How Yoga Helps Actors

Actor and yoga teacher Jennie Olson Six
Actor and yoga teacher Jennie Olson Six

Whether Jennie Olson Six is preparing for an acting audition or just feels a little off, you can find her working it out on a yoga mat.

“I would say yoga and creativity are very connected to me because that’s how my life happened,” she says.

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Actors like Olson Six have found yoga is a way to develop control over movement and breath. It can make them more aware of their physical bodies and emotions. With awareness comes a choice. How do you want to perform this role? How do you want to be in the world?

“As an actor I need to be able to use all of my faculties. I need to be in my body. Yoga helps me really get very present with my body and what’s going on with it. And it’s also a tool to get rid of stuff. To release the tension, to release, to clear, to discharge,” she says.

But don’t you have to be super flexible to do yoga? Not according to Olson Six.

Yoga is weightlifting with stretching. Yoga is going to work on physical strength and it’s going to work on your flexibility. So not everybody comes from a gymnastics background. I came from a very inactive background,” she says.

Meditation and Yoga

Before learning yoga, Olson Six started experimenting with meditation. She joined a guided meditation group at the age of 18 or 19 years old.  She explains, “And prior to that, I had some really, very mixed, weird experiences in religion.  Anything from Lutheran to fundamentalist talking in tongues… I was not really kind of keen on anything that I had seen so far.”

“So when I got involved in meditation, that was in a time in my life that was very chaotic. And I found not only how it gave me a sense of peace, it also helped me refocus and find more purpose in my life,” she says.

The actor experienced the kind of deep meditation that makes you lose track of time. Her mind was quiet, but she believes that shouldn’t be the sole goal of mediation. “The goal is not to stop the mind. It’s to stop focusing on all that endless chatter. Because once that slows down, then there’s an extreme sense of peace that can happen,” says Olson Six.

She moved from Washington State to Southern California during the late 1990s. That’s when she started to become interested in yoga. Her first attempts were through watching tapes at home.

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“Tapes? Yes, VHS. It was the thing before Blu-ray,” she laughs. A chaotic relationship and the demands to look a certain way in California made her get into yoga. “I do remember that I plugged this thing in, and (it was) the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I couldn’t even do all of it. I kept thinking, ‘How do these people do this? This is crazy.’”

World Theater

As she started becoming more involved with yoga, she took a world theater class because it looked interesting. In her words, it was a “complete fluke.” Like others, Olson Six thought theater was something you did in high school. Professional theater? That was for someone else.

A theater instructor named Bonnie Showers changed her perception about theater. “She got her Master’s degree at the University of Hawaii. I remember this part. She was one of the first women to be taught about the Noh Theatre of Japan from a leading actor in Noh Theatre. She was amazing.”

International guest artists visited the class to introduce them to new ideas and diverse ways of performing. The experience had a profound effect on the actor. Olson Six explains, “She just completely opened my eyes to the fact that the world had a place for everybody.”

Integrating Yoga and Acting

Jennie Olson Six with husband, Kevin Six
Jennie Olson Six with husband, Kevin Six

Yoga has enhanced Olson Six’s acting ability. She understands the effect emotions have on the nervous system. Such knowledge increases her ability to move within the worlds of her characters.

“As an actor you really have to be able to use your whole body. What I seeing is what happens is actors get older and stiff. And then they can’t use their body. And it’s all stuck in their chest and in their neck. And even the most gentle yoga will help anybody just keep things moving. And that’s so important… You have to have access to all your faculties as an actor and particularly, I found with yoga on an emotional level, there’s certain things that really help me release. There’s no disconnection between your mind and your body. There is none. If you think that you having an emotion doesn’t affect you, then why are your shoulders tight? Why is your back tight? Why is your jaw clenched?”

Since she now has more physical control of her body, Olson Six can choose to release or add tension. She can make decisions based on where tension is located or even if the character is aware that tension exists. Such detail allows her to bring roles to reality. “This is the other part of what we do. We’re really not trying to create characters on stage; we’re really trying to create humans on stage. And in films. And everywhere.”

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Advice for Yoga Beginners

Yoga props. Photo by Average Jane
Yoga props. Photo by Average Jane

As an experienced yoga instructor, Olson Six strongly suggests beginners visit different teachers before making a commitment. They should also practice discernment and listen to their intuition. Teachers with similar body issues as your own will have insight into your situation. Although she is quick to add that someone with 20 or 30 years of teaching experience will also have a firm understanding of all body types.

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“You just want to stay safe,” she says.

Olson Six practices Iyengar Yoga, which uses props to help achieve people right alignment. She explains, “So if you are dealing with back issues. You are in pain, I would suggest seeking out an Iyengar teacher is going to be a big one to talk to because they are highly trained. And they are very knowledgeable about how to use props.”

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A lot of people end up using yoga for the fitness regime, and she says that where a lot of injuries happen. Be sure to start slowly and safely.

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Olson Six is also quick to point out there are many forms of yoga. She may even recognize a yoga pose in a fellow actor’s stretching exercises. The main thing for actors is to keep the body moving.

What about actors with physical limitations? They too can benefit from yoga.

“But in order to deal with life on life’s terms, I think I will always have some form of practice because yoga is not just a physical practice. There’s a breath practice, there’s also ethical observation…. I’m giving a very short abbreviation of this…. There’s a meditation practice. All of those that has little to do with the physical body other than breathing. There is a practice of withdrawing senses and close your eyes. There’s a focused concentration for instance if you focus on a candle, a lit candle. Or you focus on a spot…. And the whole point is to get to this place of Samadhi, of bliss. So I don’t think I will ever not be practicing yoga in some form. Because it helps me in my life. And what I need to be able to do in my life is be a better actor. To really do just the best that I can.“