I have been meaning to write a post on Yoga & The Actor for quite some time now. A few years ago, I somehow managed to slip a disc in my back and there was a period of time where I was unable to run. This was very sad for me because I grew up as an athlete. My chiropractor suggested that I get into yoga to start strengthening the muscles in my back.
Ironically, I started getting into yoga around the same time that acting became the main course in the dinner party known as my life. Almost immediately, instinctively, I knew their was a deep connection between these two art forms, but I was too young and too new at both to really understand the connections on a deeper level. It was just something I felt, but I had no idea how to verbalize it.
Now, a few years later, after having committed to both yoga and acting, I really understand the connection and I want to share it with you because I believe that every actor needs to do yoga. I 100% stand by my belief that practicing yoga on a regular basis and really understanding it's principles will allow you to become a better actor.
What is yoga? Well, of course if you have never practiced yoga you may think it is some sort of breathing/stretching thingy where you try to get your body into strange positions and hang out there for a bit. But for those who have practiced, we know that it is so much more than the physical aspects. Yoga is about being present. Being 100% in the moment. Being in a state of not only relaxation, but concentration. Claiming your space on your mat. Being connected. Yoga is about allowing yourself to go into the discomfort. (Now, when I say discomfort, I don't mean pain. Clearly you should never put yourself in physical danger.) However, yoga asks you to quiet your mind. If you are going deep into a pose (or an "asana" as we yogis call it,) and all of a sudden you feel that you can not do it... Is it because you really can't do it on a physical level, or is your mind trying to short-change you by making you think that you can't do it when in fact you really can? Then once you are deep into these poses, it's about staying there, and breathing through the discomfort. Ultimately yoga asks you to stay calm, connected, relaxed and willingly allow yourself to work through the discomfort. The idea is, if you can do it on the mat, you can do it in your life. For example, in life, when we are faced with challenges, will we run away from them, or will we allow ourselves to calmly go through?
After all, when we are faced with something difficult, the only way out, is through.
Now, what is acting? Well............................... I could probably be here for days discussing that. If I had to sum it up in a few brief sentences, it is pretty much the same as yoga. In order to act, you must be in a state of relaxation. You must be in a state of concentration. You must be present and 100% in the moment. In yoga, you must feel that you have the right to claim the space on your mat and in acting you must feel that you have the right to claim your space on the stage. You must be connected, not only to yourself, but to the ground, and the other actor's that you are playing with. And also, of course, you must be willing to go deep into your discomforts.
This all really came together for me the other day... In the morning I went to a hot yoga class, also known as Bikram yoga. Bikram is great because the room is very hot (ranging from 85-105 degrees varying from studio to studio,) which allows your muscles to relax, so you can go deeper into the asana's. You also sweat a lot, which detoxifies your body roughly 7x's faster than if you were doing yoga in a room at regular temperature. This particular class was focused on opening your hips. Yogis believe that we store a lot of tension in our hip area, especially issues regarding our sexuality. (Also, side note: As an actor, you need to constantly be aware of where you hold tension and to try to release it. In short, tension in yoga is not good and tension in acting is not good.)
Now, later that day, I went to an acting class. We were doing a sense memory exercise where we had to relax, close our eyes, and try to bring back a memory of when we were terrified. (PS... for all of you non-actors reading this, we do not do this for no reason! We don't just stand around and try to go into our terror. We do this so we can directly apply it to our work. For example, say you are working on a scene where you are on a crashing plane [think Almost Famous!] Well, you would probably be pretty terrified, so as an actor, you have to know how to go there.) All of a sudden this memory came up... a really terrible thing that happened to me when I was a child that I never speak about. Now, this is where it gets interesting and all comes together. This particular memory has come up before in past sense memory exercises, but in the past, I have always dismissed it, telling myself that it happened so long ago, that I have blocked it out so much that I don't remember it well enough to use it. So in the past, I always dismissed it, and moved on to the next memory that popped into my head. But this time, I said to myself, "Time out. Do you really not remember this? Or are you trying to avoid really going there?" I made the decision right then and there to just surrender to it. To fully commit to going there. To see how much of it I remembered, or didn't. Well, turns out I do remember it. All of it. Really clearly. And it sucks. But I had the strength to go there. And guess what? My work was that much better for doing so. And in the end, that's the point of being fully committed to the craft of acting.
Now, I know that the Bikram had so much to do with this. The Bikram got me open, flowing, made my body accessible to me. Some of the poses that I did earlier in the day were very uncomfortable, but in my practice, I allowed myself to go there. I surrendered. And I worked through it and left feeling very accomplished. Then later in the day, when I went to my acting class, there was no way I was going to let myself back away from the discomfort of the memory that came up. Like in yoga, my mind tried to play a trick on me- my mind said, "You can't go there and you can't do it because you can't remember well enough." But just like I stayed in the uncomfortable poses, I stayed with the uncomfortable memory. And I went there, and I used it for my art. Because the bottom line is, this event happened to me. Whether I like it or not, it's there. So again, I felt incredibly accomplished by finally choosing to face it instead of running away from it like I have in the past. And guess what? I'm still alive and well... In fact, I feel better. That memory no longer owns me. I have chosen to own it.
Like Nietzsche said, "That which does not kill me makes me strong."
Ain't that the truth.