Friday, September 2, 2011
Do you know about TED.com? TED is a nonprofit web portal, designed to relay "TED talks" or short video lectures by people from across disciplines about ideas worth spreading. If I had a short window to capture the attention of the masses to spread one most importnt idea that Nia conveys, I keep coming back to physical sensation.
When I tell someone that Nia, the holistic movement and lifestyle program that I teach, helps people to develop increased awareness of physical sensation, it might sound groovy, or intriguing. But it also begs the question: how can you learn to sense more, and why would you want to, anyway?
In order to give you one good reason, I’ll share some of my personal journey that brought me to Nia. In 1996, I was a year out of college, living 3000 miles away from home. I was homesick and doing some delayed processing of greif and facing realities of depression and emerging adullthood. I wanted to get out of my head and get in control of my emotions.
So, I signed up for a meditation class.
It was excruiating.
I was bad at meditating. Bad at it. I had been drawn to meditation, had expected to love it, and that it would be the key to liberating myself from my over-active mind and heart. Yet while my mind and emotions finally got quiet, it was my body that siezed the opportunity to scream the loudest. Pain and discomfort an utter distraction, I couldn't tune my body out any longer.
Where was this coming from? I was a 25 years old former ballet dancer - not an 85 year old one. My back hurt, my shoulders couldn’t stay open, I had cramps in my feet sitting cross-legged, and I kept shifting around in an effort to get comfortable, which no one else showed the need to do. Hadn’t I been sitting all my life? I sat on the couch watching movies. I sat at the pub drinking Guinness. I sat at my desk worrying about office politics and trying desperately to finish my work before missing the bus home. Maybe my body had been trying to tell me something about this discomfort in my daily life, but let’s face it…there always seems to be something more urgent, exciting or inebriating to drown it out.
The teacher’s hand found my back, “expand the breath here,” she told me. Huh? I tried to do what she asked and failed. Hadn’t I been breathing all my life? My chest rattled. How was it that I suddenly couldn’t perform this act sufficiently? I was wheezing, gasping, the sensation wasn’t all together unfamiliar. I recalled the labored breath that had started to accompany me up the flight of stairs to my apartment. Ignoring this information from my body did not change the fact that I would spend the next few years learning to manage this new discovery: adult onset asthma.
In the days that followed the meditation class, I thought about not returning the next week. But there was something about the practice that I wanted. It was the permission to focus my attention on one thing. Unfortunately, the one thing that was shouting the loudest for my attention was my body, and I had been neglecting it for a long time. It became clear that I needed to dedicate some time to repairing this relationship. If I couldn’t sit still, maybe I could find solace in moving it, yet I was hesitant to return to the type of dance I knew from my youth, the performing variety that left me analyzing and criticizing the way my body looked. My neighbor had been bugging me about coming to a Nia class at her gym with her for months. I didn’t know what Nia was but she claimed it felt good and was fun, so after months of prodding, the painful meditation experience led me to finally take her up on it.
“Imagine your spine is the mast of a sailboat…Feel yourself get long into the clouds!”
The Nia teacher looked like a dancer, but acted like a party host. She was smiling at everyone, leaving the front of the room at times, walking through the crowd. She was mingling, having a good time, confident that we'd keep it going without her modeling. Occasionally she'd instruct us to sense a body part. I felt naked in the shallow end of the pool.
Without stopping the music to break it down, she had us moving through a quick stepping pattern. How could I tell if I was doing it right? “Sense your ankles” she whispered into the mic, and the energy in the room changed, it softened and relaxed. Someone nearby let out a loud sigh, "ahhh!' I was still unsure what I had gotten myself into, but I knew for sure that I wanted some “ahhh” for myself.
