Jerzy Grotowski
Grotowski and Yoga

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     As an actor and member of Pillory Theatre, we were simply introduced to selected Yoga asana (poses or exercises) as part of the routine of our rehearsal sessions. They were presented as primarily physical preparation for the work. We did them physically and we gained a measure of strength and flexibility. To these physical exercises were added breathing exercises, known to Yoga as 'Pranayama'. We did these to calm and quiet our bodies and center our minds, again as preparation for the rehearsal period which followed.

    Several contemporary references quote Grotowski as explicitly denying that his physical exercises were 'yoga'. See, for example Stephen Wangh's excellent book An Acrobat of the Heart : A Physical Approach to Acting where he begins to describe Grotowski's physical exercises. Also see Grotowski's interview with Richard Schechner published in Towards a Poor Theatre where he states,
"... we began by doing yoga directed toward absolute concentration. Is it true, we asked, that yoga can give actors the power of concentration? We observed that despite all our hopes the opposite happened. There was a certain concentration, but it was introverted."

This denial was contemporaneous with Grotowski's most active and successful period of performances, in the late 1960's and early 1970's. He stated that his exercises were not yoga, nor was yoga used as a vehicle in his work because the objectives of Yoga and his work are different. The implication I took from this was that Yoga was for the pursuit of inner knowledge and his exercises were for making actor's bodies more available for performance. 

    And yet...

     In rehearsals in Grotowski's company and in Pillory Theatre the actors used Yoga asana, often somewhat modified. Why yoga? Why not some other form of physical conditioning like calisthenics? There was and is something about Yoga that is different from the more mundane physical disciplines. And it ended up being this something that was guiding the direction of Grotowski's work.

     In my experience with Yoga, I find it to be a physical path to the internal spiritual world and an 'inner knowing'.  If you look into the eight fold path of Yoga (of which asana, the physical poses, are #3 of 8) and compare it to Grotowski's statement of principles you will find similarities.    I speak to this point further elsewhere on this site.

     From the outside, the yogi may appear to be in a 'trance'.  In discussing the link between Grotowski and Stanislavsky, as defined by Grotowski himself in Towards a Poor Theatre,  Lee Strasberg (Actor's Studio, NYC) makes this reference:

     "A contemporary [to B. Brecht] Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski, made the most thorough effort to rediscover the elements of the actor's art. Although he credited Stanislavsky with having posed the most important questions, he was not satisfied either with Stanislavsky, who let natural impulses dominate, or with Brecht, who was too much concerned, Grotowski felt, with the construction of the role. To Grotowski, the actor is a man who works in public with his body, offering it publicly. The work with the actor's instrument consists of physical, plastic, and vocal training to guide him toward the right kind of concentration, to commit himself totally, and to achieve a state of "trance." The actors concentrate on the search for "signs," which express through sound and movement those impulses that waiver on the borderline between dream and reality. By means of such signs, the actor's own psychoanalytical language of sounds and gestures is constructed, in the same way as a great poet creates his own language."  ( (no longer available at

      Other directors with ties to Stanislavsky have achieved similar results in their work.  In a biographical sketch of Hanna Rovina, an original member of the Habimah Theatre the following glimpse of Vakhtangov's directorial effectiveness emerges:

"Under Vakhtangov's direction, Rovina reached one of her artistic peaks, playing the part of Leah in An-ski's "The Dybbuk" (then entitled "Between Two Worlds"). The atmosphere at rehearsals is recalled by Chaim Nachman Bialik, who had translated the play into Hebrew. "Habimah's acting overwhelmed everyone who came within its orbit...perhaps it was the ecstasy stemming from some spring of invisible fire..." "
( )

     Is there a relationship between this 'ecstasy' of Vakhtangov's direction and the 'state of "trance"' described by Strasberg in Grotowski's actors? Is there a relationship between these states and Yoga? Yes.
See:( )

      These ecstasy / trance states could also be just different, independent means to a similar end, or they could be very closely related indeed.  Grotowski had an interest in 'Hinduism and yoga' in his early life which preceded his interest in directing.  See ( ) which presents Margaret Croyden's reporting of Grotowski's memorial service in NYC on January 14, 1999.  Read Grotowski's taped remarks that were played at the opening of that service.

      They go, in part, "When I was young I asked myself what would be a possible job that would enable me to look for the other one and myself, to look for a dimension of life that would be rooted in what is normal, organic, even sensual, but that would go beyond all this, that would have a sort of axis, another higher dimension that would surpass us. At that time, I wanted to study either Hinduism, to work on the different techniques of yoga, or medicine, to become a psychiatrist, or dramatic art to become a director."

