakfast, I have either a banana or a green apple with liberal quantities of tahini or peanut butter. For lunch, I generally make a salad topped with tofu and a homemade rice-vinegar-and-sesame-oil-based dressing, or some combination of fruit, nuts and cheese.
Tell us about your yoga path and how you got interested in yoga?
For many years, beginning in high school, I was a slow-but-disciplined long-distance runner. Like many runners, I developed some lower-back pain and thought that yoga would be an effective, relaxing way to release some of the stress I was putting on my body. But then I found Ashtanga yoga, which, as you know, is vigorous and sweaty and—especially for beginners—not particularly relaxing or stress free. At first, I approached Ashtanga the same way I approached running, by pushing myself as hard as I could go, by fixating on some arbitrary finish line, by striving to set a “personal best” each time I got on my mat. Only now, eight-and-a-half years later, am I finally learning to let all that go and just. be.
Who have been your most influential yoga teachers?
I’m so grateful to every single Ashtanga teacher I’ve worked with. Another great thing about a Mysore-style practice is that you truly get to know your teachers in deep, meaningful ways. That being said, I’m really appreciating working with Sidney, my teacher of the past two-and-a-half years. On one of my first days in his Mysore room, I was struggling to get into some pose, probably eka pada sirsasana, and he told me, almost offhandedly, to “seek but not obsess.” It’s advice I return to often and that has helped me temper my approach to yoga—and probably my approach to many other aspects of my life, as well.
If you could tell a room of 10,000 young women one piece of advice, what would it be?
Learn to meditate. Take a class, download an app. It may sound hokey to you right now, but it really will come in handy at the most stressful and taxing points of your life. I promise.