(Photo credit: Broadway star, Tony Award-winner and Ziva Meditator Lauren Benanti in She Loves Me. Photo by Joan Marcus)
Originally written for Broadway World, the below speaks to how actors can benefit from having a meditation practice. However, substitute “actor” for any job title that requires making presentations, multi-tasking or managing stress, and it’s relevant across the board. Enjoy!
By Emily Fletcher
As an actor, you use a lot tools to help improve your performance. You take improv classes, attend on-camera workshops, work with a coach to build your brand, and go through a routine of vocal and physical warmups before every audition. But there’s one tool you may not have picked up yet, and it’s a game changer: meditation.
If you’re rolling your eyes right now, let me tell you a bit about why meditation for actors is such a valuable tool. It has nothing to do with crystals or kaftans or juju. But it has everything to do with neuroscience and your body’s chemical response to stress.
Imagine that it’s 10,000 years ago and you see a saber-tooth tiger charging at you. Your brain perceives the danger and an instinctive fight-or-flight response kicks in via your sympathetic nervous system. Your body secretes adrenaline and cortisol, your heart rate increases, your digestion stops, and you get tunnel vision. Basically, all of your bodily systems work together in tandem to allow you to run away from the current situation so you don’t get eaten.
Now, here’s the problem: there are no saber-tooth tigers today, but our brains still have that fight-or-flight response to perceived threats. And the perceived threats in our age are things that induce stress; for actors, things like auditions or cold reads or big performances. So picture the stress reaction that I described above, and now picture it happening while you’re trying to do a scene. It’s going to be pretty difficult to listen to your partner and live truthfully within the given circumstances if your body is in escape mode. Have you ever had a performance where you felt like you rushed through your lines and weren’t connected to your body? Or an audition where you froze and couldn’t execute your monologue with any of the ease that you felt when you were rehearsing it? You have the stress response to thank for that.
This is where meditation comes in. The type that I teach at Ziva Meditation is all about reducing stress in the body by triggering the opposite effect of the fight-or-flight response. It activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the network of nerves that enacts the rest-and-digest response (e.g., calms you down and returns your body to its normal state of homeostasis). As a result, you’re relaxed and better able to be present, which is of course crucial when you’re going into a performance situation.
The Not-so-secret Secret
Just like any other skill, meditation only works if you do it. The practice that I teach involves two 20-minute sessions a day, which means that twice a day you’re removing stress from your body and guiding yourself back to the present moment. This can have some pretty instantaneous benefits for performers — I can’t tell you how many clients I have who notice a remarkable shift in their performances (and the amount that they’re booking) only days after starting a meditation practice. But the benefits are also cumulative, because the more you meditate the more relaxed you are at your baseline, and this bleeds not only into your performance onstage but in other areas of your life as well.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a little bit of my story. Eleven years ago, I was working as a swing in A Chorus Line. On paper I was living my dream, but in reality I was suffering from anxiety, had been struggling with insomnia for eighteen months, and was going grey at 26 years old. I finally took a meditation course upon the advice of a fellow cast member, and I immediately noticed a difference. I slept through the night for the first time in 8 months after the first day of the course, my anxiety dissolved, and I noticed a difference in the way I approached both my work and day-to-day life. A decade later, I am a radically happier person, and I know it’s because of meditation.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Ziva graduates include the incomparable Laura Benanti, Jenna Dewan-Tatum (and her hubby, Channing), Michelle Williams, Barrett Foa from NCIS LA, and Zabryna Guevara from X-Men and Gotham. Some other meditators you may recognize include Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Jackman, Lena Dunham, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jerry Seinfeld, Miranda Kerr….the list is growing every day as more and more performers uncover the benefits of a consistent meditation practice.