The teacher invited us to gather in a circle for a free dance. I froze. My view of the mirror was blocked by other bodies, leaving me without my familiar aesthetic clues of how to move, yet the others remained unfazed. They were all doing something different, some moving very little, some flailing all around. One woman smiled brightly with eyes closed, swaying. That looked safe: I decided to sway too. The teacher encouraged us to do a “feel good” dance. Someone else was spinning around – that looked like it might feel good, I tried that. Sense your shoulder blades. Oh, the point of pain from the meditation class! I checked in with my shoulders – they felt rigid, tied to my ribs. Make this move feel even better. I shrugged my shoulders, and kept on dancing. I moved them up and down, and then went back to swaying. I circled my shoulders and drummed my feet. It felt good, to move this way. No one told me to do it. I circled the other way; it felt even better. Deep breath, “ahhh”! There it was. I got some of my own. Suddenly I was unconcerned with seeing myself in the mirror, I didn't care what the other dancers were doing. I was paying attention to my shoulders, my sensation. Just this.
This is how I was introduced to pleasure. Before I could feel better, I had to become aware of feeling period. Sensation is the language of the body. When it speaks, you may not like what you hear at first. But once the body has you attention, it will reveal more. Our bodies will tell us how they need to be moved to feel better, to heal, and to experience pleasure. All we have to do is listen. In movement and in stillness, Nia taught me how to turn pain into pleasure through a dance of conscious awareness.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
You know what that means? That Rosanne and I are giddy with plans for this years...
NiaCamp is an annual weekend in September, held at an exquisite spot on Lake Winnipesaukee, NH at a real summer camp. It is across the bay from my family's former summer cottage. This spot is my spiritual home. It holds the key to my childhood. And so, each September, I invite you to join me on a return trip to our collective inner-childhoods -- through whatelse...Nia!!!
Rosanne Russell shares this event with me, and together we bring our 10+ years experience teaching and sharing the Joy of Nia, our yoga training, and our backgrounds in visual art and writing. This is a fun, casual Nia and Expressive Arts experience that always weaves in the magic of friendship and community with the natural world. It is the perfect setting to connect with your purpose and activate it, via movement.
I could not be more excited about this year's focus of NiaCamp -- Creating a Sacred Livelihood. The focus is an invitation to explore what you love about Nia and your movement practice and transform these into your personal guiding principles. I may be going out on a limb here, but there is potential for this year to hold the COOLEST CRAFT PROJECT EVER!! (woot!) You will be able to PLAY with your craft on the dance floor! (you can guess, but I am sworn to secrecy).
Registration is open - please visit the page. Space is limited. I HOPE you make it back to camp this summer!
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Growing up, I was teased for being tall and thin. The winter that I was ten years old, my father took me to visit my brother and his family at the AFB in Plattsburgh, NY where he was stationed. We went to see Bill Cosby perform. He had a bit about “the breast fairy.” For the next several mornings, everyone joked that it was too bad the fairy had not yet paid me a visit. I remember feeling sensitive and inadequate. Sometime toward the end of middle school, my nephews nicknamed me “Larry Bird” (former star basketball player for the Boston Celtics). I became increasingly ashamed of my structure, especially the fact that my breasts were small and concerned about when that would change, if ever. I began to cloak my body is baggy sweatshirts. Withdrawing my chest from the view of the world while it still seemed to me and by all my accounts, by everyone else, to be not enough. I avoided trips to the beach, terrified of being seen with nothing to fill out my bikini top. I remember sitting at the kitchen table looking at pictures that had just arrived from our family vacation to Florida. My older sister paused on one of me in a a green and orange bikini, standing up in the ocean and said: Isn’t she beautiful? I remember this because immediately and without warning, I burst into tears and fled the room. This was a deep visceral reaction. I was not used to hearing that I was beautiful after a certain age, and I did not believe it.
Around that time, I stopped ballet training. Physically, I became withdrawn, my shoulders rolling inward, sinking my chest further into my body. Without the pressure of performance and the constant demand of my teacher, I could hide behind my shoulders and arms, now typically crossed. One year during college, I came home after happy hour (already with a buzz on) and my roommates were getting ready for a Halloween party. I had no costume and in my buzzed state, not the capacity to pull one together. One of the girls decided that she could dress me up as Olive Oyl in a red top, black skirt and her pair of combat boots. I put my hair in a bun and threw on some red lipstick, looked in the mirror and figured I would need to explain my costume to everyone at the party. Not so. I remember feeling sort of sad that everyone pegged me as Olive Oyl in my hac-job costume without any prompting from me. What did that say about my appearance?
