5 ways in which improv is like yoga | Theatre School | March

In advance of the launch of the latest improvisation courses to come from the Bristol Improv Theatre, Theatre School manager and instructor Imogen Palmer speaks about some of the ways improvisation and yoga go hand in hand…

1. There are no grades and certificates

As a student of improv, or yoga, or even yogalates (the combo of yoga and pilates), there are no exams. We have never ‘done’ or finished the practice; no-one is there to shake our hand and give us a grade or formal accreditation. This might prove challenging psychologically for a lot of us who have grown up in an education system which models itself on capitalism. Eg. I pay XX amount of money or give XX amount of time in order to acquire XX learning and YY qualification or upgrade. 

Or, more simply: 

Money + Time = Learning + Qualification.

Unfortunately, this isn’t really how the human brain works. Learning is a wonderful thing and qualifications can help us to motivate the learning but all of our brains and bodies operate in different ways and we progress and learn in different ways. It is very hard (and I would dare say impossible) to categorise what makes an A* improviser or an A* yoga human (I am assuming this is the phrase). 

With practices like improv or yoga, we may grow in confidence, become more skillful and do more advanced moves which win us praise from our teachers and peers but there is no systemised ‘good’ way to ‘win’ at either. Personally, I prefer learning for the sake of learning and growing in random peaks and troughs. However, it took a lot of reflecting and psychological unpicking of my schooling to get to that point.

2. We need to keep practicing the foundation tools, no matter how long we have been doing the practice

After 8 years of performing and training in improv, I experienced a massive confidence dip which shook me to my core and made me so anxious I sometimes pulled out of shows or rehearsals the same day of the event. This was not making myself or the companies I was working with very happy. Fortunately, around this time, I was invited by Caitlin at the Bristol Improv Theatre to shadow the their introductory ‘Discovering’ course which meant I got to take part in and do a class with a bunch of people who were discovering improv for the first time. I got to share in the joy of their discoveries and remind myself of some of the fundamentals: listening, support, courage, acceptance and playfulness.

I was reminded that improv isn’t all about looking good or clever, the best improv emerges from listening and play. My anxiety melted away following the course and I could perform again. 

Even really experienced improvisers (and I’ve seen people who’ve been doing it for 20 years do this) can forget basics sometimes and no matter how clever you are, the basics transform a good show into a mind-blowing show and a successful company into a healthy, sustainable and successful company.

I would encourage all improvisers to consider taking beginner’s courses sometimes, especially if you’ve somehow lost the joy.

As for yoga? Well, we can’t learn to spin on our head without practicing our downward facing dog.

3. Listening to your body makes it easier

I never perform without a physical warm up.

Even if I’ve only got 5 minutes to prep, I’ll make sure to do a spinal roll to ground myself and some vocal and mouth exercises so my speaking voice is warmed-up. Why? Improvisers are storytellers and if our instruments aren’t in tune, people won’t be able to understand what we are saying or doing. Furthermore, there’s a ‘talking heads’ syndrome which can occur in improv, when performers perform with their heads and voices alone, forgetting the rest of their body. I find it much more fun to play with my whole body, and practising being grounded keeps any fidgety, distracting habits at bay.

With a bit more time, I’ll do a whole mini yoga session pre-show. Who knows when you might need to head stand on stage? (I do not advise this!)

4. They make you more flexible.

Yoga may stretch your body but improv can stretch your mind…(word up man!)

I’ve found practicing the skill of ‘happy fail’ and making each other’s mistakes on stage look amazing can help us to develop openness, build resilience and the ability to bounce back. There are not many opportunities in the real world where we actively put ourselves in stressful situations (like warm-up games) and then celebrate the moments where our brains get overloaded and we don’t zip the zap perfectly (or whatever the warm-up is). Happy fail doesn’t mean we don’t aim for excellent work when we want to make an excellent improv show. The practice of it is a tool to allow us to become freer and more skillful performers and humans who keep going when ‘mistakes’ occur.

Just like how when you fart in yoga, you don’t need to leave the class, you can blame it on the person next to you by looking at them sternly. 

5. They are fun!

Ok, I know yoga is probably not everyone’s cup of tea but I finish a yoga session in the same way I finish a skillfully-led improv class or rehearsal: energised, lightened from the burdens of my day, feeling more emotionally and physically connected and full of a bit more love for the world. 2020 marks a really exciting time as we expand our theatre school. Our courses combine the best exercises I’ve learnt with improvisation masters from across the world, combined with the BIT School’s unique supportive and challenging learning environment where students are given the platform to play, take risks and discover new skills in a fun and exciting way.

You can look at all of our courses including introductory, performance skills and family on our Theatre School page.

Photography by Lee Pullen

We are currently online only due to the pandemic. Follow us on