by Mari Pack
Ballet dancer Deborah Novak shares some personal tips on how to steer through muscle pain and find beauty in the day-to-day.
Deborah Novak started dancing in Huntington, West Virginia when she was five years old. It was the closest she could get to flying. But ballet was not always easy. “I have one leg shorter than the other,” she says. “Not by much. But it throws me off.” So she developed techniques and strategies to deal with the subsequent aches and pains, which increased as she aged.
Though she left dancing at 23 to become a television actor, Deborah stayed fit and active at the gym until she took up ballet again at the age of 48—often working through her pain. Her motto became Renoir’s famous response to Matisse, who is said to have asked him, “Why do you continue to paint when you are in such agony?” The older painter suffered terribly from his rheumatoid arthritis. Renoir responded simply, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”
Eventually, Deborah’s hip gave out during a production of The Nutcracker, and she had a hip replacement in October 2016. Now 64, she dances mostly pain-free. “I’m really, really blessed,” she says. But Deborah sometimes still uses the techniques she originally developed to transcend physical and emotional stress. “I’m no medical expert,” she says, “but I know what works for me.”
For Deborah, the number one thing to consider when dealing with pain is the breath. “The first thing people do [when they experience pain] is hold their breath. That’s the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing,” she says. Instead, try to relax your body with your breath. Deborah imagines breathing oxygen through her body to soothe the source of the pain.
She also focuses on breathing rhythmically. “Inhale on a count of four and exhale on a count of four. It doesn’t take long.” If she’s waiting in the wings of the stage before a performance, Deborah often takes two fingers to feel for her pulse. “Then I harmonize my pulse,” she says. Deborah breathes to the rhythm of pulse, which helps her balance her respiratory system. “If you pulse on one, you inhale on one.” It works for anxiety as well as pain—often adjusting Deborah’s whole attitude in a matter of minutes.
For lower back issues specifically, Deborah uses a foam roller. “I put my hips on a foam roller and lie back,” she says. It doesn’t take complicated gymnastics. “You don’t have to roll. Just feel the balance of the two hips and breathe.”
If you’re mobile, Deborah also advises movement to ease and prevent pain. “A lot of pain comes about because people are sedentary and their muscles tighten.” Many of us sit hunched in front of our computers all day. Even light yoga or walking is beneficial. Take a stroll outside. “If you possibly can, turn and face the sun and breathe rhythmically.”
Ultimately, however, Deborah believes that self-knowledge is the key. You have to experiment and do your own research. “You have to figure out what works for you. People have to listen to their bodies.”
Read Deborah's inspiring story from the May 2019 issue of Guideposts!
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