By the time I got to the White belt, my posture might be read as someone who was chilly. Constantly. Arms across a concave chest. Even when I uncrossed my arms, my shoulders still knit in tightly. Debbie pointed this out. It was something for me to work on. By Blue belt, I still hadn’t worked on it. I remember learning the routine Infinity and feeling the possibilities of a new form, seeing Debbie’s expansiveness of heart on the video. At moments, I felt access to opening of my chest cavity, but I could not sustain it. I did not own it outside of practicing the routine.
Yoga training came in between blue and brown belt and came with my first formal exposure to anatomy. During this time, I lost my father to cancer. At the end of one of my Nia classes, a student approached me and shared that she was an energy worker and that she wanted to share something she noticed. She saw a leak behind my heart. So it was not just physical, it was energetic. She asked if I had experienced a lot of loss, and I immediately went to the most recent grief over the loss of my father. She felt it had been there long term. The loss of my best friend to cancer at 16. Compacting the wounds around my heart, the armor my body had built to protect itself from further loss and embarrassment was no longer serving me, was not allowing me to take in what I needed. And as I moved into my first pregnancy, I knew that in order to give and receive what I needed to support twin boys and myself with love, the shape around my heart had to change.
In the training, I struggled with poses like Warrior 1, in which the tension of my shoulders prohibited me from both raising my arms and drawing down my shoulders. The trainer explained that I needed to condition the rhomboids to draw down the scapula. It sounded technical. I looked at pictures in anatomy books. For years I was focused on how I felt about the front of my chest, and thought I could only open my heart from the front, and by throwing my shoulders back. I used props to help me access change along the the spine: blocks, bolsters. I X-Rayed Debbie and Carlos's with more emphasis on the upper spine, the upper extremities, the wings. I stalked my tendency to cross my arms when I was feeling uncertain of myself, insecure, when relating with others, and consciously "disarmed" my chest. I remember feeling so open at the completion of Brown belt. A week after my return, a man was asking me for money on Boston Common and began pestering me. I recall the moment that I would have crossed my armed, folded in and retreated, but I heard the word NO come up inside of me. I connected to my hara, faced him, with my heart and pregnant belly vulnerable and said, NO. Not loudly, but solidly, from a deep well of self-love and preservation. And he turned tail.
When I am feeling closed off now, I either put myself in a restorative backbend to support expansion in the front and strength in the back of the heart - or - I dance my heart wide open. I visualize the expansion. I imagine the expansion. Physically I become expansive. Vulnerability and connection were aspects that I had cut myself off from physically in the past. In the present, I have my body as symbol and as vehicle of what I want to be and what I want to offer to the world.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
The Art of Listening is by far one of the most personally valuable practices that Nia has given to me. I have always loved listening to music, and yet I bring no musical training to my Nia practice. Although my dance background is rather extensive, I am one of those people who doesn't always hear the beat. There, I said it! It is exactly this, which I may perceive as a deficit, that has allowed me the most beautiful relationship with listening to music, to doing my bars, and to the lifestyle of awareness that I desire to cultivate more and more deeply in this lifetime. In order for me to hear the beat, I have got to deeply listen!
To me, the most important skill to develop for receiving the healing benefits and power of sound is Attention. Big "A" Attention. Paying attention means that I do not always receive what I expect. The music isn't necessarily going to flow in the directions that I "think" it might. I am talking about listening to music in a way that increases my ability to pay attention, minimizes my tendency to bring expectation into my experience, which draws me out of the moment, from the truth of now, of what is really, truly going on, evidenced in the sounds, the stillnesses, the rise and fall, the detail of a signature instrument that I might have missed had I been wrapped up in weaving my own story about the music. Listening so that the musicians can fill me in on some quality, some pattern that shows up in their song and perhaps across the entire universe, that I would not know had I not shown up fully. That's what paying attention to music can do for me -- it can help me to be present -- and that is an absolute healing benefit.
