Awareness of Shinbones: Sensing Vertical Precision
For this month's continuing education focus, shinbones, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Read on to hear what they have to say about sensing dynamic relationships by exploring The Body's Way. Be sure to also listen to the July 2nd telecourse with Debbie Rosas.
Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:
Thanks to Gil Hedley, creator and author of the “Integral Anatomy Series,” my idea of anatomy has shifted dramatically. While I have always loved the body, I love it more and more each time I delve deeper into its magic. I've had the pleasure of taking Gil’s dissection anatomy course three times, and it is on my Christmas list every year. Why? There’s no better way to understand the body than to touch it and work with it–from the bones to the organs to the tissues. There's nothing like holding a heart in your hand!
As a way to continue my exploration of the body on my own, and to inspire others to do the same, I decided to focus Nia education on the specific parts of the body, in pursuit of cultivating a community of Sensation Scientists–people who are able to read and interpret the messages of the body. As we continue on this path together, I am reminded how Gil taught me to think of the body like an onion. All parts have a place, and all parts are connected.
We are in relationship with everything, and we are all connected and part of a nested system called the universe. The body itself is also a universe; each part has a specific design and function that supports the whole. The shinbones are a perfect example of a part that supports the whole body. They work in parnership with the ankles and feet to provide us with the support we need to move while maintaining stability.
I find it helpful to imagine my shinbones are stilts. This allows me to use what is underneath them (my feet and ankle joints) and above them (my knees, thighbones, hip joints, and whole upper body) to move and re-establish balance with every step I take. Much like a clown walking on stilts, I catch myself from falling every time I take a step and practice Nia. Knowing my job is to remain upright and to catch myself from falling, I use my shinbones with great precision, intentionally placing them with care. And to my great joy, I walk and dance with greater ease, confidence, comfort and yes, power and grace.
Shannon Mairs, Nia Trainer, says:
Last summer I was fortunate enough to travel to Rome, Italy, and visit the Roman Pantheon. I remember standing inside that structure and being dwarfed by its magnificent beauty and intricate architecture. One characteristic of the Pantheon that I remember clearly is the structure and design of the pillars. The pillars ran across the front of the building and supported the upper façade, which was triangular in shape. The pillars were wide at the base, narrow in the center, and wide at the top. There was an amazing symmetry to the structure and design of the building.
In the human body, the shinbone, also known as the tibia, is the foundation for structure and support. Tibia means “little flute,” which for me has always brought to mind an image of a light, hollow bone. In truth, the tibia is the major support for the femur, also known as the thighbone. Thinking of the Roman Pantheon, with its large pillars, likely hollow and supporting a colossal stone at the top, the tibia is similar in that it not only supports the thighbone, but also the pelvis, spine and head. The tibia is the strongest weight-bearing bone in the body! That small, hollow shinbone is responsible for keeping us upright, and for supporting everything above the knee. Even as a hollow “flute” of a bone, the shinbone keeps us standing tall and strong.
In Nia, when I move my shinbones, I use imagery to help me lighten my movements. I envision a “floating feather” or “hollow straw.” Or I imagine that my shinbones are tree roots, hollow and able to pull nourishment from the earth. Using imagery allows me to move my shinbones as they are designed to move.
The shinbones also remind me of timpani mallets, which are big, soft-tipped drumsticks used to beat the big base drums in a symphony. Unbelievable sound comes from the timpani mallet's connection with the drum. It is amazing the resonance that is created from two, soft-tipped sticks. The shinbone is shaped like a drumstick (larger at the ends), and its capacity to support and to hold us upright is tremendous.
Even when a human overtaxes the shinbone by carrying too much weight, the shinbone never fails to provide stability to the upper body. The shinbones are shaped like the mallets yet are subtle like the drum. The drum sits silently until the mallets connect with it, and then a beautiful resonance emits from the bowl.
Our shinbones lay dormant until we ask our body to stand upright, or until we desire support, stability and strength from our bones.
- Sit in a chair with your feet on the ground and let your shinbones rest in a vertical position. Sense the lightness of the bones at rest.
- Push yourself out of the chair and sense the shinbones as they immediately become major weight-bearing bones. Sense the strength and the support that the bones provide as you move from sitting to standing.
- Use the tips of your fingers to explore the bone along the front of the leg. Notice the ridges and the insertion points.
- Rub lotion onto your leg, and imagine you are nourishing, feeding and cherishing the bone. Honor the strength which nature has given you.
- As you move, use imagery to help yourself connect to your shinbones.
Janet Hollander, Nia Teacher, says:
I remember walking on long pole stilts as a kid, my body jarring with each step. My shinbones are like stilts. The tibia bone, in the lower leg, is the straightest bone in the body and extends up from my feet, like stilts. But these shinbone “stilts” are much more elegant than the sticks with which I played.
Instead of extending stiffly from my hip and jabbing into the ground, my shinbone connects to my knee, which allows my leg to bend and make a smoother walk. Further smoothing each step is my ankle, which acts as a hinge, and the arch of my foot, which creates a spring to soften the landing. Mel Robin, author of A Physiological Handbook for Teachers of Yogasana, describes three arches of each foot as creating “an efficient, shock-absorbing system."
