Meditation, exercise (mainly yoga or Pilates), and a healthy diet are three lifestyle tweaks that will support people in their journey to improved wellbeing. Meditation because it allows us to be present through the breath. Mindful breathing in the moment is something we forget to do that can make a world of difference, especially in making sound decisions in the often fast-paced lives we lead. Exercise brings the body in tune with the mind — for a healthy lifestyle, it’s important those work well together.
As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debora Balardini. Debora Balardini, who was recently elected as the Co-VP of Programming for the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW), is the co-founder of PUNTO Space, the award-winning organization Nettles Artists Collective, and Group .BR, New York’s only Brazilian theater company. Balardini is a theater performer, director, educator, and thirty-year veteran in the arts and is a proud recipient of a 2019 proclamation from the National Council of Women of the United States for social impact work empowering other women, among other honors. As an RYT, Balardini attributes the affinity she developed for Hatha yoga, mindfulness, and overall wellbeing that inspires her in her work and life to Swami Vishnu Devananda and the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
After starting my career in the arts at 12 years old in Curitiba in the south of Brazil, I finally received my Equity card, premiering in a production of The Three Penny Opera in a 300-seat house when I was 23 years old. Living at the tail end of the dictatorship in Brazil and literally witnessing censors make revisions to a theater production during my early career really impacted my life. Although it was minor in comparison with other events historically witnessed that hindered the human rights of so many artists and musicians, it was literally like watching freedom disintegrate. Although I qualified to study pharmaceuticals and physical therapy, I opted to instead study arts & letters and dance at multiple universities. Ultimately, I stuck with dance after leaving Brazil to live in Japan before finally moving to New York in 1995. I pursued academic studies in theater at William Esper Studios. My entire approach to the arts and life shifted when I became Hatha certified at Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center, founded by one of my inspirations, Swami Vishnu Devananda. The yoga philosophy is so deeply embodied in my daily life; I can’t see where it ends and the life begins. Thereafter, I continued performing, began directing, married my life partner and started my family, co-founded Nettles Artists Collective, PUNTO Space, and Group .BR, New York’s only Brazilian theater company.
Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?
Meditation, exercise (mainly yoga or Pilates), and a healthy diet are three lifestyle tweaks that will support people in their journey to improved wellbeing. Meditation because it allows us to be present through the breath. Mindful breathing in the moment is something we forget to do that can make a world of difference, especially in making sound decisions in the often fast-paced lives we lead. Exercise brings the body in tune with the mind — for a healthy lifestyle, it’s important those work well together. Pilates complements yoga because of the strength it brings into the body, and it is an amazing total body workout. Finally, a healthy diet is imperative for a balanced mind and physiological function. Beyond being lifestyle tweaks, these are essential for wellbeing. I complement these by listening to music that uplifts my spirit, such as Mozart, Puccini, Brazilian bossa nova, and alternative new sounds from Kornos Quartet and also by reading inspirational stories.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Between my travels as a performer and educator, managing PUNTO Space and Group .BR, being a mother, and immersion into life-changing yoga influences, there is no shortage of interesting stories to tell along the course of my career so far. My first New York City audition comes to mind though. I had been living in New York for a year and decided, still with imperfect English, to audition for a tour production of Don Quixote de La Mancha, a production that would be performed in both English and Spanish for schools around the country. I noticed there was the same intuition I had from early on that suspended fear and muted distractions when I entered the room. It was like the thrilling moment was there, filled with a real connection that I can’t exactly describe and nothing else. Curious as a newbie among experienced performers, knowing there were 125 women auditioning for three female roles, I took in every moment with every breath; I was so inspired by all of the women who were there practicing their material while waiting for their turn to audition. Clueless about auditioning in the Big City, I chose the wrong audition material by mistake. The casting director cut me halfway through, to my disappointment. To my surprise, I got a callback and landed the role, my first contract ever in the U.S. I’m convinced that if there was an award for the worst way to audition and still get a role, I’d get it. Not only did this role sweep me away but, as it turns out, I played opposite of the man whom I’d ultimately marry years later and have a family with. Looking back, I still find it a bit funny and embarrassing, but I also feel proud that this state of open mind and spirit to take chances and not be afraid to take responsibility for all the consequences has guided me every step of the way. That is what yoga is. It’s being in tune, present, and connected in the moment.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t see any life experience as a “mistake.” For me, the word mistake entails failure, and I don’t consider my setbacks as failures. I’ve had many setbacks since I started my career but have always looked at them as a change of direction and a learning experience. A setback always teaches you something new no matter what. Having said that, the biggest learning experience so far is that I need to put my oxygen mask on first. This past year I realized that I am addicted to helping others. I actually love seeing other people succeed and even more so when I help them, even if it’s just with a word or gesture. What I didn’t realize was that I was actually drowning while being someone else’s anchor, and worse, I started prioritizing this addiction of helping others over my own family, thinking that they were okay if I was out helping someone moving from their apartment or taking a day off to rescue a friend at the end of the world in Brooklyn and bringing them to live in our house. I don’t regret anything I have done for others and will continue to be a supportive friend. I realize, though, that by always being available and saying yes to everything, helping others became joyless. I was hurting myself. The lesson that I’m learning is to say no. The lesson I am learning is that by making mindful, connected decisions in the moment, I am restoring balance and learning to consider what I can do with joy so giving is a win–win. I am learning how to heal myself before healing others and prioritizing self-love — a necessity for peace of mind and optimal wellbeing.
