Recently, the Nia Next Generation Trainers to consider the folloowing: "If you were invited to present at TED, what would you say about Nia?"
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
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.