Being here now - yoga and acting.

When you look around the room and realise you've come to the wrong party, yet no one seems to notice except you.

At around the same time in 2010/2011 I started to explore two aspects of my life that I hadn't really delved into before, acting and yoga asana. I was looking for diversion and exploration away from the industry I'd accidentally got stuck in, teaching. What I didn't realise was that there are an amazing number of parallels between acting and yoga, some of which I discuss below.

Why acting? Well that was easy. I wanted to explore it because I felt like I'd been acting (pretending and convincing) in my job for many years. Many students and colleagues told me I was a great teacher because I was so enthusiastic and really seemed to enjoy my job. And I did/do enjoy it somewhat. On a day-to-day basis, I got a lot out of the interactions I had with my students, their joys, their enthusiasm to learn. It brought me satisfaction when they were happy. I also enjoyed the concept of energy in the class, that I could raise energy and bring a sense of cohesion with positive words and actions and my own energy. So that was what I was getting out of it, and that is what kept me there for a long time. But, truthfully, I did not feel authentic in what I was doing. I felt I had to convince myself first, and then convince the students, that I was joyous and wholly enthusiastic to be there each day. It seemed my 'pretending' worked. I convinced them at least, and that's what got me interested in acting.

As I said before, I had a good time teaching, but I was never really fulfilled. I didn't enjoy having to raise my energy to the level I thought I had to have in order to keep people entertained for many hours a day. I'm not a performer. But I felt like I was. I'm not even an extrovert, so mustering that level of intensity and enthusiasm every day was exhausting. Be careful. By performer I mean someone who 'performs for a crowd'. I see an actor and a performer differently. When acting, I bring myself to the point of experiencing real emotions through the character. When teaching I was masking my real emotions, putting a happy face on and making myself into a 2-d cardboard cut-out, not exploring or revealing my full range of emotions, and feeling stuck and empty as a result.

So when I started acting classes, I felt like I'd found home. I remember doing an audition for a NIDA short course. I looked around the room at the people just being and I thought this: I've found my tribe! I'd never felt that before. The people about me were silly, funny, open...just real. There was no pretence. That's what got me hooked. No pretence. Where else in life can you find that? And it looks like I wasn't alone in this link/transition. Plenty of actors were teachers before they moved on. Makes me wonder what would have happened if Hugh Jackman hadn't pursued his acting interests. Not to say everyone who pursues acting will become world famous celebrities. It's not about that. It's about connecting with their purpose and passion. Imagine if he hadn't even tried?

Cue yoga asana. I'm talking about yoga asana only as I'd already been meditating for many years before I started really getting involved in the physical practice. I had tried yoga before but was yet to stumble across a method/school/teacher that hooked me until I came upon Simon Borg-Olivier teaching the Yoga Synergy method. I loved the clear and experienced way they taught. I loved the way my body and mind felt during and after a practice. I love the way the teachers teach the practice, rather than trying to overload students with pop psychology and Spirituality 101. I love the way yoga brings us in touch with the present moment, our sense of connection to the Universe, the feeling of life force, prana, entering the body through breath. I love it. I practice this in myself. But I don't see it as helpful to ram it down people's throats and, thankfully, they don't do this in Yoga Synergy. Instead they give physical instruction and guidance, and provide the space for student's to explore their own selves, without pressure or pushing. This worked for me and it is something I try to incorporate into my own yoga teaching.

So how do these two, yoga and acting, marry? Wow. In so many ways! One of the greatest is presence - to be here, now. In acting, it so easy to get caught up in the dialogue going on in your mind, to worry about remembering the lines or getting the physical cues right. Being aware of the camera, the other actor, the scene set-up, hitting the right mark make it even harder to stay in the moment. Yet this is exactly what is called for when doing a scene. To stay in the moment. To be fully present in yourself and with the other actor. Yoga and meditation has definitely helped me in acting in this respect, and vice versa.

Another way yoga and acting parallel is in energy movement, or psycho-physical awareness. One of the greatest actors and acting teachers, Michael Chekhov, discovered and employed this in the early 1900s. Chekhov, a student of Stanislavski, discovered yogic texts and began to incorporate the concepts of prana, life force, which is a sense of universal energy entering the body through the breath. From this he created methods such as radiating and receiving energy, a way of engendering an emotion from within, through the breath in yoga.

In yoga, not only is the concept of energy movement explored through pranayama (specialised yogic breathing techniques), it is also incorporated into the awareness of the body in physical practice. Anyone who has attended a modern yoga class has heard the teacher telling them to become aware of their breath, to listen to what their body is telling them in each pose, in order to not do too much and not do too little. There are various ways this is incorporated into yoga asana and can be seen in something as simple as the extension (some call it 'brightening') of the hands in a pose like trikonasana, triangle pose.The concept in acting builds on this, with the theory of engendering an emotion through the movement of the body. A forward motion of the body, no matter how subtle, can rouse certain emotions, feelings, attitudes which can be acted upon by the actor and incorporated into the scene. This is covered really well by the series of youtube videos compiled by Graham Dixon. I highly recommend exploring these.

This concept is further explored in the yogic system of the nadis, which are the subtle energy channels of our life force, which can be opened through movement like yoga. The nadis are something like the Chinese meridian system. Yoga can stimulate and enhance this energy flow and also begin to release blockages in certain energy pathways that may have built up due to stress, illness or injury. Through regular yoga practice, the energy pathways can begin to flow freely. I believe it is then that you can have the most authentic and compelling acting moments, as the emotions engendered within the body can be moved and transmitted more freely and at will. The work of Chekhov and Stanislavski reflect these ideas. For more information you can read a number of books by Phillip B. Zarrilli on psychophysical acting methods.

I still have so much to explore in acting and yoga. I believe they will both be lifelong learning practices for me, giving me the opportunity to continually explore, develop, grow and discover. Through these practices I rediscovered my passion for life and what precious gift each day is to have the prana, life force, enter our body through the breath. This awareness has giving me the drive to take control of my life and choose more, choose to be the best I can be and live the best life I can live. I am so grateful that the experience of yoga and acting can bring me back in touch with this simple truth, that all we have is the present moment, and it is a gift to be aware of it.

Ruth KentComment