02. May 2019

Stanislavsky and Yoga - Book Review

Stanislavsky and Yoga

by Sergei Tcherkasski Routledge and Icarus Publishing,  2016

 

REVIEW published in: 

Journal
Theatre, Dance and Performance Training
Volume 10, 2019 - Issue 1

TRAININGGROUNDS. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training 


Sergei Tcherkasski’s Stanislavsky and Yoga is the first book-length study exploring the influence and use of yoga in Stanislavsky’s thinking and practice. The study benefits from the author’s extensive knowledge of Stanislavsky’s work as well as his access to primary sources in Russian and his embeddedness within a lineage of Russian teachers of the System. In so doing, it informs the growing field of Stanislavski Studies and also affirms existing scholarship.

The chief argument of the book is that yoga remained a central aspect of Stanislavsky’s thinking and practice and can be traced throughout his career, even during periods when he was forced to comply with state or editorial agendas and consequently abstained from making explicit references to the discipline. Tcherkasski substantiates this argument by exploring Stanislavsky’s writings as well as additional written sources from the same period.

The book takes a systematic approach to its content. Chapter 1, entitled ‘Yoga in the Theatre Practice of Stanislavsky’, begins with an outline of Stanislavsky’s introduction to yoga in 1911 and also offers a vivid impression of the way in which an interest in Eastern philosophies permeated Russian art and thinking at the turn of the twentieth century. The remainder of the chapter is divided into four sections: ‘Yoga in the First Studio of the MAT’, ‘Yoga in Stanislavsky’s Classes with Actors of the MAT and the Second Studio in the Late 1910s and 1920s’, ‘Yoga in the Opera Studio’ and ‘Yoga in the Late Period of Stanislavsky’s Work’ (1930s). Each section includes quotations from the memoirs of members of those Studios and offers intriguing glimpses into the way in which yogic concepts such as prana were introduced into classes and rehearsals, and realised in practice.

Chapter 2, entitled ‘Yoga in the Literary Heritage of Stanislavsky’, draws significantly on contemporary non-Russian scholarship and concurs with previously published work on the influence of yoga in Stanislavsky’s work (Carnicke 2009; White 2006, 2013). Importantly, in its first section, ‘Yoga of the Twentieth Century and its Ancient Roots’, it historicises the ‘Yoga’ that influenced the development of Stanislavsky’s System. Occasionally, perhaps, it offers a little too much detail. Further editing of thoughts and scholarly references might make it more readily accessible to the broader audience of
‘actors’, ‘teachers’ and ‘students’ suggested by the publisher of the book on its back cover. Chapter 3, in which the key ‘Yogic Elements in the Stanislavsky System’ are identified and analysed clearly, is the most directly accessible part of the book to contemporary theatre practitioners. It fleshes out and offers a context within which to place the multi-fold fragmentary glimpses of practice and theory recorded in Chapters 1 and 2. Tcherkasski begins the chapter, for instance, with an illuminating comparison between a diagrammatic representation of the System, made by Stanislavsky, and ‘ancient’ Indian drawings depicting the location of the yogic chakras situated along the spine of the human body. In the section on ‘Relaxation of Muscles’, he reflects on Stanislavsky’s ‘developing understanding of acting as a holistic integral psychophysiological-physical process’. Then, in the section on ‘Communication and Prana’, he references the significance to Stanislavsky of the solar plexus as being a place in the body where ‘according to my sensations’, ‘the mind was communicating with feeling’. It is a richly observed and detailed chapter that goes on to focus on ‘Attention’ and ‘Visualisations’. In particular, the author pays attention to the concept of the ‘superconscious’ in yoga, and relates it to Stanislavsky’s theories. 

