When I first told my yoga students that I did improv comedy, they were surprised – sort of. “Wait, what?!” said one, then immediately followed it up with, “Actually, never mind. I can see it.” The next week, that same student came up to me before class and said, “Abby! I’m coming to your show tonight!” And while I am usually glad when my friends come to see my shows, my first thought this time was: Oh dear. She’s going to see a whole different side of me – what if I do something offensive on stage?! What if her image of me as a peaceful and loving yoga teacher crumbles and she never returns to my class again?? But of course what I said was: “Oh yay!!” Then I spent the rest of the afternoon wondering why I felt self-conscious about my two worlds merging.
As an improvisational comedian, I have had to develop my philosophy of comedy. My philosophy thus far has been simple: make fun of everything, including and especially myself. At the same time I have been cultivating my philosophy of comedy, however, I have also been honing a seemingly opposite philosophy of mindfulness (what some might call a “spiritual philosophy”): love everything, including and especially myself.
For years, I have seen the similarities between improv and yoga, but struggled to explain it. They are both about listening, and about being present. Both are about releasing expectations, accepting offers, and seeing possibilities, rather than obstacles. In Tina Fey’s chapter, Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Bellyfat, she observes: “As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ‘No, that’s not in the budget.’ ‘No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.’” She asks the reader, “What kind of way is that to live?” To Fey, accepting offers and saying yes is not just a way to perform: it is a way to be. I have a similar reaction as a yoga teacher. I am baffled when I meet people who belittle their skills, habits, and beliefs, or think they are fixed. I get very upset when people say things like: “I’ll never be able to touch my toes,” “I could never run a marathon,” or “I can’t do yoga – I have a bad back.” I want to shake them (lovingly) and shout (kindly), “Just freaking try it!!!!”
There is another important commonality between improv and yoga: both are terrifying. And while the terror is more obvious with improv (there’s a whole audience watching you if you fail), it doesn’t take long to reach that terrifying place in yoga. Over the last seven years, I’ve quit two full-time jobs, gone through three major breakups, moved across the country, and tried to make a living teaching yoga, performing improv, and writing. All of these things are and were terrifying, and for all of these things, I blame yoga. And improv. Through yoga, I have grown to understand, appreciate, and love my whole self: physical, mental, and emotional. Through improv, I have learned to listen, laugh, and fail gracefully (as well as publicly). And while I believe I have always known myself, deep down, yoga and improv have encouraged me to exhume my deepest, darkest, and, incidentally, brightest self.
Yoga shakes us up (lovingly), and shouts (kindly): “This is you! Here you are!” While this shaking and shouting may initially throw us off course and create more chaos than we lived with before, it ultimately allows us to reassess the course we’re on, clearing out space to make sense of the mess that was previously stacked in a neat pile, behind several doors and walls. Improv does a similar thing: it requires us to observe what is happening right now, and to respond in a way that makes sense. Scenes move forward when characters listen to each other, build upon each other, and give what they have to offer. The best scenes are those where we commit to our characters, where we are not afraid of the dark. It is frightening, invigorating, uncomfortable, and hilarious all at once. If this sounds like a metaphor for life, it is. When we see ourselves clearly, we can love ourselves fully. When we love ourselves fully, we can see others clearly and contribute positively. The darkness that once scared us becomes yet another thing to explore. And thank goodness for our scene partners! They are here to reminds us that whatever we do and whoever we are, we are worth saying yes to.