|Elements and Body Centers
Arturo Ui and Ernesto Roma
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, 2006
The Park School of Baltimore
The Body Centers and Corresponding Elements
Animals are concrete, and students understand what observing them and imitating them means. Not so with the body centers. Your students will be scratching their heads – and that’s ok, as long as they dive in and try the work. What seems foreign can be intimidating. I use a lot of humor as I introduce this work, but slowly lead students toward the very strong organic connections it provides.
I base the seven body centers on the seven chakras,1 described in yoga as the vital energy centers in the body that govern different aspects of our personalities, emotions, and health. Each center has corresponding senses, elements, and animals. Studying them from an acting standpoint gives insight into specific personalities and “types” for work on characterization.
The first body center (first chakra) is located between the anus and the pubis at the bottom of the base of the spine. The best way to describe this to students is to have them imagine a string running directly down through their body, tied to the floor below and the ceiling above. The first body center is just above where the string comes out of the bottom of the body. The second body center falls mid-way between the pubis and the navel. I just say the genital area – they get the picture. The third body center resides in the stomach area. The fourth lives at the heart, the fifth in the throat, the sixth at the third eye in the center of the forehead, and the seventh is found on the top of the head.
The First Body Center and Earth
I explain to my students that the first body center is connected to survival and a person’s identity as a separate human being. When this body center is developed the individual has a sense of security and stability in life, and when it is not, the person lacks a strong identity or purpose in life. The unbalanced individual becomes self-indulgent, clings to loved ones, work, or religion, might become attached to material possessions, and become preoccupied with satisfying his or her own needs. This body center is also associated with eliminatory energy. The related health conditions include hemorrhoids, impotency, and constipation. Your students will say, “Yuck!”
As you discuss the body centers with your students, explain that the centers can either be balanced (open) or unbalanced (closed), and the characters resulting from each would be very different. Any interesting character will have contrasts, though, and your students may find the contrasts between open and closed helpful in creating their characters.
I continue the discussion saying the first body center is associated with the element earth. Anyone we call "earthy” or "grounded" might have a well-balanced first body center. The peasant, Grusha, who saves the Governess’ abandoned baby in the play Caucasian Chalk Circle, embodies the qualities of "mother," and might be explored through the first body center and the element of earth. If the first body center becomes closed and out of balance; insecurity, greed, and anxiety result. The character of Arkadina in The Sea Gull, a woman who clings to her money and her lover, and has great difficulty being a "mother," might be played from a closed first center.
Associated with the first body center is the sense of smell, and it seems fitting given the pungent quality of earth. Traditionally associated with this body center, the elephant is only one of many animals your students might find useful. Ask them to try rhinos, large pigs, or giant tortoises whose weight and movement convey a strong connection with the earth.
Because the body centers feel abstract to many students, I approach the practical work on body centers through the elements associated with each. Since earth is the element linked to the first center, I do a physical exercise focusing on earth. As homework, I ask students to observe the qualities of earth, (and I’ll ask them to observe water, fire, and air when we get to the centers associated with those elements) and make lists in their journals. Here are specific categories to focus their observations:
Quality of movement: is the motion of the element sustained and continuous or interrupted and staccato?
Rate of movements: Does the element move fast, slow, or is the rate variable?
Weight: is the element heavy or light?
Rhythm: look for the dominant rhythm but also notice how the rhythm changes.
Colors: do different colors affect you emotionally?
Shapes: water and air are tricky. How can you identify their shapes?
Textures: how would you describe the element if you could touch it?
Smells: this is a powerful trigger for an actor.
Sounds: there is a lot of variety in each element. Have you ever heard an earthquake or a landslide?
Descriptive Adjectives: Is the element playful, angry, and so on. Most elements contain their opposite. Fire can be passionate or angry. Water can be soothing or turbulent.
Differing Forms: consider the range of form the element can take – ice to steam or mud to dust.
Do good physical warm-ups before doing any element work. Tire the kids out with games of tag or other physically demanding exercises. Their bodies need to be fully invigorated and relaxed.
How do you respond emotionally or psychologically to the element?
It’s easy to observe the ocean or a fire and write about its qualities. It’s harder with earth. I tell students to dig in the garden, to smell the earth, feel its texture, and see how it packs together and pulls apart. When they return to class, I have a brief discussion about what qualities they can attribute to earth and then I launch into the following exercise.
The Second Body Center and Water
For work on the second body center, I ask students to observe the qualities of water, listing them in their journals. I tell them the second body center governs our creative and sexual impulses. If in balance the forces of creativity and procreativity are strong and life affirming; the individual is productive, patient, self-confident, and has great endurance. If out of balance, the individual experiences sexual or creative frustration, attachment, sexual obsession, or impotency. Stanley and Blanche from Street Car Named Desire make good discussion topics when examining characters that are balanced and unbalanced in this center. I ask my students if they know people that might be second body center people, and they usually come up with people quickly.
When working on elements have your students think about what the element needs to do. Water needs to flow downhill, fire to consume, and so on. The same with the body centers: the first center person wants to nurture or survive; the fourth center person wants to love, and so on. Determining the character’s wants based on the element or center is critical in your students making their characters real.
