25 Dec '16
Posted in Articles by Eric Shaw
Rarely was a woman more tragic, more beautiful, or more compelling to our collective consciousness.
And she practiced yoga.
Born Norma Jean Mortenson (1926 – 1962), Marilyn got her name from the suggestion of the 20th Century Fox executive, Ben Lyon.
He said it the anonym was “sexy” and the “double-M” was lucky.
Though we usually foreground the tragic side of her life, it isn’t widely acknowledged that this shape-changer named Marilyn was ambitious, skilled in her craft, and extremely focused on reaching her goals.
As with many visionary people today (and you might be one of them), yoga formed an integral part of her wild success.
In 1956, Marilyn told reporters that yoga had become a permanent part of her workout regimen.
And in the pictures below, the effect of that routine shows itself not only in the shapes of her pose work but in her shining self-presentation to photographers.
Not all of these images (46 in all) reveal yoga’s forms in the starkly descriptive way we have come to think of them, but where these pictures don’t display clear asanas, they show clear approximations.
Yoga probably salved Marilyn’s soul and empowered her unrelenting efforts toward artistic success, but by refining her beauty, it also propelled a historically resonant achievement in the realm of personal artifice. “Marilyn Monroe” was a carefully crafted look and persona.
Her career shows how “art” is “artificial.” Picasso’s statement, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth” helps us understand the career of Monroe.
Her nose, jaw, lips and teeth were surgically altered. She was a natural brunette but dyed her hair blond. She reshaped her ribs. Marilyn studied art appreciation at UCLA in 1951 and had personal fashion designers.
She developed her personal presentation through physical workouts that were intense—in one picture below we see her doing yoga with weights (some 50 years before Sherri Baptiste wrote a book on the topic).
She had a “look” that was formulated partly through collaboration with her PR advisor, Whitey Snyder. Monroe biographer, Sarah Churchwell writes that after much experimentation, while preparing for the film Niagara in 1953, he and Monroe settled on, “The Look, and we used that Look for several pictures in a row . . . the “look” was established.”
It was this “look” that won her fame in her day and keep it resonating now.
The first evidence we have of her practicing yoga is near the time of her first acting contract in 1946.
The stark black-and-white pictures below of her in a white outfit hail from a set of promotional photos mailed to movie agencies in 1948.
These pictures appear a year before Krishnamacharya‘s famous student and eventual world teacher, Indra Devi opened a yoga studio on LA’s Sunset Boulevard—teaching yoga to Monroe’s colleagues in the movie industry.
Devi landed in Hollywood in 1947 after a trip to Shanghai to resolve the affairs of her recently-deceased husband. Before that, she’d been teaching yoga in India and writing her first book.
Indra was one heck of a shapeshifter herself.
Though no Marilyn, she attained fame as a glamorous yoga teacher. Olivia de Haviland, Ruth St. Denis, Greta Garbo and other famous players in LA’s movie-making society were her devotees.
It’s tempting to think these amazing women met, but there is no concrete evidence of a connection—even though Indra and Marilyn were among the few people in America actually practicing yoga in their day.
Devi published the yoga book, Forever Young, Forever Healthy in 1953. It included a list of her star yoga clients. Monroe–at the height of her fame–is absent from the tally.
Recently, a 1960 photo surfaced that seem to show Indra teaching Marilyn (the first photo in the series, below) and there was much talk about it. But the beauty in question is the brilliant Eva Gabor–half of the knockout movie-star combo that included Eva’s sister, Zsa Zsa (who just died December 18th, 2016).
Eva was nearly as beautiful as Marilyn, but she was not as great a master of the exterior gaze.
These pictures provide some evidence that Marylin’s achievement of a historically resonant career can be credited to the formerly unique—but now universal—practice of yoga.
- Churchwell, Sarah, 2005, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, New York: Picador, p. 62 ↑