01 Apr '13
Posted in Blog by Eric Shaw
Arguably, no movie star past or present is as enchanting as Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jean Mortenson, 1926 – 1962).
Her beauty, projection of joy and innocence, knockout measurements, marriages to two of the greatest men of her time, acting skills, and consummate control of her career arc (including its dramatic end) all make her biography both tragic and triumphant–a dramatic outpicturing of the primal power of the feminine in modern life.
Her achievements were enhanced by yoga.
When did Yoga Begin for Her?
The first evidence of her practice appears near the time of her first acting contract (’46).
Of the 23 pictures below, the stark black-and-white ones in the same white outfit are from a set of promotional photos sent out in 1948.
Did she have Relationship to the Famous Teacher, Indra Devi?
Devi arrived in ’47, after a brief trip to Shanghai. She had been in India in ’46, teaching yoga and writing her first book.
The great maven soon had Olivia de Haviland, Ruth St. Denis, Gloria Swanson, Elizabeth Arden, Greta Garbo and other famous players in LA’s movie-making community as devotees.
The year Devi arrived was one year after Bikram Choudhury was born, and 23 years before yoga’s future bad boy drew Rachel Welch, Shirley Maclaine, Quincy Jones (at left, in 1978) and others to the practice, duplicating Devi’s feat. (Bikram got to Hollywood 8 years after Marilyn had died from suicide in nearby Brentwood).
I have often read that Marilyn studied with Devi, and until recently, this seemed not to be the case. There’s no statement by her, Devi, or someone else who witnessed it.
Devi’s Forever Young, Forever Healthy was published in ’53 with a list of her star clients. Monroe–at the height of fame–isn’t there.
However, just recently, a photo surfaced of Indra teaching Monroe in late 1960 (the first photo in the series, below). It is my guess that Devi began working with Monroe near this time, and therefore didn’t mention her in her books; the last one she published came out a year earlier–Yoga for Americans in 1959.
Who Else might have Taught Her?
There were other major yoga teachers in LA and New York at the time, including Yogi Vithaldas. Clara Spring and Rishi Singh Gherwal (all pictured here–Vithaldas is hanging out his tongue with the violinist, Yehudi Menuhin), along with Deva Ram Sukul (who taught Mae West).
Marilyn could have learned from any of them, minor teachers, books, or someone outside SoCal. Yoga was “new-ish” and she was innovative with her workouts. Below, we see her doing what seems to be an unusual practice of yoga with weights.
How did She Practice?
It’s been my good fortune to collect dozens of photos of unlikely historical figures doing yoga, and people are more stirred by these pictures of Marilyn than any others.
Stefanie Syman, in her fine account of American yoga history, reports that Marilyn told the press in 1956 that yoga was a permanent part of her workout regimen (Syman, 2010, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, pp. 186-7, 195).
The Glamor of her Poses
Monroe’s instinct for beauty lent the asanas a visual glamor that was rare in her time. (In that era, movie stars did them expressly for health, not display.)
We can’t think of it otherwise now. But Marilyn beat B. K. S. out of the gate.
All the Pictures?
I believe the images below are all the known pictures of Marilyn doing yoga. (Many are high-resolution, too.)
We might argue for “Marilyn Variations” of the poses, for her configurations rarely match current standards.
Which Poses did She Do?
She was photographed in forms of Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) 3 times, Plow (Halasana) 3 times, Headstand (Sirsasana) 4 times, Boat Pose (Navasana) 2 times, Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana) 3 times, and Antanasana, Bow Pose (Udhva Dhanruasana), Child’s Pose (Balasana), Easy Pose (Sukhasana), Handstand (Adho Mukho Vrksasana), Pyramid Pose (Parsvattonasana), Supine Twist (Jataraparivartanasana) and Sitting Twist (Ardha Mastyendrasana) all once.
Of course, Marilyn was always posing, and I’m sure some similarities to yoga posture below are coincidental (though, I was choosy in what I included); nonetheless, because she studied yoga (by some accounts, very intensely) she showed the awareness and poise it creates–even when she was not expressly displaying yoga asana.
We may attribute her enduring sexiness, acting achievements, and skill in creating a historically-resonant career partly to her use of yoga.