However systematic its approach to content, the structure of the book appears more problematic. It was initially published in Russian in 2013, and according to the author ‘more materials’ have been added to it for the English edition published in 2016 (p. 24), but the order in which this new information has been organised and embedded into the whole presents difficulties for the reader. Confusingly, in the 2016 edition, traces of the author’s earlier thinking and writing seem evident at various points throughout the book, including the Foreword and Introduction, in which there are several references to ‘Yoga’ as an ‘ancient Indian philosophy’. This placing of ‘Yoga’ as being the ‘influence of the centuries-old yogic knowledge of man [sic] on the Stanislavsky System’ (p. 19) over-simplifies the historical and cultural trajectory of the discipline. It also appears at odds with what emerges later in Chapter 2, when it is explained that the main source of yogic information for Stanislavsky were two books that drew as much from nineteenth century spiritualism as ancient Hindu sources. These two books — Hatha Yoga: Yogic Philosophy of the Physical Well-Being of a Man and Raja Yoga: The Teaching of Yogis about the Mental World of Man — were, in fact, written by an American lawyer, William Walter Atkinson, under the pseudonym Ramacharaka. They were published in 1909 and 1914, respectively, and, as Tcherkasski himself points out, rather than representing ‘ancient Indian philosophy and practice’, it was Western readers that the American lawyer addressed, ‘freely quoting European and American scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ (p. 60).

Yoga is a generic term and in light of the development in the field of modern yoga studies, one would expect Tcherkasski, who is aware of these studies, to position Stanislavsky’s use and understanding of yoga consistently within a historical framework of the discipline’s development. An opportunity to clarify possible misconceptions about the specific kind of yoga that is being discussed in the book is offered in the Translator’s Note (p. 13). This note, however, though intended to clarify, suggests an equation between ‘classical Yoga’ and ideas about the kind of ‘Yoga’ that Stanislavsky had access to, an association which is not apt. Referring to Elizabeth De Michelis’ work, Tcherkasski himself draws attention to this point in Chapter 2, when he notes distinctions between ‘classical Yoga’ and ‘Modern Yoga’ (pp. 58–59). Such misconceptions and confusions in relation to the central term of reference in the book are compounded by several other references to different Eastern philosophies and practices — for example, to Zen (p. 22), Buddhism (p. 30, 37, 62) and Dukhobar practice (p. 31) — which, by inference or association, appear as synonyms for ‘Yoga’ in the text.

Significantly, also, it seems that, however illuminating, the content of the material in Stanislavsky and Yoga frequently repeats existing scholarship. Most importantly, these include the similarities between key concepts in the System and Ramacharaka’s books that we find in Carnicke (1998, pp. 138–145; 2009, pp. 167–184), including the perceived similarities between the chakras and Stanislavsky’s rendition of the System in a drawing that resembles two lungs (Carnicke 1998, p. 142), as well as the significance of occultism in Russia during the late nineteenth–early twentieth century we find in White (2006, 2014).

The author finishes his book with the significant claim that ‘today the union of Yoga and the Stanislavsky System determines — obviously or invisibly — contemporary actor training and theatre practice both in Russia and throughout the world’ (p. 114). Perhaps, in a future publication, he might consider utilising his extensive knowledge of, and access to, contemporary teaching of the System in Russia in order to flesh out the way the historic influence of yoga might play out in contemporary teachings or interpretations of the System today.


References

Carnicke, S.M., 1998. Stanislavsky in Focus. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.
Carnicke, S.M., 2009. Stanislavsky in Focus. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. White, A.R., 2006. Stanislavski and Ramacharaka: The Influence of Yoga and Turn-of-the-Century Occultism on the System. TheatreSurvey, 47(1),73–92.
White, A.R., 2014 Stanislavsky and Ramacharaka: The Impact of Yoga and the Occult Revival on the System. In: A. White, ed. The Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky. London: Routledge, 287–304.


Dorinda Hulton  
University of Exeter

Maria Kapsali 
University of Leeds

Order the book online from the Odin Teatret webshop

In English. Icarus Publishing Enterprise, Holstebro - Malta - Wroclaw – London – New York 2016. 124 pages.
ISBN NR 978-1-138-95409-0  DKK 100,-