Yoga for Actors: Part I

by Robert H. Allen


This article explores how yoga might be adapted or re-imagined to directly help performers deepen their performance technique. By performers I mean anyone who performs physically in front of a live audience, though I will be speaking mostly about actors since I direct plays and also teach acting and movement for acting.

I have been taking yoga classes for about 15 years, recently completing the 200 and 300 hour teacher training courses through Yoga Works. My decision to pursue this training was motivated by a desire to develop my ideas about how yoga can help the actor—ideas that spring directly from my careers as a performer, a director, and a teacher of theater. Since I am writing for a yoga-knowledgeable audience, this installment of the article will initially focus on discussing those aspects of performance that I see as closely linked to yoga practice, as a way to get at what I think yoga can do for actors. Unless yoga teachers understand the specific professional problems of the actor, I believe they cannot offer the most effective training—that is, the training that will help these students become, not just better at yoga, but also better at acting. In Part II, I will address specific strategies by which yoga practice might better serve actors.

In the most general terms, acting teachers are usually recruited from two distinct groups—actors and directors. Although I am a director, I am also an ex-performer: my experiences include 10 years as a dancer and physical theatre artist in Europe and the U.S. However, I do not bring an actor’s sensibility to my teaching; my perspective is first and foremost that of a director. Like many directors, I am looking to extend what is possible for the actor and, by extension, theater itself. Moreover, I seek to remedy what I feel is lacking in the general abilities and performance culture of the typical American actor. Contemporary American acting is largely circumscribed by ideas having to do with the aesthetic philosophy of realism. The quality of this work can be very high, but it tends to lack vision, being mostly a conservative response to the possibilities of the stage. As such, it is incapable of ushering in the theatre of the future—a necessary effort required from each generation of theatre makers. I feel that today’s theatre needs to be animated by approaches that are more theatrical, athletic, and experimental. In my own work, I am inspired by the pioneering efforts in this direction of such figures as the choreographers Martha Graham and Jose Limon, as well as the director Tadashi Suzuki and the theorist and teacher Michael Chekhov. These very different individuals have each created visionary yet practical strategies for performers, and I believe that yoga, properly understood, can be a similarly powerful tool to help theatre move forward.

The Faces of Energy

There are four virtues that make the technical achievements of the performer possible. Profound in how they develop over time, they are also the subject matter of the very first day of training. Without them no real work is possible, no breakthroughs can happen, and nothing of any excellence will ever develop. As such, they can never be transcended or put aside. Simply stated, the actor is admonished to work with energy, commitment, awareness, and something called sats. Sats is a Norwegian word that I first came across in the works of the theorist Eugenio Barba which expresses the attitude of being primed to act—think of the inner preparation required by an actor standing in the wings moments before stepping onto the stage, and you get a fair sense of what sats is. Yet all these virtues are in reality only modifications of the first, of energy in the broadest sense of the term. They underpin a special kind of energy management that is the essence of all technique. It is even possible to characterize all the different systems of actor training as doing, more or less, the same thing—expanding and developing the energy body of the performer. This work is properly described as psychophysical—physical effort infused with psychological significance, energy in two forms.

Unfortunately, the word ‘energy’ is hugely problematic because it is used to refer to so many different things. Think about all the different kinds of energy described in the related systems of yoga—the five pranas of Ayurveda, or the subtle system of chakras and nadis of Kundalini yoga, for example—and you get a better idea of how grossly inadequate the unmodified word ‘energy’ can be. And yet it is pretty much the default term used to indicate any number of energy-related concepts central to the performer’s craft. Unlike yoga, most theatre practice lacks a precise terminology capable of describing the psychophysical reality of the performer in all of its faceted glory. Still, it is common for anyone who has even a passing familiarity with theatre to observe that some actors are exceptional, and others are not. In short, the quality and power of one actor’s energy can be compelling, articulate, and moving. At the same time the expression of another actor, of more or less equal intelligence and training, rarely rises above mediocrity. Throughout my entire career in the performing arts I have heard professionals refer to the energy that some people possess, and others do not, by such terms as presence, strength, and even god’s gift. All were intended to identify it when it was there while at the same time suggesting that there was something perplexing about how to get it if you didn’t have it to begin with.

