Yoga Asana, Lecoq’s Neutral Mask and Actor Training: what are the links?

In her fascinating talk Healing Trauma: The Light Shines Through the Broken Places Tara Brach (clinical psychologist and Buddhist meditation proponent) points out that most of us will have experienced trauma at some point in our lives. Loss of a loved one. Loss of a relationship or friendship. An illness. Career failure. Immigration. War. Neglectful parenting – these life events leave marks and, according to Brach, often develop into internalised shame, fear and agitation and so we may start organising our whole lives around not-feeling. The experience of numbed emotion results in the decreased ability to play and connect and remain stored in the body.

Vitality, Playfulness and Connection are fundamental qualities in the actor’s craft whilst the body is their main instrument to communicate with the audience.

In order to play an instrument we must, first of all, work out how it works (as well as practice it regularly). A classical guitar virtuoso knows immediately when the guitar is out of tune, when the strings are too tense or too relaxed, when the  bridge had moved out of its original place, when the wood had been affected by the humidity or heat. To master an instrument means to become aware of its possibilities as well as its limitations and be able to use them to their full potential.

The actor’s attunement to their body should be exactly the same. A skilled actor will have an increased spacial, physical and emotional awareness. They will use their body efficiently in order to breathe life into their creations which may move with a very different quality of movement from their own. The actor will understand – through the body – the relationship between emotion and movement, muscle tension and breath, the links between rhythm and space, the dance between effort and surrender. This mastery, of course, requires regular and consistent practice. 

In Lecoq-based actor training the journey into mastering one’s body and skill begins with the observation and awareness of ourselves through the work with The Neutral Mask.

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The Neutral Mask mask was designed by Italian sculptor and mask-maker Amleto Sartori in 1950s. As the facial expression is covered, a more significant emphasis falls on the body and on what’s communicated non-verbally, in silence.  Through the work with the mask students explore materials, elements and environments that are found in nature and tap into the movement of emotions and feelings which are universal. In Lecoq’s own words:

“It is a face which we call neutral, a perfectly balanced mask which produces a physical sensation of calm. This object, when placed on the face, should enable one to experience the state of neutrality prior to action, a state of receptiveness to everything around us, with no inner conflict. […] The Neutral mask opens the actor to the space around him. It puts him in a state of discovery, of openness, of freedom to receive. It allows him to watch, to hear, to feel, to touch elementary things with the freshness of beginings. […] When a student has experienced this starting point his body will be freed, like a blank page on which drama can be inscribed.” (The Moving Body)

The Neutral Mask is a tool which fosters a state of presence and calm on stage, encouraging the actor to move towards centeredness, alignment and authenticity:

“A character experiences conflict, has a history, a past, context, passions. On the contrary, a neutral mask puts the actor in a state of pure balance and economy of movement. Its moves have a truthfulness, its gestures and actions are economical. […] The neutral mask, in the end, unmasks.” (The Moving Body)

In 2019 we live in an over-stimulating, frenetic and fast moving world. It is the world of never ending admin tasks, noise, pollution, social media, competition, advertising, overworking, political unrest and the poisoned Planet Earth. This, in combination to our disconnection from nature, puts the body and mind into the state of chronic anxiety and stress – sometimes we’re so detached or busy or full that we can take no more. It is not a surprise at all that yoga, meditation, wellbeing classes, workshops and retreats have become extremely popular – we don’t only crave that perfect bikini body, what we really do crave from the bottom of our soul is silence, stillness and space. To feel. To connect. To breathe. To be a blank page even if for a moment.

As a yoga practitioner I see very strong links between the principles of Lecoq’s Neutral Mask training and the fundamental ideas surrounding yoga asana and meditation practices which, regardless of the style and method, will, unanimously, encourage the homecoming to ourselves whilst cultivating the awareness of our body and mind as well as the connection between the two. 

Yoga Asana is a body pose which has no narrative. In Lecoq’s terms it would represent a neutral and economical movement, a pure shape. Asana, just as the Neutral mask, revolves around the concept of alignment which, in movement practices, is a balanced distribution of effort/weight across the body in a certain shape. For Lecoq, alignment meant no conflict in the body, a state of no tension, pure presence. Neutrality, John Wright describes, is a study between power and economy (Why is That So Funny?). For Iyengar “It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.” (Light on Life)

When we are well aligned in an asana, we can experience its benefits at their full potential whilst resting our minds. Alignment increases strength, flexibility, fluidity and prevents injury. Being able to tap into neutrality (Lecoq’s equivalent for alignment) brings out the actor’s efficiency and depth, it moves the actor away from unnecessary personal gestures and frenetic state of mind and allows to enter the poetic dimension of timing, movement and space.

When we practice asana we enter a relationship with our body and mind. We might seek elegance, ease and grace, but are faced with the limits of our body – the tensions, tightness, lack of flexibility, the imperfect balance. This can be frustrating. Do we approach ourselves gently? Do we listen to our body or do we push too hard? Our minds race with thoughts, emotions come up.  Our defences begin to break down.

Similarly whilst working with the Neutral mask we have a desire to fabricate action, to be interesting, ‘to act’ which leads to the least desired result – in the context of asana this  ‘forcing’ would result in a torn hamstring or other significant injury. The Neutral mask teaches us to embrace silence, to be at peace with no action, to be open to receive. It can be both terrifying and fascinating to have that amount of space. It is not uncommon for the actor to feel trapped or burst into tears whilst working with the mask. We explore. We investigate ourselves.

All body-based practices are slow and the results are not immediate. They require patience, and the art of waiting is one of the most difficult to master. But if we continue to commit for long enough both practices empower. We start building a relationship with ourselves, we learn to observe our reactions and thoughts, we do not rush to identify with them straight away. This builds resilience to discomfort. This also builds compassion. And that is exactly the point when your body and mind surprise you (Oh my God I didn’t know I could  do this moment). There’s a crack and there’s a break through. 

When we become aware of the story imprinted in our bodies, its limitations and potential, we begin to see life through a different lens – a state of aliveness, not the brain fog that’s been imposed on us. We gain autonomy because we have the tools and resources. We can continue writing the story with more awareness. And the beautiful thing about theatre, and the arts in general, is that all our limitations can be turned into a power to entertain, move, challenge, provoke thought.

We are limited, and yet we are limitless.

Thank you for reading.

***

The Spacious Body: Yoga with Lecoq/Laban-inspired Movement

Mondays, 6.45 – 7.45 PM at Space 238 (Bristol)

More information: https://www.facebook.com/events/421138658521218

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