It is surprising to me to write I am a 55-year-old actor and have been developing my yoga practice for 17 years.
I did not meet yoga because of my chosen job but rather because in my late thirties, I found myself in a failing relationship and feeling sedentary, a feeling not helped by riding a motorcycle (which I now realise is restricting for the lower back and hips) – I needed some change.
A chance encounter with Bill Wood’s notice at a local Friend’s Meeting House invited me to what turned out to be a Sivananda-style yoga class. The Sivananda practice introduces pranayama immediately and with all the breath and voice work my actor training had given me, this immediately felt familiar even if the names and specific techniques were not. Then the asana work; here too drama training provided a context from which to approach the challenging physical movements. I immediately loved the feeling of space in my body and my mind and it seems to me now I was just waiting for yoga to find me. It was a fit. It made me smile.
Guided by Bill’s encouragement in class and on a C60 cassette tape, which I used so much it eventually stretched and broke, I started my journey, all the while asking how I should take this into my life.
I began to search out other styles and discovered my first Ashtanga teacher. Bingo: challenge, form and a profound sense of peace and change at the end of practice. It is now always to this that I return.
I wanted to write this to reflect on how my yoga impacts on my professional life of an actor. So let’s start with the breath. Free breathing (Ujjyai) encourages a depth of breath very beneficial to the voice and with the physical postures (asana) stretches and strengthens the muscles of the abdomen, ribs, back and vocal apparatus. It is self-evident: we cannot speak without breathing, but you would be surprised how restricted a lot of people’s breathing can be.
I have delivered presentation workshops to businesses that have allowed me to work with people who are primarily office-based. Almost without exception they will breathe only into the top of their chests and as a consequence have restricted voices.
Appreciate the difference between your chant at beginning and end of class: you will notice a distinct deepening of tone and greater resonance resulting from your practise while using the Ujjyai breath.
Acting can be very physical, running, jumping, fighting, repetitive movements and I am very clear that the resulting strength and flexibility I have gained from my practice has given me a resilience and stamina that gives someone 30 years my junior a run for their money.
Important as these two areas are I think the greatest benefit can be understood by reading the first of Patanjali’s sutras:
yogaha chitta vritti nirodaha – yoga stills the fluctuations of the mind.
An actor’s life is famously uncertain. A self-employed life in which no sooner has one started a job before you are thinking of the end and the need to be cast in the next one. Like the washing up, it is never done. Uncertainty can breed fear and fear is a major barrier to any actor. It is certainly very unhelpful to be fearful in the rehearsal room. Producing any play is a collaborative process, there is no right answer and it requires us all to be constantly testing and trying and asking questions of ourselves and each other. It requires us to be playful and kind and brave. How can we be these things if we are fearful of ourselves and others?
I am not suggesting a yoga practice will banish negative feelings but I know when I have conducted my practice before rehearsals and when I have not. When I have I feel lighter, more relaxed, more present and more able to focus and be playful. Why would I not wish to give myself the best possible opportunity in which to work? And for those days when I have not had the time or inclination for a full practice then I have great toolkit to use. Feeling nervous and have a ‘scattered’ head. Nadi Shodana. Need to wake your breathing and stretch your chest? Utkatasana. Want to wake your brain up? Sirsasana. Whatever, wherever, whenever there’s a pose that will help you.
Don’t delay. Start today.
Chris Wright has worked as an actor for over thirty years appearing on stage in the West End, the National and Royal Shakespeare companies and many theatres around the country. He has been a regular contributor in Radio 4 and World Service dramas. He was last seen on TV at Christmas in the BBC’s drama Death Comes To Pemberly. He is currently rehearsing in Manchester for The Library Theatre Company’s production of The Seagull.