Now here is a curious fact: most actor training programs or approaches to acting technique claim to be able to produce this type of genius. How reliable they are in achieving this goal in practice is debatable, although some do seem to be better than others. Regardless, when it is clear the desired transformation did not happen, the teachers all say the same thing: “the actor is untalented.” It’s easy to see why many feel that this aspect of a performer’s technique is a product of grace, a genetic accident perhaps, or some conflation of forces, hopelessly complicated and beyond our control— all sentiments I passionately disagree with. In point of fact, there does exist genuine understanding about what this special energy is, and about how to achieve it. Unfortunately, these ideas are not common or are misunderstood in the standard training regimens followed by most aspiring actors in the United States. It was because of this deficit that I began incorporating the four concepts mentioned above in my teaching— especially sats—as a way of working with energy and its vital connection to presence.

In his book The Paper Canoe, Barba develops a very sophisticated analysis of the problem of presence and the nature of performance energy. Writing about energy, the basis of expressive power as well as classic stage presence, he has this to say: “For the performer, energy is a how. Not a what.… And yet it is very useful for the performer to think of this how in the same way as s/he would think of a what, of an impalpable substance which can be maneuvered, modeled, facetted, projected into space, absorbed and made dense inside the body.… For the performer, to have energy means knowing how to model it. To be able to conceive it and live it as experience, s/he must artificially modify its routes, inventing dams, dikes, canals. These are resistances against which s/he presses her/his intention—conscious or intuitive—and which make her/his expression possible.”

Energy As a How

Although Barba calls energy an “impalpable substance,” it is, nevertheless, imagined— lived—as a hard physical reality that can be pushed against; as a visceral, flowing life force that can be felt moving inside the body; and even as an energy projecting beyond the physical limits of the performer into the surrounding space. At the same time, this imaginary construct or fantasy is grounded in real experience. After all, it is not the mind alone that shapes itself to the fantasy, but the body that contorts and dilates itself as the actual organ of the imagination. The micro-movements of joints, the stresses experienced by the skeletal structure, the subtle sensations created by the movement of muscle and fascia—in short, the entire physicality is capable of shaping itself to the parameters of an otherwise invisible, mental construct.

Take the image of a rose, its petals opening in the first, fiery, golden shafts of sunrise as the inspiration for an actress speaking Portia’s monologue from the Merchant of Venice that begins “the quality of mercy is not strained.” Fully realized by the actress, this image should affect everything in, on, and around her body. As a result, the audience will not necessarily see a rose in their own imaginations, but they will feel the unhurried, unfolding of rich, velvety, gloriously illuminated intention because the actress is experiencing these same inexorable sensations in every cell of her body.

A more practical example can be seen in auditions where actors compete for roles in theatre productions. A common formula is to ask the actor to perform two contrasting monologues—usually one dramatic and one comedic. The dramatic monologues are quite revealing. Actors generally choose something extremely tragic to showcase their range, but 90% of the time the delivery is totally unconvincing. Of the various reasons why these monologues fail, two are worth looking at more closely. Actors either fail to achieve the necessary intensity, or they overact. What is generally not understood is that both are symptomatic of the same problem. Actors are told—and most believe—that they must always be relaxed onstage. As a result, tepid actors never enlist the musculature of their bodies to support their expression, which leaves us with the sense that nothing is really happening. Similarly, those who overact are paradoxically doing the same thing as the actors who underact, except that these actors understand that their presentation must indicate some kind of extreme emotional state. So we get yelling, gnashing of teeth, tears, clenched fists, and a contorted face while the lower and deeper layers of the body remain wholly unengaged. It’s only the surface, peripheral, and generally higher parts of the body that are used to indicate feeling, and this results in an impression that, for all the histrionics, the emotion is without depth. On top of this is the mistaken assumption—a kind of Goldilocks fallacy—that it all has to do with finding the proper degree of expression, so that there is not too much, or too little, but just enough.

In fact, what both actors lack is a productive relationship with their physicality. In the Michael Chekhov method of actor training—one of the best, in my opinion—there is no such thing as anything less than 100% acting effort. To do less because you are afraid it might be too much is always bad acting because it lacks commitment. Chekhov—who was also considered the most talented actor to come out of the Moscow Art Theatre by none other than Konstantin Stanislavski— is the author of a number of strategies designed to help actors realize their full potential. According to Chekhov, the will of the body is in the hips, legs, and feet. This means that the commitment of the actor, the power of their acting, is not just a psychological stance. It is also a physicalattitude. It is this power that is alive in the actor, and that is not afraid to act. It is also what we mean when we say an actor has presence, is strong on stage, or possesses god’s gift.

