How Cirque du Soleil Acrobat Jeff Raz Optimizes His Mind & Body For Peak Performance

If you are going to build habits, which means that you want to go to the high point of learning called “unconscious competence,” make sure you’re building the right habits.


As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Raz.

Jeff Raz has performed internationally for decades, starring as an acrobat, juggler and clown in circuses including Cirque du Soleil and the Pickle Family Circus, and as an actor in theaters from Berkeley Rep to Broadway. He has taught acrobatics, acting and clowning around the world and was the founder and first director of The Clown Conservatory at Circus Center, San Francisco. Jeff is a graduate of Dell’Arte International where he has also taught. In addition to teaching and performing, he has directed dozens of circus, dance, puppet and theater productions and written 17 plays and three books. Jeff continues to direct, write, perform, and teach as well as work globally as a communications consultant.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Aturning point in my young life came when, at 10 years old, I moved to Berkeley with my brother and mother, who was going back to school after my father’s death. My crew cut couldn’t grow out fast enough and the atmosphere in Berkeley that summer of 1968 couldn’t have be more exciting and scary and so very different from Huntington, Long Island, although recently I’ve discovered a different side of Huntington: When I was eight years old, John Coltrane composed A Love Supreme just a few miles down the road from us, where he was living at the time with his family. My experience of Long Island was any thing but musical, sophiticated and brilliantly creative.

Berkeley shaped me. It was, as Coltrane said in the liner notes of A Love Supreme, an “awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”

My first juggling performances, when I was 14, were at Sather Gate on the U.C. Berkeley campus. A friend and I had a stand on Telegraph Avenue selling jewlery, leather bags, finger puppets and stuffed Winnie the Pooh dolls. I was a professional performer, political activist, radio producer, newsletter writer and leather craftsman before I turned 18.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

Stu Goldberg ran San Francisco’s “Dance Your Ass Off” disco and was famous for running up trees into back flips in neighboring Washington Square Park. It was 1978 and early Sunday mornings Stu would invite three of us from the Bay City Reds, a juggling group I worked with, to come learn acrobatics on the empty dance floor. We’d walk into the huge, empty club, still littered with the detritus left behind by the dancers, and Stu would come up from the basement where he’d been counting money all night. He taught us hand-to-hand (one of my partners doing a handstand on my hands), high splits (a third partner in a splits held high by the other two of us) and different kinds of pitches and flips. That was my first professional acrobatics act. Stu and I reconnected recently when he read my books and then, a few months ago, I found out that Stu died. He was in his late 80s and still working.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

When he was young, Lu Yi was an elite Chinese acrobat, touring the world as an artistic ambassador. He later became the director of the Nanjing Acrobatics Troupe and the Deputy Director for Acrobatics for all of China. In 1989, Lu Yi moved to San Francisco to become the trainer for the Pickle Family Circus, one of the founding organizations of the New Circus movement (the Pickles started a decade before the more famous Cirque du Soleil). When I joined the Pickles in 1991, I got a second education in acrobatics, training with my partner Diane Wasnak under the watchful eye of Lu Yi. He taught Diane to fly off a teeterboard and me to catch her in a three high (landing on the person standing on my shoulders) and in a chair I held up on a pole. He taught us a lot of doubles moves that we used to make an act where Diane played accordion and I played baritone horn while doing a series of moves that ended with her standing on my head. In another one, Diane was my pillow and I was a restless sleeper tossing her around. The biggest act Lu Yi taught us was shoulder pole — I balance a 15 foot metal pole on my shoulder that Diane climbed and then does a series of tricks. The topper of that act was adding another acrobat, Serenity Smith, join Diane up the pole.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

It was the opening celebrations for Yerba Buena Gardens, a performing arts center across the street from the S.F. MOMA. I was scheduled to do an act with 9 acrobats piled on a bicycle while I pedaled in a circle. The outdoor stage was on a steep slop so there was a big drop from the front lip to the lawn below. The rehearsal was fine for everyone except the keyboard player, who was not happy being tucked in so close to the action. I told Marty, “Even if it looks like we’re coming right at you, don’t worry. I have complete control of the bike at all times.”

Our show was early the next morning and we only had time to stretch and start performing. The bike act went fine, with me pedaling counterclock-wise in an eight foot diameter circle as my partners jumped on one at a time. Marty flashed me a big, knowing smile every time I rode by, inches from his keyboard. When the second-to-last performers were jumping on, I started to feel the tires slipping a little, losing their traction. The morning dew hadn’t all evaporated and as the weight of the bike got above 750 lbs., the tires started to skid. I held on for dear life and pedaled as fast as I could; Marty kept smiling, knowing that I was in complete control. The other acrobats felt the slips and the tires were inches away from the front lip of the stage but everyone held on and didn’t wiggle.

