Arguably, no movie star past or present is as enchanting as Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jean Mortenson, 1926 – 1962).
Her classic beauty, projection of joy and innocence, knockout measurements, marriages to great men, acting skills, and consummate control of her career arc (including its dramatic end) make her biography both tragic and triumphant.
Monroe’s life was a dramatic outpicturing of the primal power of the feminine in modern life and, few know it, but all of her grand achievements were enhanced by yoga.
When did Yoga Begin for Her?
The first pictures of her practice appear near the time of her first acting contract (in 1946).
Of the 23 photos below, the stark black-and-white ones in the same white outfit are from a set of promotional photos she sent to prospective employers in 1948.
Orienting Monroe’s first pose pics in yoga history, they appeared the same year Krishnamacharya‘s student, Indra Devi opened one of SoCal’s first yoga studios on Sunset Boulevard.
Devi arrived in ’47, after a brief trip to Shanghai. She had been in India in ’46, teaching yoga and writing her first book.
The great 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 this yoga 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 any other contemporary witnessed that it actually occurred.
Devi’s Forever Young, Forever Healthy was published in ’53 with a roster of her star clients. Monroe–then at the height of her fame–is not on the list.
Recently, a photo surfaced that apparently showed Indra teaching Marilyn in late 1960 (below).
The blond in the pic is a dead ringer for Marilyn, but she’s actually the beautiful Eva Gabor–half of the knockout movie-star combo that included Eva’s twin sister, the better-known, Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Who Else might have Taught Her?
Other major yoga teachers lead classes in LA and New York—where Marilyn spent much of her movie-making time. The list includes Yogi Vithaldas. Clara Spring and Rishi Singh Gherwal (all pictured here–Vithaldas is hanging out his tongue with the violinist, Yehudi Menuhin), as well as with Deva Ram Sukul (who taught Mae West).
Marilyn could have learned from any of them, minor teachers, books, or someone not teaching on the right or left coasts. Yoga was “new-ish” and she was innovative with her workouts. Below, we see her doing what seems to be an unusual practice of yoga with weights, which was popularized by Sherri Baptiste some 60 years later.
How did Marilyn Practice?
It’s been my good fortune to collect dozens of photos of unlikely historical figures doing yoga, and people are more stirred by these pictures 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 image of yogis as odd, streetside contortionists.
He made yoga an artistic form.
We can’t think of it otherwise now. But Marilyn beat B. K. S. out of the gate.
All the Pictures?
I believe the images below are all the known pictures of Marilyn doing yoga. (Many are high-resolution, too.). This post is continually updated, and I’ve had the unintended assistance of many Pinterest collectors to aid me!
We might argue for “Marilyn Variations” of the poses, for her configurations rarely match current standards.
Which Poses did She Do?
We have 49 pictures in which she seems to be doing a clear yoga pose–or one very influenced by yoga.
She was photographed in forms of Easy Pose (Sukhasana) 10 times, Headstand (Sirsasana) 7 times, Boat Pose (Navasana) 5 times, Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana) 5 times, Plow (Halasana) 3 times, Supine Twist (Jataraparivartanasana) 3 times, Seated Twist (Marichyasana) 2 times, Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana) 2 times, Legs Up Pose (Uttanapadasana) 2 times, Arms Up Standing (Urdhva Hastasana), Bow Pose (Udhva Dhanruasana), Child’s Pose (Balasana), Handstand (Adho Mukho Vrksasana), Pyramid Pose (parsvattonasana), Reverse Child’s Pose (Apanasana), Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana), Same Standing (Samasthithi), and Somewhat Half Moon (Almost Ardha Chandrasana).
Of course, Marilyn was always posing, and many similarities to yoga postures below might be coincidental yet, because she studied yoga (by some accounts, very intensely and for a very long time) her pictures show the awareness and poise yoga creates–even when she was not expressly doing a yoga asana.
We may attribute her enduring sexiness, acting achievements, and skill in creating a historically-resonant career partly to her use of this age-old practice.