Need or want equals action and by defining it, a student will avoid physical and vocal choices that read artificially.
Water, with its qualities of rhythm, undulating waves, and torrents, makes perfect sense to kids as the corresponding element to the second body center. A few giggles and guffaws usually crop up with all this. I tell my students to grow up and get over it.
The sense of taste, also wet, represents this center, and associated animals are cats and snakes (symbolic of virility). Putting all these qualities together yields characters centered in the pelvic area, fluid in movement, undulating with sensuality, full of creative power, and brimming with a "taste" for life. I alert my students as to how important the spine is in second center work.
After briefly discussing the second body center and the qualities of water, I do the following exercise with my students.
The Third Body Center and Fire
By now, all my students are asking me what element or body center I think they are. It can be a great game to have everyone write down what centers they think their classmates are. But first they need to experience the other elements and centers. So let’s move on to the third body center, located in the belly, and its associated element, fire.
Explain to your students that personal power characterizes the energy of the third center. If balanced, a person enjoys a sense of personal power, self-motivation, decisiveness, and carries a strong self-image. If out of balance, a person may feel powerless or its opposite: aggressiveness and greed. This is the seat of ambition, both positive and negative.
The phrase "fire in the belly" describes exactly this body center's power and its associated element. Macbeth, whose "ambition o'er leaps itself," has an insatiable fire in his belly. I ask my students if they can think of correlations between fire and power, and they come up with all kinds of things: the sun’s energy, using fire to make steam, getting someone “fired up,” and so on. Fire or a flame can symbolize life itself. Then I ask my students to come up with examples of “good” fire and “bad” fire. They get the idea quickly, that ambition and personal power, the qualities governed by the third center, can get out of control easily and run amuck.
Traditionally the ram symbolizes third body center energy. Ask your students what other animals they think might be associated with the third center. They’ll hit on a lot that could work: the fighting cock, the pit bull, and since the sense of sight dominates this body center, the eagle or vulture. If students don’t mention or don’t know Macbeth and St. Joan (who both "see" visions), Hotspur from Henry IV, Part One, or the headstrong Kate in Taming of the Shrew (who is compared to the falcon), you might mention them. Have fun with your students naming people they think are governed by the third body center.
I ask my students to observe a fire for at least 30 minutes. Campfires or bonfires make for the best observations, but watching any fire is helpful. In class, discuss fire's behavior, its qualities, and how it makes the students feel. Ask if anyone noticed what fires are like when they first start or die out. What other forms can fire take? Have any of them seen a house on fire or another major fire? You and your class might list fire’s qualities on the board. Ask them what emotions can be associated with fire: rage, lust, passion, nervousness?
The Fourth Body Center and Air
Air and the fourth center can be a welcome contrast to your students after the high passionate energy of the third center. The fourth body center, the heart, governs our passions, our openness, and our capacity to love. When this body center is balanced, the individual has great compassion, acceptance, and a sense of fulfillment. If it is unbalanced, a person may be insensitive, emotionally closed, or the opposite -- hypersensitive and sad. I tell my students to observe small children and see how open this body center is. Children run with open arms, laugh, and are full of joy. (This body center is the place of joy.) Children exemplify the profound capacity to love all things, a quality inherent in the fourth body center.
The element air characterizes this body center with its qualities of freedom, openness, and aliveness. Your students will think it’s silly being air (it is!) but will find it exhilarating as well.
Ask your students to come up with animals that would be associated with the fourth center, and they’ll say birds right away. Ask them why, and they’ll say because they live in the air, fly freely, and even sing. Fourth body center people have that unbounded passion and joy: the ability to soar. Another animal your students might mention is the Antelope, which runs like the wind.
If smell is associated with the first center, taste with the second, sight with the third, which sense, hearing or touch, is associated with the forth center? If your students say touch, they’re right. If you think about it, it makes sense: to be "touched" emotionally or to "touch" someone are phrases we hear all the time. The need to hug, hold, or touch someone all find their impulse in the fourth body center. Can your students identify people or characters that work from the fourth body center?
In preparation for being air, I ask my students to go out with a couple of friends on a windy day, find a park or open place with lots of trees, leaves, and tall grass and observe the wind for at least 30 minutes. Have the students write a journal entry describing the wind and its qualities as specifically as they can.
Here are questions they might ask themselves: What are the wind’s rhythms, weight, changes in speed? What does it do to your friend's hair or shirt? What patterns do the leaves make in the wind? How does the wind make you feel: joyous, happy, sad, contemplative? How would it feel to be the wind?
If time permits and it’s windy out, I’ll take the class outside to do the above observation. When we return to class I have a brief discussion where students share their wind observations, and we write its qualities on the board. Then I tell my students to get ready to fly.
The Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Body Centers
Traditionally, the fifth, sixth, and seventh body centers don’t have associated elements. I describe the centers to my students and have them try developing characters in improvisational situations like the ones above.
I explain the remaining centers as follows.