After our bow, I told Marty what had happened and he turned bleach white.

The simple lesson — run the act right before the show, every time. A more complex lessen — focusing on the safety of other people allows your mind to be very clear and your body to do amazing things.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

Circus skills, especially in North America, are light years ahead of where they were when I was coming up. This means the bar is higher for young performers but it also means there are more and better training programs. My recommendation is to get great technical training and, at the same time, learn the art part, the skills of creativity. Perform before you are 100% ready, or even 50% ready, so the audience can teach you what works on stage. Study the history of the art form and learn related art forms, such as dance, theater, music. Use your body, your mind and your heart in equal amounts and all at the same time.

Once you find or create an artistic community, search for the people who are excluded from that community. What can you do to make your world more diverse and inclusive, for your own growth, for others’ and, especially, for your audiences who look to the stage and screen to see themselves, and a better world, reflected back to them?

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I’m working on a program that invites people to explore the privilege they’ve enjoyed in their lives so they can better work with people who have lived very different lives. Another project is designed as one possible answer to a question that many of my friends and colleagues asked in April — how the &%#% can I teach physical theater (or dance or any other body-based art form) on a virtual platform? And I’m working with a colleague to turn my new novel into a screenplay. The novel, Love Death Circus, is a love letter to the Bay Area circus community that has nourished and held me for many decades.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

  1. Be curious. For most of us, feeling stressed means looking inward. Ask yourself questions that engage your curiosity. When I was performing with Cirque du Soleil, doing the same show ten times a week, 500 performances in all, I asked myself two questions before every show. The first looked inward — “Do you want to be an artist today, or a hack?” and then the second question looked outside of myself, “How can I better connect with my castmates and the audience today?”
  2. Take care of others. This is another way of taking the focus off yourself. As an acrobatic “porter,” the person holding, throwing and catching the “flyers,” every rehearsal and performance carries the risk of serious injury to your partners, like the bike act on a slippery stage. You can minimize that risk if you are always focused on them and at your peak at the right time.
  3. Stay connected with the music. In the circus, this is literal — listen to the band, partner with the music as much as you partner with your fellow performers and with the audience. Before shows with the Pickle Family Circus, I would improvise with Bill Belasco; he would play drums and I would juggle clubs. He was letting my movements flow right into his hands and I was letting his rhythm flow into my body. Metaphorically, find the flow, the energy, the music of any situation, and try to stay connected to that flow.

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

There are many breathing techniques popular right now and I endorse any that work for you. For me, the simpler the better — keep breathing. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the basis of life. Of course, there are specific breathing techniques I’ve internalized as an actor and others I use as an acrobat, all designed to get oxygen into my lungs (so I can speak, throw, catch, etc.) and keep me connected with the rhythms of life.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

Know your role. In the type of partner acrobatics I did, there were basically three roles — flyer, porter and spotter.

  • The flyer, who is sometimes literally flying and sometimes held in high the air, needs to be an optimist. No matter what, a flyer must feel in their whole body, and see in their minds eye, the success of the trick.
  • The porter, who holds, throws and catches the flyer, needs to be a realist. “How is my partner doing today? How can I make sure she looks perfect, and is safe, even if she’s not having a good day? She twisted a little to the right yesterday so I’ll compensate a little today.”
  • The spotter, who is outside of the trick ready to save the acrobats from injury, is a pessimist. “What will go wrong? Where are their weaknesses? Where do I need to stand to save them when they mess up?”

In the course of a training session, or even a show, one person may play all three roles. Having the wrong mindset for the role could mean disaster, in acrobatics and in many other areas of life. Having the right mindset for the role, and trusting that your partners each have their mindsets right, let’s you defy gravity and do seemingly impossible tricks. This same idea works for meetings — if you have a brainstorming session where new ideas will be flying around, take an optimistic mindset; if you are putting together a strategy with ideas that have already been decided, go with a realistic point of view and if you’re pressure testing, looking for weaknesses in your plan, go full on pessimist.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

Train right, and not too much. Working with Cirque du Soleil, one of the best acrobats in show trained the least. Many of my castmates can from sports where they were used to training for weeks for a single “show” (a competition). We were doing 10 shows a week and they sometimes got injured from over training. It is important to note that training is different from rehearsing. Training is repetition designed to build your physical and mental skills to the point that a skill becomes second nature, and then maintaining that skill. Rehearsal, in circus, theater or business, is preparing for a complex interaction by simulating it beforehand.

If you over train, even if you are doing it right, you can injure yourself. You can’t over rehearse, if you are doing it right, because the goal of rehearsal is to free you up to be flexible and focused when it matters most.

This concept applies to anything work you do. Ask yourself, for example, “Why am I tweaking on these slides?” If the answer is to make them significantly more impactful for your audience, good; if the honest answer is because you’re nervous about your presentation and need to feel like you’re doing something useful, stop.

