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 the practice of yoga. The first evidence of her practice appears near the time of her first acting contract (’46). Of the 21 pictures below, the 5 stark black-and-white ones in the same white outfit are from a set of promotional photos sent out in 1948.
Orienting these pictures in local yoga history, they appeared the same year Krishnamacharya‘s student, Indra Devi open a yoga studio on LA’s Sunset Boulevard. (She arrived in ’47 after a brief trip to Shanghai. Devi had been in India in ’46, teaching yoga and writing her first book).
Devi 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, but there’s no statement by her, Devi, or someone who witnessed it, that it was so. No pictures of them together are known.
Other major yoga teachers, Yogi Vithaldas. Clara Spring and Rishi Singh Gherwal (all pictured here–Vithaldas is hanging out his tongue with the violinist, Yehudi Menuhin to his right), along with Deva Ram Sukul (who taught Mae West) populated the LA scene. Marilyn could have learned from any of them, minor teachers, books, or someone outside SoCal.
Devi’s Forever Young, Forever Healthy was published in ’53 with a list of her star clients. Monroe–at the height of fame then–isn’t there. Of course, it’s possible the story is more complex than this, but on the surface it appears Devi didn’t teach Monroe–though deeper digging can be done.
It’s been my good fortune to collect dozens of photos of unlikely historical figures doing yoga, and people are more stirred by 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). 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).
Four years after she died, B. K. S. Iyengar published Light on Yoga in America (1966), and wiped clean the historical view of yogis as odd, streetside contortionists. He made yoga an artistic form. We now readily think of it this way. But Marilyn beat B. K. S. out of the gate.
I believe I’ve collected all known pictures of Marilyn doing yoga. (Many here are high-resolution.)
We might argue for “Marilyn Variations” of the poses, for her configurations are rarely standard.
She was photographed in forms of Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) 3 times, Plow (Halasana) 3 times, Headstand (Sirsasana) 3 times, Boat Pose (Navasana) 2 times, Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana) 2 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 did not expressly display yoga asana.
We may attribute her enduring sexiness, acting achievements, and skill in creating a historically-resonant career partly to that work.
–Eric Shaw, 04.01.2013
Your comments on this post are welcome!
(For reflections on the crazy success of this posting and little-known secrets behind Marilyn’s career, please see my follow up blog.)