Paying attention to music can shift my perspective, giving me access to something broader than my experience. When I am sad, or angry or other-wise freaking out, I can not do justice to the level of awareness and attention I want to place on the music unless I firmly, calmly, and loving tell that sad-angry-freak out situation: "Not now." My focus shifts from how I'm feeling, from what I perceive has been done to me, from my self-absorption, to a union with sound, energy vibration of instruments, presence with the timbre of the voice - and what that evokes, and it is suddenly no longer all about me. I am in someone else's art and I am receiving energy from their life force. I am me and I get a break from me. I am connected to something else. Connection is a most healing, soothing, poignant benefit to paying attention to music.
Paying attention to the music has highlighted other things that really ask for me to listen deeply. When my dog barks, how many times might I reactively tell him quiet down before I understand that he really has something important to tell me (a few years back - the furnace in the basement just beginning to smoulder)... When my emotions are getting in the way of really hearing what my four year old son has to say about his day...When too much on my to-do list draws me out of my senses, I can turn everything off and simply listen to the silence. A major healing benefit of cultivating Attention.
Sunday, May 8, 2011
This month in class, we will be taking the movements from the Nia body of work called ZenSation...
and adapting the moves to a new music play list!
The play list is subject to change, and may evolve over the next four weeks.
Come to class and be part of the process, share your impressions here, and suggest a title for the adaptation.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
I want to talk about Fascia. It is a smart sleeve. Sometimes being smart backfires.
Fascia knows that its job is to wrap me and hold my contents tight. Fascia is excellent at doing its job. So good in fact, that it holds onto all my contents: physical, chemical, energetic, emotional. And in doing so, it casts my body into a physical signature.
This signature is also known as posture, and it served me at one time. When I needed to close myself off, to not risk being open and vulnerable, my fascia knit together tightly, rounding my shoulders in to protect my heart. Yet as I evolve and become ready for change, the fascia, reflective of our Western culture, doesn't know how to "take time off" from work.
As a Nia student, I thought it was fun when we played with emotions in class. Later, as a Nia teacher, I began to recognize that exploring different emotions as I moved could give me access to trying on different physical signatures related to emotions that I had not expressed as my habit. These experience of trying on new postures gave me a taste of what I wanted to change, how I wanted to evolve, desiring more physical and emotional space and range of motion. In terms of my body signature, I wanted to trade up, in order to access more.
But sheer will is no match for the strength and intelligence of the fascia. I can't simply reorganize and shed off fibers so tightly woven and intent on holding together what I had feared "spilling out" for so long. When the movement is over, and the tensile stress and expansion releases, the fibers return to their previous pattern.
Transformation of tissue is possible: it just takes patience and dedication to expanding one's range steadily over time, and with repetition. Linda Hartley reminds me that, "appropriately applied pressure, stretching and the warmth produced by touch and movement can positively effect the the connective tissue, breaking up or dissolving the gluing and solidifying that so often occur when patterns of chronic tension set in." This phrase could sound like a rote approach taken by many physical therapists. Yet we do the same thing in Nia and have a lot of fun doing it! Over the years, I've learned to integrate props like blocks and bolsters, support from gravity, the floor, the wall, the mirror into cycles 5 and 6 of my Nia practice and my Nia classes, as well as my own self care practice. I learned these techniques by self-research: I played and explored and I listened to the language of my tissues, which is sensation.
Beating myself up for the sculpture I've erected is not useful. It could lead to set backs, including pushing too hard on integral fibers, expecting to force change. Good thing I have Nia to remind me to celebrate the body I inhabit at every moment along the path by choosing pleasure. With Nia, I change my shape through movement incrementally and organically in natural time. This past fall, I attended a vigorous yoga class led by a close friend, Robin Shaw for the first time in about 8 months. I have not been practicing yoga regularly, but integrating Yin yoga stretches into my Nia classes and my daily practice. On the way home from class, Robin remarked how much increase in my flexibility and range of motion she noticed in my body by witnessing me moving. Yoga and bodywork are lovely component to include in my journey into expansion. And yet, all I really need is the variety, curiousity, awareness, compassion and patience that Nia teaches me to embody, in order to transform my physical, emotional, and energetic signature.