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

My acrobatic mentor Lu Yi used to talk about three types of new students in a way that reminds me of the four children in the Passover Haggadah: The first student is inexperienced, which was fine because Lu Yi could train him. The second had some physical challenge (short hamstrings, overpronation or supination of her elbows, etc.) This was OK, because Lu Yi was a master at finding ways to train and adjust moves to fit each acrobat’s unique body. The third student is experienced but has learned bad habits. At this point, Lu Yi would just shake his head and say, “This is very hard. It will take a long, long time.”

If you are going to build habits, which means that you want to go to the high point of learning called “unconscious competence,” make sure you’re building the right habits.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Simplicity and repetition that become ritual. Regularly repeating an action or series of actions, like a deep breath or a daily walk or a stretching routine, turns this action into a ritual. Rituals have a special power. Think of tennis players preparing to serve or basketball players getting ready to shoot a free throw — they each have a unique set of actions that they repeat every serve, making it a ritual. If their ritual is interrupted, they will stop and go back to the beginning. You can watch the power of the ritual in the athlete’s face and body — every muscle, synapse and neuron is synced up and ready for action.

Use rituals to create habits and to change bad habits. It is easier to replace a bad habit with a new habit than to try to tell yourself “don’t do that!” over and over again. A dear circus friend of mine overcame a number of addictions by creating complex rituals to ease his bad back, find good coffee when we were on the road, etc. The healthy rituals replaced the unhealthy ones and his life was much better.

As a high performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

Listen to the music. Move with the music. Feel the external flow, feel your internal flow, connect them together and connect with your breath.

You can also change your focus. Another mentor of mine, Avner Eisenberg, teaches performers to be interested, not interesting. In other words, even though you are being paid to entertain the audience, don’t try to be clever or unique or creative. Instead, stay interested in the other performers, in the audience, in the world around you. This will not only get you into the flow, it will also, paradoxically, make you more interesting to others.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

A little stretching and daily walks around my neighborhood, always two miles total. Shooting some hoops because I miss my Sunday morning basketball game. If I’m starting to feel annoyed or full of self-pity, I ask myself what I’m grateful for and keep asking until I get into a nice rhythm of gratitude.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

Use my go to moves — be curious and be grateful. Use whatever tricks you can to keep your mind focused in a resourceful way.

Avner Eisenberg, who I mentioned earlier, has a great way to trick his mind so he avoids “hunting for laughs,” a sure-fire way to turn off an audience. His self talk goes something like this, “I’m so busy on stage, with the tricks and the lighting and trying to remember what to do next, if they laugh it will just give me one more thing to worry about.” Of course, he gets a whole lot of laughs.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

That’s a question I ask myself often and I’m not always happy with the answer. I’ve performed for over a million people, sitting or standing together live in tents, theaters, on the streets and in schools. Now that live performances are on hold because of COVID 19, I feel grateful for those audiences and hope that all those shows brought goodness into the world, at least for an hour or two.

Some of my students have had good careers that started in my school and they lead interesting, complex lives. Many of them are in “social circus,” including working with an organization my wife and I founded a decade ago, The Medical Clown Project. Their work with patients of all ages, their families, caregivers, doctors and nurses, refugees, evacuees, etc., undoubtedly brings goodness into the world.

From what I hear from my readers, my books have moved people, brought joy and challenged some assumptions about what clowning is and offered some ideas about how artists might lead the way to stronger, more respectful and joyous cross-cultural communications. My latest book, Love Death Circus, which I’m posting a chapter a week on my blog, is a story about how a tight group of circus performers deal with a series of deaths in their community. I hope that it will resonate with readers’ own communities and offer a vision of a “good death.”

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

One of the Chinese acrobats I performed with in the Pickle Family Circus told me that when I arrived for my first day of work, our trainer, Lu Yi, said he had never worked with an acrobatic porter who was so big. The second day, he said that he’s never worked with anyone who looked so strong but was really so weak (I hadn’t been performing acrobatics for a couple of years). By the end of the week, Lu Yi said that everything was going to be fine because I worked hard.

I have never been the best, and I’ve often been below the midline as an athlete and as a student. But I work hard, take advice to heart and strive to be excellent. The folks who are both gifted and hard working become our superstars; folks who are gifted but don’t know how to learn and grow often struggle. Those of us whose main tools are hard work and a taste for lifelong learning can have wonderful, fulfilling careers.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Definitely Kareem Abdul Jabbar because he was a great player and coach as well as a writer and a political and spiritual thinker. Also Serena Williams because she redefined a sport, and reset the age clock on tennis, while staying engaged in so many other aspects of life. Since there is one more chair at my kitchen table, I’d invite Colin Kaepernick because he’s another amazing athlete who has made the world a better place with his courage and integrity.

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