Marilyn Monroe!

Rarely was a woman more tragic, more beautiful, or more compelling to world culture. 

Few know that her great fame was–in part–powered by yoga.

Born Norma Jean Mortenson (1926 – 1962), Monroe got her flashy name from the inspiration of 20th Century Fox executive, Ben Lyon.

He thought the name “sexy” and the “double-M” lucky.

Though we foreground her life’s tragedy, Marilyn was keenly ambitious, displayed badass acting skills, and was incredibly crafty in attaining her life-goals—which rock the world to this day.

As with many visionary people (you might be one of them!), yoga formed an integral part of her wild success.

In 1956, Marilyn told reporters that yoga was a key part of her workout routine.

In the pictures below, the effect of her practice shows–not only in the skill of her poses but in her shining self-presentation to photographers.

Not every image (46 in all) reveals yoga’s forms in the starkly descriptive way we think of them in our day, but where we there’s not clear asanas, we see honest approximations.

Yoga probably salved Marilyn’s soul and empowered her unrelenting efforts toward artistic success.

By refining her beauty, yoga helped propel Marilyn’s historical achievement in the realm of personal artifice.

She shapted the icon of “Marilyn” expertly.

Picasso’s statement, “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth” helps us frame the wonder of what she did.

Monroe in a pitch for a Hollywood plastic surgeon

To enhance her beauty, she had her nose, jaw, lips and teeth surgically altered.  She was a natural brunette but dyed her hair blond.  She reshaped her ribs and was an early adopter of breast implants. Marilyn studied art appreciation at UCLA in 1951 and had her own fashion designers.

She developed her personal presentation through intense physical workouts—in one picture below we see her doing yoga with weights (some 50 years before prominent teacher, 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 and while preparing for the film Niagara in 1953, Snyder and Monroe settled on, “The Look,’ and we used that look for several pictures in a row . . . the ‘Look’ was established.”[1]

This “look” won her fame then and keeps it resonating now.

The initial evidence we have of her practicing yoga is near the time of her first acting contract in 1946.

Her stark black-and-white pics in a white outfit below, hail from a set of promotional photos mailed to movie agencies in ’48.

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 movie colleagues.

Devi landed in Hollywood in ’47 after a trip to Shanghai to resolve the affairs of her expired 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 Devi and Monroe met, but there’s no concrete evidence of it—even though they were among the few people in America actually practicing yoga in the 40s.

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 Devi teaching Monroe (the first photo in the series, below). 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’s beauty compared to Marilyn’s, but she was not the same ninja of the exterior gaze.

The wealth of pictures here provide evidence that Marylin’s attainment of such a revolutionary sense of presence can partly be credited to yoga—in a time when few others explored the practice.

  1. Churchwell, Sarah, 2005, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, New York: Picador, p. 62