When I study the design of the shinbone, I appreciate how the upper surface is shaped to fit neatly with the lower end of the thigh bone; the two bones, the femur above and the tibia below, have a unique way of tipping and rolling so that their surfaces always align, regardless of the knee’s angle. This, too, helps to create gliding–not jerking–movement. (Thanks to Blandine Calais-Germain, author of Anatomy of Movement for diagramming this mechanism.)
When I walk farther than usual, the muscles on the front of my lower leg may be sore the next day. This comes from more lifting of the forward part of my foot. If I keep this muscle strong with regular use, then I enjoy long walks without discomfort. The “Heel Lead,” used often in Nia class, conditions this area by placing the heel on the floor before the rest of the foot. Stepping forward with the heel first also creates a softer landing for your foot and whole body, making you less likely to trip on your own toes, a common occurrence among people who have very weak shin muscles.
- When you walk, point your toes, keep your knees forward, and sense your shinbones moving with each step. Experiment by walking while pointing your toes outward, and feel the difference in the movement of your knees, ankles and hip sockets. Then try walking with your toes pointing inward. This playful approach appears in the choreography of Nia classes, offering new sensations and variety to our dance.
- When standing still, bring your weight slightly forward and into your toes, and sense your lower leg resting vertically on the arches of your foot. Allow your whole body to rest upright on this foundation, with relaxed joints. Keep your hips, chest and head above one another. Experiment by shifting your weight back onto your heels, and notice your muscles engage to maintain your balance. Which muscles do you feel? Notice them whenever you stand, in order to sense if you are really aligned and relaxed.
- When walking, make sure your heel touches the ground before the rest of your foot. Experiment by walking uphill and notice how easy it is to place your heel first. Now walk down a hill and continue the rolling motion of heel-to-toe. Pay attention to the sensation of meeting the earth gently with each step.
- When walking upstairs, place your heel on the stair before the rest of your foot. (Many people step on the ball of the foot first, making the muscles on the front of the legs do most of the work and sending the force of the lift to the knee.) Researchers at Oregon State University (Better Bones and Balance Program) found that by placing the heel first while walking up stairs, the force of the lift is sent up the long, straight, leg bones and strengthens the narrow “neck” of the thighbone where it connects to the pelvis, the most common site of hip fractures. If your foot is too long to fit on the stair step, as mine are, turn sideways and walk diagonally up the flight.
Jamie Klausing, Nia Trainer, says:
It is quite common that many shinbones only get noticed when bumped and bruised on furniture, or when shin splints develop. Paying attention to the elegant detail, design and function of your shinbones can bring great strength and nobility to your legs and your life.
Get to know your shinbones more intimately! The shinbone’s proper name is “tibia,” and is named for the Greek aulos flute. (Many Greek pillars were designed with flutes (grooves) running from the bottom to the top, where a square cap rests, much like the kneecap rests above the platform shape at the top of the tibia.) The bottom curves of the tibia resemble mini canopies over the ankle. The top and bottom of the tibia gallantly form a custom-designed shape according to the demands placed upon it during its formative years.
Your tibia resides between the thighbone (femur) and the anklebone (talus). Although, the femur is the largest and longest bone in the body, the tibia is the strongest bone in the body. The tibia bears all the body weight above it, and transfers that weight into the foot below. It’s an astounding balancing act when you observe the difference in the bone size of the feet and legs.
The intelligent, load-bearing design of the shinbone helps protect the shins against future injury. Walking, dancing and practicing Nia are all examples of load-bearing activities that help sustain and increase bone density of the tibia.
Going barefoot is ideal for heightening an awareness of your shinbones, yet it’s not always possible in daily life. I walk several miles every day on city sidewalks and streets in Chicago, and simply wearing the same shoe for multiple days has resulted in shin splints and severe pain. My shins screamed, “Pay attention to me and start noticing where you are placing your body weight!” They insisted I become conscious of my shoes choices, demanding variation of shape, height, width, depth, etc.
I often walk off the sidewalks onto patches of grass, and in the winter, I even trek through snow mounds along my city paths. This type of surface variation is a great way to condition the body and prevent shin splints.
Sense vertical precision as you rise and joyfully live up to your highest standards. Allow your shinbones to be your personal platform of elegant grace in strength!
- To strengthen your shins, practice the Duck Walk. Stand with your feet slightly apart, keeping your heels in contact with the floor as you raise the toes of one foot. Then lower those toes and raise the toes of your other foot. Repeat this exercise at various speeds.
- Next, practice Ball of the Foot, another Nia move. Stand as if you were wearing pumps and march in place, stepping directly onto the balls of your feet while keeping your heels off the floor. Keep your toes relaxed and stretched forward. Imagine tip-toeing on clouds.
- Give your shins a break by occasionally exploring softer surfaces, like a hiking trail, sandy beach, or a lawn. Notice the joy they give back to you.
- Explore various shoe structures–flat, lifted or rounded soles–and go barefoot whenever possible.