Nia: The Body’s Way
“Debbie. Carlos. Let me see you move,” the martial artist said to us.
We just stared at each other. Move how? Straight-leg kick? Flat back? Cancan kick?
We began to do jumping jacks.
The sensei shook his head. “You have 15 seconds worth of knowledge,” he said softly. “You know how to exercise, but you do not know how to move.”
Well. Gee. Then why were we two of the most successful aerobics teachers in California? We had lost something very precious. We had lost our relationship to the Body’s Way-the way of moving that is in accord with the body’s own structural design.
We were drawn to the martial arts because we knew something was wrong. And, since the martial arts were based on survival, we knew their techniques and principles must follow the Body’s Way. Aerobics had taught us to move mechanically, while the Body’s Way would teach us how to move organically.
What was the problem with mechanical movement? That day at the sensei’s martial arts dojo, we learned that because we had lost our relationship to the Body’s Way, we weren’t nearly as fit as we’d thought. We also discovered that we weren’t as coordinated as we’d thought; that we were overthinking most of our movements; and most noticeable of all, that we’d both lost the joy of moving. Suddenly we realized how much we didn’t know and how much we had lost by exercising and not moving.
So began the exciting journey of discovering the Body’s Way-following the design and map of the body itself. We created the Nia Technique and developed a comprehensive, holistic exercise approach that draws from the martial arts (tae kwon do, tai chi and aikido), the dance arts (jazz, modern and Duncan) and the healing arts (yoga, the Alexander Technique and the work of Moshe Feldenkrais). In following the Body’s Way, we discovered some essential movement principles that would become fundamental teachings for Nia practitioners.The Body’s Way Teaches You: The Fundamentals of Nia
The Joy of Movement Is the Secret of Fitness. Stop exercising. Start moving. Follow the pleasure principle: If it feels good, do it; if it doesn’t, stop.
Fitness Must Address the Human Being, Not Just the Body. Exercise that’s done strictly for its own physical sake, divorced from the emotions and human spirit, isn’t satisfying, isn’t fun and eventually fails. To achieve whole-being integration, you must address the whole person. Nia accomplishes this by combining several classic movement forms.
Movement Must Be Conscious, Not Habitual. Whole-being fitness begins with heightened awareness-of both body and mind. Turn off the automatic pilot that so often governs your movements and thoughts. Instead, start focusing throughout the day on all the physical sensations coursing through your body, and start moving with purpose. Stop performing conventional repetitive exercises, because they limit movement choices, reinforce robotic living and often lock in mental and spiritual blocks.
Use Your Body the Way It Was Designed to Be Used. Gain fitness by doing movements that shift your body’s own weight, with varying levels of intensity, range and speed. Replace and/or supplement jogging, jumping and lifting with stances, postures, steps, blocks and kicks that are compatible with your body’s natural structure and that feel good. These movements will burn calories; reduce body fat; create strength and muscle definition; and promote balance, grace, flexibility, endurance and good posture.
Use Your Body to Heal Your Mind, Emotions and Spirit. Every muscle in the body has neuronal nodal points, memory receptors that are connected to the brain. These receptors help create muscle memory and help store the physical components of emotional traumas (Rossi 1993). In Nia we use the body to heal the mind and spirit by joining muscular movement with introspection, intention, visualization, imagery and expressiveness. Body language and verbal expression are used to help bring forgotten feelings-pleasant and unpleasant-to the foreground of consciousness.
Take the Path of Least Resistance. Contrary to conventional fitness wisdom, the easy way is the natural way. We think the militaristic element often found in traditional fitness is not as effective. Psychologically, it creates resistance and insecurity rather than enthusiasm and self-respect. Physically, it creates too much strain to be worth the gain. To achieve lasting body-mind-spirit fitness on this path of least resistance, you must move in accord with the Body’s Way. Even more precisely, you must move in accord with your own Body’s Way, because no two bodies are alike.
Function follows form, and proper function of the body is always easier to perform, and is more physically rewarding, than improper function.
Nia Tips for Beginners
Are you or your clients ready to try Nia and follow the Body’s Way? These tips will get you started:
- Train Yourself. Focus and direct your energy using your mind. Talk to yourself, like a personal trainer, to coach your physical body into moving more efficiently and sensing more pleasure.
- Start Easy and Begin Small. Develop slowly and mindfully. Allow yourself the freedom to enjoy being a beginner. At first, don’t reach out, sink or rise too far. Build muscle strength and joint mobility slowly.
- Consciously Pick Up and Place Your Feet. To protect your knees, don’t drag your feet. Instead, pick up your feet and place them in the direction you want to go.
- Sit Back. When you lower your body, sit back as if you were sitting down in a chair, moving your buttocks back behind you and away from your knees.
- Dress to Move. When you dance, wear anything that makes you feel free, comfortable, and excited to move.
- Go Barefoot. Unless you need shoes for medical purposes, take off your shoes and let the bottoms of your feet send information back to your brain so your body can move safely and efficiently. In Nia, we call the feet “the hands that touch the earth.”
- Express Yourself. Make the movements an expression of you-this is your workout. Express your own unique rhythm and body language. Be jazzy, luscious, lyrical, snappy or sensual. Most of all, be yourself and have fun.
- Belly-Breathe. When you inhale, smell the moment, and feel your belly expand, then your ribs and chest filling. Exhale, placing the tip of your tongue directly behind your top teeth, which naturally supports belly breathing.
- Use Your Whole Body. Connect with every part of your body, and move as if your body were your ballroom partner.
- Balance Your Fitness Program. Combine a good diet with internal and external exercises. With enough sleep, proper nutrition, and exercise, you will see and feel results far beyond the shape of your body.
The Art of Sensing-The Body’s Way
Sensing precisely how you feel at any given moment during a Nia movement is a superb way to become your own best teacher. Your senses will tell you exactly how to move; you just need to know what to “sense” for. As you practice, you’ll be sensing for all five of the components of movement:
- Strength is sensed as energy moving inward, a squeezing in or packing of energy against bones; it is the physical sensation of containing and sustaining power. Dynamic strength-the perfect balance of power and grace-is sensed as relaxation, not tension.
- Flexibility is sensed as energy moving outward and is the physical feeling of releasing power. Dynamic flexibility-the perfect balance of contraction and release-is sensed as opening and lengthening.
- Agility is sensed as a shifting of dynamic tension, the ability to easily start and stop movement; it is the physical feeling of pulling and pushing. Dynamic agility-the perfect balance of movement and stillness-is sensed as a balance between yin and yang.
- Mobility is sensed as energy in constant motion, moving all around and generally within a range of motion that varies slightly; it is the physical feeling of juggling power and creates a sensation of continuous energy flow and excitation of the nerves around the joints. Dynamic mobility-the perfect balance of excitation and relaxation-is sensed as youthful freedom.
- Stability is sensed as energy moving from the center and out in all directions; it is the physical feeling of harmony and peace, combined with readiness for action. Dynamic stability-the perfect balance of all the sensations-is sensed as powerful peace.
As you start moving, first recognize the unique sensation of each of the five movement components. Keep moving to sustain each sensation with dynamic ease. Finally, keep moving and energetically balance the flow of all five sensations by consciously self-initiating their on and off buttons. Welcome to the Body’s Way.
Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas are co-creators of the Nia Technique and authors of The Nia Technique: The High-Powered Energizing Workout That Gives You a New Body and a New Life (Broadway Books 2005). This article consists of excerpts from this book, adapted and used with permission. For more information about Nia, visit www.nia-nia.com.
Rossi, Ernest Lawrence. 1993. The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing. W.W. Norton & Co.