Perhaps best known for her role as Serena Southerlyn on Law & Order, Elisabeth Röhm is also an advocate for human rights, health and education, serving as a Red Cross ambassador, among other service roles. She may be less renowned as a yogini, but in this interview she talks about her lifelong Yoga journey and how it’s been key in her life and her craft.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Yoga is in vogue in Hollywood, but it’s not new to you?
Elisabeth Röhm (ER): It’s been a long path, not a new discovery. My mother and father met through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They were both meditators and also followed Swami Muktananda. I actually grew up in his ashram. I got my mantra when I was 5-years-old and have practiced Yoga since that age. But I think it’s interesting to come back to it as an adult. Because I grew up with Yoga, I don’t think I really thought a lot about why I was doing it. It was only a year or two ago, that I started to truly deepen in my practice.
IYM: Has that deepening affected your craft?
ER: Since I began practicing in a more disciplined way, I am able to get out of my own way more easily. As an actress, I need to be able to access my true emotions, my true Self. I do that through my Yoga practice of surrender and action, or “active surrender.” When I’m able to commit to the physical practice and to quieting the mind, I begin to have a greater chance at accessing my true emotions.
My greatest obstacle is overthinking—everything! When I act, I tend to overthink a part, over-analyze a scene or approach it from more of a mental point of view. I think it’s human nature to be attached to a result. When we begin our Yoga practice, we want to do better and be the star of the class. We have to fight against that and be present so we can allow ourselves to be where we’re at that day—which is different from yesterday and tomorrow.
The same issues can operate against us with our creativity. We want everyone to like and admire us, to do a good job. Yoga has helped me to exercise my detachment from needing people’s involvement in my process. Yoga talks about learning to be detached, but how do we do that in our daily lives?
I find that Yoga spills over into my creative muscle memory so that, before I start a scene, I’m able to become really quiet. I treasure that ability. The more I practice Yoga, the clearer I am in my work; the easier it is for me to get to the place where I can access stillness, which allows me to be more creative. It also helps me to not judge myself or anticipate anyone else’s judgment of me.
IYM: Do concepts like yogic detachment affect your passion for your craft?
ER: In some ways I feel it doesn’t really matter what I do to pay the bills because it’s all about relationships—with God, above all else. There are careers that fulfill us or break our hearts when they don’t work out. I still have a passion for my craft, I love acting and I hope to do it forever. When I started out I was coming to it from a different place. I was looking for approval,
I wanted to break into the business—which is easier than sustaining a career! I have a different hunger and passion now.
The one thing that has stayed the same is my interest in human behavior and why we love so much, why we hurt those we love, why we suffer, why we have the ability to create and all the human emotions that trip us up and make us flawed. I’m very interested in trying to understand why I do the things I do and why others do what they do. If I get a script about a character that perplexes me, I want to get to the heart of what makes him or her operate.
IYM: How do you balance a yogic lifestyle and the pressures of Hollywood?
ER: It’s hard, but I’m committed to putting my path and God first and everything else second. When I left Law & Order, I didn’t really want to get another TV show right away. I wanted time for life experience, to travel and to have a child vs.12-hour shooting days. Later, I wanted to do another TV series and it wasn’t coming to me. I was a bit frustrated: I want it, why can’t I have it?
I began noticing I was focused on why it wasn’t working out rather than realizing something was working out for me in my favor—I was living my life and knowing my child vs. only being there for a few hours of her day. I was being given time. I trust that, when it’s right to do a show again, it will show up. Happiness is like that. Sometimes we notice we’re spending so much time wondering why our lives don’t resemble another’s and are missing on how happy we really are! I have to ask myself: How much money do I really need? As long as I can eat well, provide for my daughter, not live in a state of panic, travel the world a bit—I’m good!
I don’t think we should be defined by what we do, whom we love or who loves us but by how we conduct ourselves. That’s a very private journey between my conscience and me. And, I want to be passionate about my career and my life, but I need to keep a balance in whatever I do and I think Yoga is what helps me maintain my balance.
In Hatha Yoga, we accomplish these rigorous poses—a metaphor for action at its finest. Yet, at the same time, to accomplish these poses, we have to be very still mentally, almost empty—it’s like being totally full and totally empty at the same time. Otherwise we’re not actually practicing Yoga, we’re just bumping around or watching everyone else. I felt it was important for me deepen my practice so I could go through my day without every single thing attaching itself to me like a magnet weighing me down
like some sort of narcissistic missile [laughs].
Being an actor is like being a mother, a daughter—it’s all about gaining the tools to move me further on the path of enlightenment. I don’t think it’s useful to compare myself to other actresses and complain about why I don’t have this or why I don’t have that—those things may not be meant for me in this life. Everyone’s journey is so different. All I can do is show up full of action and detachment and leave the rest up to the universe.
IYM: Is it harder to keep that balance in an industry that glories the ego—especially as evidenced by all the award shows broadcast in these next few months?
ER: I don’t think it’s any harder than in any other career where you feel you’ve put in a lot of work. I think we’re more subjectively evaluated than perhaps those in other careers. If you’re successful in the business world, it’s likely you’ll get to the next level, but that’s not necessarily true in the arts. Why does one person get a juicy role and another doesn’t? You may never achieve the success of a Meryl Streep or Glenn Close. You may be on an Emmy-winning show today and you don’t get rehired for the next season. There’s no guarantee that you get an Oscar, and then such and such happens and you’re career is set!
It’s human nature to compare ourselves to others. We look at someone and think, “I want their stuff, their roles, their awards” and so on. I’ve tried to channel that into wanting to be like others whom I think are more at peace and have discovered things I’ve yet to discover or experienced—rather than being envious or coveting things. But it all goes back to faith. I think that any struggle I’ve had, any challenge or dark time I’ve gone through has been essential to my becoming a better person. I believe in a higher power, a divine power and in reincarnation, so I know that the path to enlightenment is not about what I want but about what I need to grow.
Hollywood does give you a great opportunity to get over yourself. I’ve suffered the slings and arrows of going after the parts that seem the most appealing; everyone wants to work with the best writers, the best directors, peer actors—that’s natural as artists want to do the most compelling work. But because of all the rejections that are part of this business, it demands that you be in the moment. It’s a totally surreal, illogical, whimsical business. You have to learn as you go through the process—you have to love it, be good in it, take risks.
And, as Yoga teaches us, not put expectations on it, but stay present in it. That’s what I’m learning I have to do if I’m going to have longevity in this industry and peace of mind. It’s hard. It didn’t come naturally to me, but, it’s my daily practice. Each day I strive to get back to Yoga. Today perhaps I’ve failed and I’m hard on myself. Tomorrow I vow to forget the past, be present and promote my creativity and well-being. If everything goes back to your faith, then everything is an opportunity.
Elisabeth Röhm has won two Screen Actors Guild Awards with her Law & Order ensemble cast. Recently she’s begun dividing her time between television and film, performing on Big Shots as well as taking a regular role on ABC’s Heroes while completing a number of feature films including: Transit, Chlorine and Officer Down. Elisabeth is an accomplished novelist, blogger and host of parenting webinars. She has also moved into producing, with several projects in development, including reality television, scripted television and features. For more information, please visit: www.elisabeth-rohm.com.
(photo: Russell Baer)