Energy As a What

As a director I look for and cultivate actors that seem to posses a tightly knit ball of chaotic energy buried somewhere deep in the belly or lower abdomen. These actors give the impression that anything is always possible. No matter how tightly choreographed a scene might become in rehearsal, the audience should nevertheless feel that they don’t know what will happen next—conceivably anything. It is impossible to take your eyes off of this type of actor. As a training exercise, I will often set my students the following problem: “The curtain rises. You are on stage. The blocking we have agreed on is that you stand in one place, motionless, apparently doing nothing. Twenty minutes later the curtain drops. Can you keep the audience in a state of expectation for the entire twenty minutes?”

I don’t dance anymore, but when I did, my training was mostly in ballet. Early on, I was lucky enough to fall in with a studio that followed a modified approach to ballet training pioneered by a New York teacher named Maggie Black. She developed her approach in the 1970s as a response to the problems encountered by older dancers, dancers who were injured by reprehensible training methods, and the special needs of tall, long-limbed dancers, who were much in vogue at the time. Black’s approach deemphasized the need to slavishly simulate the traditional ballet form in favor of strengthening a key part of the body that could serve as the foundation for all ballet-related actions. For the purposes of ballet this area encompassed the abdominal floor and the very tops of the inner thighs; all movement was supposed to radiate from this tightly knit, highly articulated nexus of muscle, ligament, and joint. In effect, the entire physicality of the ballet dancer was conceived as centered in a part of the body roughly corresponding with the crotch. This had the effect of informing the movement with a sexually charged athleticism. Though not blatantly erotic, the simple fact that the entire life of the dancer emanated from this center created a form of ballet that audiences, choreographers, and dancers alike understood as a celebration of youthful, barely post-pubescent exuberance.

Despite my involvement with ballet technique, I was never a ballet dancer per se. I was actually a modern dancer who got a lot from ballet training. If there is a style of modern dance that I identify with most, it is the style developed by the influential American choreographer Jose Limon (about whom I’ll have more to say later). Nevertheless, it was when I was getting my master’s degree in modern dance from UCLA that I encountered the modern dance technique that opened my eyes to the deeper significance of the physical life of the performer: that of Martha Graham, who is acknowledged as the single most important figure in the history of American modern dance. Graham codified something called the contraction—a violent engagement of the lower abdominal muscles that was capable of welding the entire frame of the dancer into an unified structure while simultaneously reducing the burden of the larger, bulkier muscle groups associated with physical locomotion and gesture. This was the powerhouse of Graham’s special brand of movement, and as such, it was a new center around which the dancer could organizer her efforts. It seemed to me then, and still does, that there are only these two ways of generating authentic modern dance movement: one is the traditional “lifted dancer” (found in ballet with hips turned out or in modern dance with the feet in parallel), and the other is the Graham dancer.

Years later I encountered this center again, but this time it came in the form of a theatre training developed by the Japanese theatre director and innovator Tadashi Suzuki. Being Japanese, Suzuki is heir to the centuries-old theatre traditions of Noh and Kabuki. Yet he is best understood as a director working within western theatre traditions. For example, he is on record as saying that it was his special mission to rediscover an energy possessed by classical Greek theatre, but that has subsequently been lost. There are a number of suggestive similarities between the Graham and Suzuki techniques, and what I have to say about one will generally be true of the other. First and most important is their shared focus on the center of the body. In the Suzuki technique much is made of developing a powerful, irresistible core that is the source of the actor’s expression. The idea behind this is to promote the will of the body as a force of nature to be unleashed on stage, and to do this requires a very demanding physical training. Imagine a very powerful person standing behind you with a big stick, who shouts ‘Move!’ And you move, the impulse emanating from a place just below and behind the navel. Despite the fact that you only slide one foot forward about 6 inches, an observer might describe your movement as exceptional, undismissible, emblematic of the full force of inexorable fate.

The Suzuki theatre company in Toga, Japan, is known for its stagings of the classical Greek plays—Medea, the Agammemnon, and other works that, if not specifically belonging to the classical period, are classical in attitude. Now, consider the fact that Graham created an unusual amount of work that dealt with classical Greek myths and stories. Moreover, any opus of hers that wasn’t obviously based on these sources can nevertheless be understood as classical in tone and bearing, expressing a monumental, even heroic mode—the modern ballet, Appalachian Spring, for example. It is difficult to separate the inordinate amount of attention paid by each artist to the power center in the belly from the kind of work they were each prone to make: the physical choices that performers make have aesthetic consequences.