The Fifth Body Center
The fifth body center, located in the throat, regulates sound. It houses verbal expression and self-expression, and when in balance the individual has strong communication, expression, creativity, interactions with others, and inspiration. When out of balance, stagnation, obsession, and lack of expression occur. Our ability to communicate and express our ideas can lead to security and a sense of control. If the fifth body center is blocked and expression inhibited, insecurity follows. I tell my students a great actor or orator might work from the fifth body center, and a person who stutters or cannot speak might be played from an imbalanced or closed fifth body center.
Even though no animals are traditionally associated with the fifth body center, my students like the idea of giraffes or particularly expressive songbirds – the ones that seem all throat. If your students have read or seen A Doll's House, they might agree that Nora, who finally "expresses" her views at the end, could be played from the fifth body center.
Hearing, the sensory organ associated with the fifth body center, will make sense to your students in terms of communication. Fifth center people are effective communicators, so they must be good listeners, right? Or maybe the fifth center is blocked, and the character is one that listens carefully and rarely speaks or the opposite, a person who talks constantly but seems not to listen.
I ask my students if they know people or characters that love language, the sounds of words, or singing. Do they know certain politicians that fall into this group? Could other animals work with this center, such as bears or coyotes?
The Sixth Body Center
I alert my students that some of their teachers may be sixth center people, and I explain that the sixth body center, located at the third eye position, develops an individual's intellect and is associated with clarity of thought and strong visualization. When balanced, a person's intellectual and psychic abilities are strong, as are imagination and perception. When blocked, this body center causes difficulty focusing, schizophrenia, detachment, and intellectual stagnation.
If a character "thinks" a lot, this would be a good body center to explore. Scientists, inventors, visionaries, and those with acute mental powers can be played from this body center. Characters such as Teiresias, the blind man that tells Oedipus the truth, might be played from this center. Ask your students if they know characters or people that are dominated by this center.
I have found that the sense of sight, though not traditionally associated with this center, works well because “seeing” symbolizes understanding. I have also found using the notion of light works well with these characters. Phrases such as “seeing the light” or “shedding light on the situation” can help a student explore this center. You might have a student work by imaging a strong light shining out of his third eye. Physically, you might have students experiment with simply leading their movements from the head.
The Seventh Body Center
Your students won’t know too many seventh body center people. In yoga the seventh chakra, located on the top of the head, governs universal consciousness and enlightenment. When this body center is clear and open, "liberation" occurs, and there are no boundaries of time and space. The individual is full of "universal energy and cosmic love." Wow, that would be a fun character to play! When blocked, the individual can experience depression, closed-mindedness, insanity, psychosis, or worry. I explain that the students will come across few characters who fit the profile of the seventh body center (Ghandi perhaps?), but occasionally they will play characters whose actions fall outside the normal range of accepted human behavior, either toward genius or insanity, and working from the seventh center might be effective.
The sixth and seventh body centers do not have traditional animal or sensory associations, but I tell my students they should feel free to appropriate whatever animals or senses seem right for their characters according to the script. The script will often give them clues in these areas.
Characters often change over the course of a play. If students, after analyzing their characters, see a change, they may be able to reflect it by moving from an unbalanced center to a balanced one, or even shifting from one center to another altogether: the character that goes from being ruled by the heart to being ruled by the head. Oftentimes, students can find opposites to play by using different centers or going from open to closed. There are limitless possibilities in how students might combine the elements and centers, but remind them they must answer to the script’s requirements.
The chart below will help your students make choices appropriate for the characters in their final presentation.
Center Associations Balanced Unbalanced Element Animal Sense Position
1st Stability Security Self-indulgence Earth Elephant Smell Base of Spine
Survival Stability Self-centeredness
Solidity of earth Insecurity instability
2nd Sexuality Patience Frustration Water Cat Taste Mid-way Between Pubis
Creativity Endurance Attachment and Navel
Energy storage Self-confidence AnxietyFear
3rd Personal Power Personal Power Powerlessness Fire Ram Sight Between Base of Sternum
Self-motivation Greed and Navel
Strong Self-image Guilt
Ambition (good) Ambition (bad)
4th Capacity to Love Compassion Insensitivity Air Antelope Touch Medially at the Heart
Openness Acceptance Emotionally Closed
Place of Dream Love Passivity
Consciousness Fulfillment Sadness
5th Verbal Expression Communication Stagnation Ether Hearing Throat
Self-Expression Expression Obsession
Passing Through Creativity Lack of Expression
To Higher Being. Interactions
Transformation from Inspiration Dreams
6th Clarity of Thought Intellectual and Psychic Difficulty Focusing Third Eye
Visualization Abilities Schizophrenia
Projection Intellectual Stagnation
7th Liberation Universal Energy Depression Top of Head
Cosmic Consciousness Confinement
Cosmic Love Closed-mindedness
Observing and imitating elements and animals, and using the associations of the seven body centers helps students develop more extreme and varied physical and vocal characterizations. Body centers, elements, and animals help your students access the more primal, instinctual, and elemental qualities that comprise the characters they play. They help your students understand the character in non-verbal and non-intellectual ways, and help unlock tremendous creative energy while defining a clear unified shape.