When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
After some years of focusing on the business of art at PUNTO Space and Group .BR, I am reconnecting to my sense of purpose and hope as an artist. Art saves lives, and it saved me. While art connects me with my voice, yoga centers that voice. I’m largely motivated by empowering others, human rights, inclusion in the arts, and promoting parity and fair hiring practices in the arts, which are all anchored in by Hatha philosophy that nurtures my everyday life. The work I’m doing to impact others ranges from performing in Group .BR’s original, immersive theater productions and experiential signature cultural events to directing plays and staged readings to mentoring emerging artists and supporting inclusive programming at PUNTO that favors working with intern programs such as H.O.P.E., Up Next Fellowship, and the Futures and Options Program (for high school students interested in the arts). Even as the Portuguese voice of Caillou, the award-winning animated television series about an inquisitive four-year-old, I am touching other people, maybe even inspiring them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This is probably the most difficult question for me to answer! There are many people who helped me and still help me along the way. It’s absolutely impossible to only target one person with my adoration and gratitude. My older sister has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams of acting. When I was about to leave Brazil to live in Japan, I had a moment of doubt, and she told me, “Go and pursue your dream — you are young…if you make a mistake, you can always come back.” My husband, Duke York, never gives up on me, loves me unconditionally, and supports every single decision I make. My friend of 16 years and business partner, Sandie Luna, is a bold thinker who shares painfully honest truths that also resonate with me and enlighten me. Last but not least is my friend and business partner, Andressa Furletti, who is crazy enough to hold my hand and trust my ideas and make them happen. There are so many others along the way that give me inspiration on a daily basis.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
After living in Brazil at the tail end of the dictatorship and having a play literally censored by the government the day before our premiere early in my career, I’d launch a movement based on compassion. I think the world lacks a great deal of compassion. We are all divided with such a radical force that we end up forgetting [how] our history [affects us and the] people around us. The popularity of considering the good things other people have contributed for the collective good is wavering, and now, with such a grim political climate that promotes hatred and bigotry, we are unable to think clearly and critically to have honest, open-hearted conversations with people from a multitude of beliefs, communities, and cultures who, deep in their core, are good people. Even if, for example, a loved one votes for someone hateful or callous, I still prefer to see them as a whole — I can’t just walk away and forget everything they’ve done for me, and compassion is what makes me stay [and fight for love]. The truth is that it’s nearly impossible for the average person to avoid feeling hurt, disconnected, angry, or extremely impacted by what’s happening in our world today. Remembering that each one of us is fighting our own battles is the definition of compassion. Although our relationship wounds may heal over time, if we all practiced compassion with each other, we would likely have a better understanding [of how to grow]. We may come to realize that no matter how oppressive political powers become, or other things that devastate us, we need to solidify our relationships with each other and foster humanity. We need to collectively understand what it is to experience balance and connection and to experience what it is to like someone, to love someone, and to have compassion for others (no matter who they vote for).
What are your “3 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
I wish someone would’ve told me that saying no sometimes is an option because it would have saved me time, resources, and funds I invested in therapy trying to get to the heart of the matter!
I wish someone would’ve told me to have a basic knowledge of marketing and financing a business before jumping in because I would have benefitted from that much earlier in my career as an independent artist for marketing and specific, basic financial goals.
I wish someone would’ve told me not to sell myself cheap. I’m far from being an art snob, but artists knowing their value as artists really hits a nerve with me. Artists may get into a pattern of taking occasional free gigs for recognition with the hope that a big director will finally discover them and work with them. Art doesn’t work that way. Working for experience here and there to build up a resume is good in the beginning, but once intensive studies have been completed and the level of experience is established, it’s time to embrace art and pursue it as a lucrative career.
Do you have a “girl-crush” in this industry? If you could take one person to brunch, who would it be? (Let another “woman in wellness” know that you respect her as a teacher and guide! )
I would take Lauren Ash, founder of Black Girl in OM, to brunch. As a woman who embraces my Brazilian, Afro-Brazilian, and native Brazilian roots, I think the work that Lauren does by creating a safe wellness platform for women of color is amazing. I would also take Michelle Obama. I consider her a model for wellness because of her clarity of thought and presence in our society. The two of them in the same room having eggs Benedict and a cup of coffee — or whatever they would like to eat! — would be heaven for me.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Needless to say, ALL of these are of the utmost priorities in our agendas. But if I have to pick one first, it would be mental health, including that of our current government administration, who have taken to detention centers and separated children from their families, many of whom can now not be found and are forced to live in cages. We, as humans, are being bombarded with so much daily information that has been affecting our mental state and, definitely in the long run, our souls. In one way or another, ALL of us have been experiencing some sort of emotional, psychological, or social issues that impact our overall wellbeing. Sometimes it is in our genes or brain chemistry, but trauma, abuse, depression, hopelessness, worries, and confusion are very much present issues in our society. I think we need more resources put into training professionals that can help all of us realize our full potential, cope with stress in our daily lives, and be productive in our communities. Going back to the thought of helping ourselves first before helping others, I think that if we have a society that embraces mental health and is less depressed and more hopeful about the future, we can then be able to unpack and solve all the other issues on the table.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights!
Thank you for allowing me to have a voice here. I am honored and grateful!