When Gabriel Halpern steps in front of a class at the Yoga Circle, his studio in Chicago, he doesn't just teach. He tells stories, taking the part of the different characters, hamming up the vocalizations, using facial expressions and movement.
When Guru Singh teaches at Yoga West in Los Angeles, often he'll take up his guitar before giving a single posture or exercise.
Many teachers approach their yoga classes as a musician or actor would a performance. Indeed, the stage and the teacher's bench are linked in a number of ways. Both teachers and actors must project. They must hold the attention of their audiences. They must be able to plan and improvise. These similarities may account for why so many former performers become yoga teachers.
But there are also subtler, spiritual connections between yoga teaching and performance. As it happens, seasoned performers come to yoga teaching with some advantages, and yoga teachers in turn can learn much from performers and their disciplines.
To Me or Not to Me
The path of the yoga teacher, like that of acting, has always required a precarious balance of self-confidence and selflessness, of ego and transcending ego.
Leah Kalish knows both paths. Kalish starred in soap operas, sitcoms, and movies before becoming program director for Yoga Ed., a Los Angeles-based company that designs yoga programs for children.
"When you get trained as an actor, dancer, and singer," Kalish says, "you really learn how to hold the space for yourself. Being able to do that, you get to be a space that other people can connect to." Which is why, Kalish continues, "when you see a really good teacher, they always show up on some level as entertaining."
For Krishna Kaur, a former Broadway performer and now the founder of Y.O.G.A. for Youth, truthfulness is "the line that separates a so-so singer and a good singer," a good actor and a great actor. Lack of truthfulness is the thing that gives the word performance its negative connotation: "You're lying. You're putting it on. You're making it up. You're not really sincere."
Guru Singh—who brought the guitar from his 1960s musical career into his yoga classes, and onto a collaborative album with rock star Seal—embraces the word. "From day one, coming out of the womb, I've been performing," he says. "I performed as an infant and as an adult, as a musician and as a yoga teacher. None of which is a false performance. And the more present we are, the better we are at being [in] that role."
Gabriel Halpern studied theater at Queens College during the 1960s. But only later did he discover that the preparation exercises he had been taught were a mixture of tai chi, Chinese acrobatics, and yoga poses.
Now, in addition to his yoga studio instruction, Halpern teaches actors at DePaul University in Chicago. His students absorb a basic curriculum that includes yoga, Feldenkrais, and the Alexander Technique.
"Over the last 10 to 15 years, the evolution of theater productions, because of the addition of yoga, has been fantastic to see," Halpern says. "The bodies of the actors are looser. They do stretches onstage. You really see how they've been trained."
In the Spotlight
Edward Clark, 51, was studying dance in Toronto in 1978 when he was introduced to yoga. In the 1990s, the connections he found between dance and yoga became an integral part of the performances given by his world-traveling troupe, Tripsichore.
"You can tell the difference between the people who are genuine artists versus people who are performers when something goes wrong onstage," says Clark from his current home in London. "The people who are artists tend to really enjoy that. They have to cope with it immediately. You have this moment in front of 800 people, and you have to make it work."
Clark says that the truly great yoga teachers and stellar performers have another commonality: They see the value of reaching everyone in the room, and they have the power to do it.
"I saw Iggy Pop do something really interesting once," Clark says, remembering a Calgary concert in the 1990s by the weathered American punk-rocker. "I knew from the size of the venue that he wasn't making eye contact with anybody. At the end of a song, he took his gaze out to the back of the room and said, 'Thank you,' and just sort of cast this net of humility over everybody, so everybody felt included."
The lesson is simple for teachers and performers alike, says Clark: "One gets seduced by the people in the front row, and you miss out on what's going on in the far corners."
It's that kind of humility and compassion that awaits us at the far end of our practice.
The teacher's bench is, in many ways, a spiritual stage. Every class is a combination of preparation and improvisation. Here are a few ways to fine-tune the performance art of yoga teaching.
Cope with stage fright. When Annelise Hagen, author of The Yoga Face (Avery 2007), started teaching, she experienced the same kind of stage fright she did during her acting career in the 1990s. "I've come to the point [now] that I think it's a good thing," Hagen says, "because it shows me that I care." Leah Kalish's yoga stage fright ended when she realized that she didn't have to know everything. "Teaching is about holding a space for a discovery process. When you walk in, you're bringing the playground with you."
Be a part of the ensemble. How do we ward off our ego's need for attention and adulation, two pitfalls for successful yoga teachers and actors alike? The discipline of acting has its own solution. "I used to do these Method exercises," says Hagen. "One was called Selfless Involvement, where if you're feeling self-conscious or self-absorbed, you just put all of your attention on your scene partner. As a teacher, if I'm thinking about myself, I just bring it back to service, and what the class needs. Think about being part of the ensemble."
Play to perfection. Good performers bring all of their skills and experiences to bear in their stagecraft. A good teacher does the same. Says Edward Clark, "The idea is that, if you're an actor and you're playing a villain, you don't have to be a villain. But if you can't find the villain in yourself, the audience detects fraud. I think yoga students are pretty good at detecting fraud." The more of yourself you invest in your classes, the better and more honest your performance will be.
"An artist's job," says Krishna Kaur, "is to tell the truth." Yoga teaching, like acting or singing or dancing, is just one form of delivering that truth.
Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade and studied under Gurmukh and the late Yogi Bhajan, Ph.D. He lives, writes, and teaches in New York City.