Ahead of her upcoming four week course on being present and playful in improv, Cat Murphy shows us how improv and yoga practices can mutually benefit from one another…
Improv can be stressful.
Making stuff up on the spot? In front of people? On a STAGE?
Fight or flight mode: engaged!
I often become overwhelmed and overexcited on stage (sometimes all at once!) and have found yoga techniques such as scanning the body to release tension, engaging my breath, and connecting to the ground beneath my feet have helped me play from a place of calm.
This got me wondering: if yoga has affected my improv… has improvising affected my yoga? After a little digging, it turns out that yes! My processes in improv and yoga benefit each other in many ways.
Here are some gems I found in my digging process:
Awareness of the body as our tool, our home, and our friend.
We use our bodies all day, every day. When acting, sleeping, running, writing, thinking, breathing, eating crisps, watching telly. Yoga helps me discover and rediscover ways my body can move and feel. Theatre Practitioner Maria Kapsali discovered that ‘yoga can increase self-awareness and physical vocabulary, increase connectivity with ourselves and others, and help with imagination and visualisation in theatre.’ The more familiar we are with our bodies, the more comfortable we are with accessing it as a tool, which is hella useful as according to studies, 55% of our communication is through body language.
The Present Moment (that old chestnut)
It’s been said before and I’ll say it again: in improvisation, the only place we can play is in the present moment we are creating. But what is the present moment? Simply put, it is right now – the time when things are happening. If we’re thinking ahead or trying to plan the action, we are disengaging from the moment and our fellow player(s).
We train in anchoring our attention onto the action, onto our scene partner, to listen and respond to what’s happening right now. That’s what’s so exciting about live improvisation, we are celebrating the shared present moment in all its joyful immediacy. Similarly, in yoga, we focus on the present by anchoring awareness onto the self – be that the breath, the body or the experience of mind, with the aim of really being with ourselves right now.
Shark Mind is Our Friend
Much to my chagrin, yoga has taught me that the brain doesn’t stop thinking. It’s like how sharks never stop swimming, it just what minds do. I sit and meditate, and my mind comes with me, thinking about anything but the task in front of me. I go on stage, and yep, my mind is in tow, jabbering away.
This used to really bother me, until I discovered that in improv thinking is our friend, and that if we work with it rather than against it, our imagination can delight and surprise us. This then helped me realise that the goal of yoga isn’t to never allow the mind it to wander but to notice with kindness when it does. We can notice what we’re thinking and use our wandering, free-associating mind to inform our play and bring truthful contributions to a scene. We can own the thoughts rather than letting them distract us. We can use our whizzing, wonderful ever-thinking minds to our advantage. We can trust our instincts and let our shark-minds be our friends.
Curiosity is a doorway to listening.
Curiosity drives our intention and strengthens our capacity to listen. If we are interested in ourselves and those around us, we are more likely to investigate, explore, pay attention, and in turn find what delights and inspires. I see yoga as an act of compassionate curiosity. As Adriene Mishler puts it “find what feels good”. I’ve found this mantra hugely helpful in my improv – knowing what feels good in my own body and experience helps me negotiate boundaries, as well as helping me follow the fun of a scene and play wholeheartedly.
Listening requires vulnerability.
When we listen in improv, really listen, and allow our scene partner to affect us, we tear up our plan for how we think the scene should go, and instead follow the ideas that are unfolding between you organically. It’s vulnerable. And it’s this vulnerability which leads to moments of spontaneity, joy and connection. As actor, Alan Alda puts it: “When I’m willing to let them change me, something happens between us that’s more interesting than a pair of dueling monologues.”
When we listen in yoga, we can discover strength and mobility in ourselves, as well as tension, aches and pains. The whole shebang. But that’s where the truth is, and this provides a platform for us to see, accept and say “yes, and” to ourselves where we are.
Embracing the Suck
For me, yoga poses aren’t a series of finished products. They are tools for listening and accessing messy, explorative processes. They are meant to be experienced, not performed. Similarly, improvisation celebrates the process of making things up and getting things wrong. To engage with yoga or improv is to risk not being perfect.
Brene Brown once said: “I believe that you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore . . . embrace the suck.” This quote sheds light for me on how my two favourite practices require vulnerability to be brave. I’ve learned that when we embrace the suck in both improv and yoga, when we celebrate moments of messiness, we allow ourselves to grow.
To risk sucking is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to be brave. To be brave is to be present.
Being brave, in the present, listening, staying curious and seeking what feels good?
These are qualities I value both onstage and on the mat, yes. And I’ve also found that the wisdom and truth found in both practices have a lot to offer in terms of personal development, growth and connection in our day-to-day lives.
Cat will be teaching a 4 week course Exploring Improv: Being Present and Playful, starting on 10th August, 7pm – 9pm.