Yoga, footlights, and curtain calls have far more in common than you may think. Besides such high-profile practitioners as Madonna, Woody Harrelson, David Duchovny, and Nicholas Cage, yoga advocates have included British director Peter Brook and the late Polish director Jerzy Growtowski. Even the famed Russian actor/director Konstantin Stanislavsky, father of "Method" acting, included yoga in his acting training.
According to the supple and well-informed, yoga is gaining respect in the realms of both stage and screen because of its unique ability to clear an actor's mind while preparing his or her body for the demands of the work. Margaret Eginton, head of the movement program at the American Repertory Theater and the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard, says yoga can be especially beneficial to beginning actors because it helps them access "the zone"—that particular state of consciousness where creativity can flourish unencumbered.
New York City actress Terry Richmond, who's also an instructor at Integral Yoga Uptown Center, has appeared in more than 500 performances of the Broadway production of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Richmond says her yoga training plays an important role in her ability to release tension and obtain a quiet mind. "Acting is very stressful," she says. "Yoga helps me to put away outside thoughts and be 'in the moment' in the show. That way, I can offer the audience a fresh take—something true within myself and within my work."
While yoga has found a home on a variety of stages, ranging from large universities such as Columbia and Harvard to small community colleges like Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, no particular form of yoga seems to prevail. Robin Aronson, a University of Oregon Ph.D. candidate whose studies have focused on the benefits of yoga in actor training programs at higher education institutions nationwide, has found one thing in common: While the majority of educators she's interviewed readily acknowledge yoga's psycho-spiritual teachings, not everyone feels comfortable incorporating this aspect into their instruction. Aronson regards this hesitation as a direct response to the uneasiness many people feel about subject matter with even remotely religious connotations being included in a classroom setting. The focus remains largely on yoga's physical and mental benefits, and its ability to develop focus and concentration.
Yoga, says Aronson, cultivates not only a variety of physical abilities, but a heightened awareness that is especially important for actors. "It focuses them for the work ahead," she explains. "Yoga relaxes, centers, and balances while integrating the actions of the body and the mind, which is crucial for acting."
San Francisco Bay Area actor/director Don Williams, who studied yoga as part of his graduate training at the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver, Colorado, agrees. "An actor has to be both an emotional and physical athlete," he says. "Yoga offers a way of opening up our physical and emotional beings. Tension can block emotional and artistic impulses. Yoga helps release them."
Whether yoga offers as many benefits to screen actors as to stage actors is a matter of conjecture. Williams, who works in both mediums, feels its application may be more effective in a theater setting because of the continuity of a theatrical performance. On the set, he explains, there are constant distractions. "In theater, you have a sustained block of time, and there's nowhere to hide. In film," he says, laughing, "there's always another take."
Who knows? Perhaps if Shakespeare had indulged in a good stretch now and then, Romeo and Juliet might have had a happier ending.