By now, yoga is a fundamental part of living a healthy lifestyle with 28% of all Americans having participated in a yoga class at some point in their lives according to a report by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. Since 2012, the number of yoga practitioners has increased by 50% to over 36 Million with 72% women practitioners and 28% male practitioners. Yearly practitioner spending alone grew from $10B to $16B. Key findings in the report denote yoga enhances the body, mind and community. With its slant towards health it’s no surprise that 37% of practitioners participate in other group exercises compared to just 9% of the general population. The give-back of the yoga community is not only good, it’s great with 79% of yoga practitioners reported as giving back to the community compared to 59% of non-practitioners.
So, we have the practice within reach through both in-person and digital classes with growing accessibility, but what about the constant reminders when we surf the web or flip through our favorite lifestyle magazines? With all of the excitement about transforming the mind, body, and spirit though, it can be easy to be influenced by common visuals related to the practice that focus on a one-note story of how we imagine yoga should look. Thanks to the help of marketers and the media, yoga bodies are usually toned to perfection and are captured mid-flex often in intermediate poses, and there is either a serene setting or a peaceful yoga setting to tell the perfect wellness story. Beyond what we’ve come to think yoga looks like though, there is an entire universe of everyday stories to be explored at the heart of how the practice actually affects real people.
Who better to delve into yoga, art, and life than theater performer, director, producer, and educator Debora Balardini, who is certified in Hatha yoga? With roots especially deep in physical theater, Balardini’s thirty years of experience in traditional and experimental performing arts and dance spans theater, film, ballet, modern dance, and tap. Balardini is the co-founder of Group .BR, the co-founder of PUNTO Space, and the co-founder of Nettles Artists, an award-winning collective. After Balardini became a Hatha RYT (registered yoga teacher), her entire approach to the arts shifted. Overall wellbeing and mindfulness influence her productions and workshops. The practice not only opened her mind and heart and supported soulful healing—it changed her life.
Balardini, whose biggest yoga influence is Swami Vishnu Devananda, the founder of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center, defines what yoga is to her: “Aside from the usual mind and body union, yoga for me is the ability to be present in each and every moment in life so I can make more informed decisions about my life’s calling for a more prosperous life. Yoga definitely helps me be more mindful and more focused on my priorities.”
The journey has been profound for Balardini. “I think yoga has given me a sense of openness and clarity on life and death. I finally understand that the path (life) is more important than the end result (death). The common saying goes, death is a part of life, but I no longer associate it fearfully the way it used to for me. The moment I understood that I’m not this body, I am not this mind—I was able to understand that my essence is connected to a larger aspect of the universe and everything I have on Earth is a gift for my spirit.”
“Yoga has everything to do with the arts and my craft,” Balardini continues. “I think of the arts as a meditation—and when I say meditation, I am really talking about the full concentration and body/spirit presence in the moment. Theater is my medium. When I am on the stage, be it as a performer, director, etc., I am one hundred percent present with what I am doing. I think it should be like that for everything we do in life. We should take every moment as an opportunity to meditate: focus on the breath and be present for ourselves and others. It is the hardest practice of all, but that is where the real work is. When I was training in the ashram, we all wanted to stay there because it was so peaceful and we could practice in an environment that allowed us to focus. But one of my teachers said, in one of these instances, ‘Go back into the noise and distractions of everyday life. That is where the real practice is.’ That became a motto for my life.”
As yoga and the arts are highly generalized topics, Balardini comments on the common misperceptions about what yoga is and what it isn’t. “I think that the biggest misconception about yoga is that we have to turn ourselves into a pretzel to get the benefits of yoga. No. There are many aspects of yoga that are not only beneficial but actually essential for a better life. The simple act of breathing naturally is a benefit of the practice that can be overlooked or taken for granted.”
Balardini breaks down how her practice influences her as a director, performer, producer, and educator. “My practice influences me in many ways. As a performer, it brings clarity for me to align my body and soul so I can be in service of the character I am portraying. As a director and producer, it gives me the opportunity to be present with the artists I work with. This is especially important because listening is an imperative quality for a director and is an integral part of yoga—it’s important to be present and pay attention.
“As a teacher, my practice influences my ability to pass on the knowledge I acquired to my students and clients, but most of all, it gives me the opportunity to listen and learn with them. The most important aspect of yoga is how it influences me as a mother because the love we receive from our children requires our undivided attention and presence—not only to receive it but to give it back as pure as it came to us.”
When we allow yoga to enhance our day-to-day lives and trust living it as much as we trust classes, we live our calling.