     In relating Grotowski's early history Jennifer Kumiega writes in The Theatre of Grotowski:
    "According to the Polish writer Kazimierz Braun, ill health again interrupted Grotowski's studies, and it was in order to recuperate that he made his first journey to Central Asia, spending two months traveling there in 1956, This was his first direct contact with the East, but it was evidence of a fascination that had been engendered during his childhood. He had at that time become acquainted with esoteric literature, and during his higher education in Cracow he made contact with those working in the area of Eastern philosophy, and participated in organized meetings and discussion groups. It was an interest that he also brought to bear in later years, in ways both manifest and implicit. Subsequent visits to the East were to culminate in 1970 in a six-week solitary odyssey through India and Kurdistan which had a profound and transformative effect on him and his work."

      Much later, towards the close of his life, Grotowski wrote in a statement dated July 4, 1998 and published after his death in which he again speaks of his work as analogous to Yoga and Tibetan Buddhism:

      "What can one transmit? How and to whom to transmit? These are questions that every person who has inherited from the tradition asks himself, because he inherits at the same time a kind of duty: to transmit that which he has himself received.
      "What part has research in a tradition? To what extent should a tradition of a work on oneself or to speak by analogy, of a yoga or of an inner life be at the same time an investigation, a research that takes with each generation a step ahead?
      "In a branch of Tibetan Buddhism it is said that a tradition can live if the new generation goes a fifth ahead in respect to the preceding generation, without forgetting or destroying its discoveries."

     In Grotowski's mind, the work of carrying on the tradition of theatre, as transmitted to him from Stanislavsky through Vakhtangov and Zavadsky was both analogous and intermingled with the tradition of yoga as a tool to pursue inner knowledge. They worked together in his actors in that they make the actor's inner 'body wisdom' available to the actor and hence to him, the director.     

     So while the objectives of Grotowski's work in and around 1970 were different from the objectives of yoga, his life began to turn away from performance as an objective. For a theatrical director this is quite remarkable, almost inexplicable. Words like 'investigation' and 'research' are used by Grotowski and others to describe the work that took up the rest of his life.

     In the July 1998 statement he speaks of 'art as a vehicle'. Art, for Grotowski became a vehicle for exploring energies, organic energies of the physical body and more subtle energies. The work of the last major period of his life, based at the Workcenter at Pontedera, Italy, centered upon the concept of 'physical action' which evolved finally to 'inner action'. This evolution from the physical external body and its organic energy to the internal self and its subtle internal energies is also the path of Yoga.

     Was Grotowski then a Yogi? The yogi is the one who uses yogic techniques to chart an inner journey with himself as the vehicle and the subject. This is not Grotowski's journey. Grotowski was the Director, the interested and insightful observer, the discriminator of truth for at first a small group, and ultimately hundreds, perhaps thousands of actors. By leading or sharing their many inward journeys he accessed a rich and unique level of theatrical knowledge.

     His focus was not the details of the individual actor's particular journey. Notice how he reacted to the extraordinary inner experiences of William Shephard. These individual excursions did not interest him. Grotowski's focus was nothing less than the foundations of human communication, the alphabet and syllables, the melodies and movements with which we communicate our inner selves to others.  Words like 'archetype' and 'ritual' were his sign posts.

     This presupposes the existence of an inner self, and Grotowski's recognition and knowledge of it.  But again, it is not the individual inner self, but the inner self at the level where we are all fundamentally the same, that we each recognize as part of ourself when we come in contact with it.

     In 1997, less than 2 years before his death, at his First Lecture at the Collège de France as reported by Allen J. Kuharski, "The lecture ended with a brief discussion of Grotowski's groundbreaking work in the area of performance anthropology. Addressing his ongoing interest in yoga and the different manifestations of energy in the human body, he posed a final question on the relationship between physical energy and a higher--presumably spiritualized--energy. "

     Reviewers often were left without the right words to describe a performance of Grotowski's work, yet they consistently acknowledged its depth and power.  I submit that this is the result of Grotowski's success in presenting this fundamental 'inner self' of the actors to fill and communicate the stories they acted out.

     We are not, in our everyday lives, tuned into this fundamental level of communication. Practical matters shout more loudly and grab our awareness. But they are there, and Grotowski's work was to make them accessible to the actor and to theatre. As Jeff Spolan, a fellow member of Pillory Theatre, who has continued to be active in theatre since that time, points out with very practical insight:

"Good training will show in your work
People who know will recognize it.
Those who don't - will see something too."

     It is this 'something' that Grotowski sought, and his techniques leave actors and directors a road map to follow in our search. At a deeper level, I have found that his rehearsal sessions and yoga were one and the same. The outer trappings were different, as were the immediate objectives. Yoga asana are a path to inner knowledge for it's own sake, to 'quiet the fluctuations of the mind', preparation perhaps for enlightenment.  Grotowski's exercises give the actor access to inner knowledge in order that he expose it in rehearsal and then replicate it in performance.  In his later life, by dropping the necessity to present a performance of his work, he freed himself to concentrate on the states and manifestations of the inner knowledge and his work came in parallel with that of the Yogi.

  Owen Daly, revised June 29, 2004


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