Another example: near the beginning of this section I mentioned the work of choreographer Jose Limon as being the most influential modern technique on my own dance career. Limon was part of the next generation of American choreographers after Graham. When he was developing his own brand of movement, he did something that is not generally fully appreciated—he placed the center of the performer in the breast, identifying it with the heart. When I was studying Limon technique in San Francisco, my teacher, Aaron Osbourne, talked incessantly about the heart, how it was the center of the technique and the true organ of vision for the dancer. Aaron—one of the last, great, male soloists to come out of the Limon company—was fond of describing the heart as a setting sun. In this way, Limon announced the nature of his artistic obsession. In the history of American modern dance, this marked a significant shift from the Graham aesthetic because those who work from the heart center are predisposed to speak about different things, and to speak about them differently. Limon was anything but classical; he didn’t want to put larger-than-life figures (tragic or otherwise) on stage. Instead he wanted to talk about the human condition, symbolized by the crown of thorns of Christ and the suffering heart of the Virgin Mary pierced by seven swords.

The one thing I do not want to do is suggest a progression from the base of the spine, to the navel, and thence to heart center—somehow aligning the evolution of theatre and dance styles with the chakras. Instead, what I’m trying to do is demonstrate a principle. Consider one of the several techniques devised by Michael Chekhov that involves creating temporary, largely imaginary centers in the body. Exactly as we have come to understand the value of the center in my previous examples, all movement and motivation is understood to flow from this temporary center. A center in Chekhov’s method can be anywhere and possessed of any characteristic— even those not traditionally associated with that part of the body—there is no hard and fast rule outside of respecting what works. Whether it is imagined as a tiny, hard bead at the tip of the nose; or as a setting sun in the heart; or as an irresistible force of concentrated will deep in the vitals, the temporary center is a proven, highly effective tool for the actor. By imagining any number of custom-made centers endowed with various qualities at different places in, on, and about the body, it is possible for actors to totally transform themselves, changing everything about how they move, speak, and even think.

Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, the place she grew up, that it was a place where there was no there there. This is easily one of the most common and fatal problems an actor can face—we see them, and yet we don’t because they don’t seem real to us, lacking a center. There are perhaps cultural reasons why we produce so many ineffectual individuals, incapable of insisting on their own physical presence in time and space. In my opinion, some of the philosophies and techniques that purport to help actors have actually contributed to the problem. They do so by misrepresenting the true nature of the quality of ease, and by demonizing meaningful, physical effort. The result is that these actors cannot succeed unless, somehow, they can acquire a center. Some have a center to begin with, and others do not; and some that have it are not consciously aware that they do, but benefit from it nonetheless. A full understanding of the value of the physical center, allied with a practice that promotes competency in exploiting this kind of energy, can lead to miraculous results.

There is a memorable story concerning Michael Chekhov. By the end of his life he was living in Hollywood where he had a studio, and where he trained actors. During this period of his life, the story goes, he was demonstrating an aspect of his technique involving something called the imaginary body. To this day, the people who witnessed this demonstration claim that this notably small Russian man—about five and a half feet tall—transformed himself into a nine-foot giant. As an experienced audience person I can vouch that these types of experiences are both real and fairly common, especially at the upper end of the theatre-going experience where one is apt to see amazing performances.

When I was a student at UCLA my choreography class was visited by another Japanese theatre artist, also named Suzuki, who was a choreographer in the recent Japanese dance tradition of Butoh. He taught us a piece of choreography, the final gesture of which included instructions to touch a dot floating in front of the body. Touching the dot would cause it to expand into a large, dark hole. When this happened we were instructed to step inside, the hole promptly closing behind us. In this way we were supposed to disappear. Our efforts were less than satisfactory, involving recourse to mime, symbolism, and desperate pretending. Then he performed the sequence. To this day I still have a vivid memory of the dot and how it expanded to reveal a dark void. But more amazing by far was his disappearance. Clearly, what I saw with the imagination and what my eyes actually saw were two different things. But the importance of the eyes was totally diminished, while that of the imagination became my primary reality. And what’s more, this was a shared experience for everyone present.


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© Robert H. Allen


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