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My Nia Story- TED Blog

Next Generation of Trainers

My Nia Story- TED Blog

By Allison Wright on August 19, 2011

I walked into a Nia class when I was seventeen.

"Something tells me you will really love this," said my therapist, handing me a flier for the class. I'd asked her for a yoga reference, but instead she handed me information on this thing called Nia. At the time, I was very shy, yet something in me was magnetically called towards this class:


Sometimes words just speak to you. And they carry with them a sense of inexplicable familiarity- like the kind of familiarity so many people describe when they meet the person they spent the rest of their life with. There is a Rumi poem that articulates this so eloquently:

The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along.

This was how I came to meet this thing called Nia. Seventeen and anorexic. Seventeen and willing to do anything it took to get into my body. Seventeen and in need of a community. Seventeen and sensing there was something out there waiting for me to heal, waiting for the right time for us to meet. By the time I was seventeen, that time had come...

It is always said that to change we must desire to change, and we must want it in all our being. Well by the time I got to Nia, I wanted nothing but change. I craved change in every cell of my being.

Everyone has a story; this I have learned from talking with so people about their lives. My story and the path the brought me to Nia is far beyond just an eating disorder. While I do not share my story often, I think knowing the backstory is essential to understanding how I came to fall so deeply in love with this practice called Nia.

For an eight year period of my life, 8-16, I experienced a devastating level of near-loss. In the process, I came to find myself at a very early age. I say "near-loss", as I did not "lose" anyone in the traditional sense. When I was eight my mother had an unpredictable AVM (arterial venial malformation) burst in her brain while our family was on vacation. Overnight, she went from being a PhD chemist to unable to cook, drive, do basic math, you name it. Partially blinded in both eyes, brain damaged and years of physical therapy would return her to a state where the only type of work she could do was stocking shelves at a grocery store. In the aftermath of my mother's brain trauma, my father asked for a divorce and my older brother became immersed in the world of chemical addiction. There was no one there to care for my mother, so I switched roles with her, becoming a parent to this incredible woman who had once been able to be a rock star mom while juggling 20 differently tasks at one time. She became the child, and I became the mother.

Now I'll just interject that on the positive side, this is one of the most sacred relationships I have ever experienced. The maturity, patience, and compassion that was required (on both my mother and my parts) to do this set the stage for the work I would spend a lifetime doing- the "work" of transformation and healing. On the negative side, this parent/child switch came at the cost of my childhood.

By the time I was 9 I developed an anxiety disorder and was diagnosed as clinically depressed, with a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. My rituals and coping mechanisms ruled every move I made, from how I hopped up and down the stairs, how many times I flipped a light switch, colors I could and couldn't wear, how I would swallow, to phrases I would repeat in my head. The list goes on. I was avidly afraid of dying, my mother dying, my brother dying, and so everything I did became a compulsion to "remove" or calm this fear. By the time I was 13, I was on ten medications to handle the panic attacks, sleep apnia, depression, OCD, and stress-induced asthma attacks I had on a near daily basis. I then hit an ultimate suicidal low that nearly landed me a in a psychiatric ward.

I knew I was not well. But what I did not understand was how the trauma of my childhood had manifested in my body. I sought out so many therapists to "understand" how to heal myself, but very little helped because the therapists themselves were not living in their bodies either! So I searched. I searched and I searched until one day I found an embodied therapist who knew exactly what I needed: I needed to get into my body again. I needed to come home. She got it, so she introduced me to Nia....

Nia is different than most movement practices. What is so unique about Nia is that it is sensation-based. Someone could rightly argue, "Well what movement practice isn't?" I would counter this comment by saying that although most movement practices require a certain awareness of sensation, few actually emphasize it as the focal point. Most movement practices emphasize one of two things: skill and/or performance. Whereas in Nia, the focus is on being in your body; sensing your body; loving your body regardless of what degree of "skill" you bring to your movement practice. Thus, Nia is a somatic-based movement and lifestyle practice.

From the moment I stepped in to class, a sensation of extreme familiarity flooded my body. I'd never been here before, yet somehow, I'd always been here. Where was this 'here'? The music came on as these soulful, meaningful, and energizing sensations filled my body. My shoes were off as we began to dance in choreographed yet free-form movement. I was having so much fun and yet there was something so much deeper than just "dancing" happening: I was sensing my body. I was connecting to myself, my truest self. In one pivotal moment of awareness I realized: I had arrived. Nia was a pathway home.

Now let's not sugarcoat it. I totally had no idea what I was doing. Thank god I was a musician, because I had no background in dance, as any onlooker could have perceived. So there we are, listening and dancing to awesome music, the teacher guiding us to move "our body's way," and then she tells us to freedance in the space. "Freedance, ok, I can dig that, like what I do in my bedroom listening to Michael Jackson, cool..." and I started dancing around the room. And in that moment, a moment I thought would be so focused on myself and my own dance, I sensed the strangest, most unique sensation I had ever felt: community. The sensation was so unfamiliar to me, I almost did not know what to do with it. I had spent so many years taking care of myself, being left alone so much of the time that it felt completely foreign to me. On the one hand, my body just wanted to bask in it. On the other hand, I felt my emotional discomfort and a desire to hide. Being seen was not something I was used to. This awareness of "wow, someone is seeing me" really brought me into my body. Part of healthy child development is feeling loved and supported by the world- something I had not felt for years since my mother's brain trauma. This sense of community became a crucial healing component for me and brought me back class after class. Somehow being "seen" in the context of Nia made me become more visible to me. And the more I danced a felt seen, the more I sensed and came into my body.

My entryway into Nia, thus, was not as Nia as a exercise program, but as a practice for embodiment. Part of embodiment, I learned, was sensing how my emotions are intrinsically linked to my sensations. Emotion pulses through my cells. This was a pivotal element for me to sense, because I had so much emotional healing to do. As much as talk therapy had helped, I discovered there were some things, the very deep things, that talking could never heal. Trauma's imprint on my cells was too deep for psychotherapy. I didn't need to talk; I needed to feel so that I could heal. This is the vehicle Nia provided me with.

For my first nine months of Nia, I cried through at least half the classes while experiencing a level of joy words cannot adequately articulate. I was coming alive at every moment. I journaled after every single Nia class of my experiences. I felt ecstatic while also sensing years of unfelt emotion rise to the surface. My heart- I felt my heart. I felt how I had to shut down my heart as a child in order to survive and I realized this no longer needed to be my reality. I'll never forget one pivotal class where my Nia teacher focused on opening the heart. We danced the choreography, which at one point included opening the arms wide and behind the chest like wings. As we did the movement, I sensed how emotionally painful this movement was for me. I sensed not my physically resistance, but years of emotional conditioning holding me back. I remember noticing it and thinking, "I am so ready to let this all go." And so, class by class, movement after movement, I put conscious attention into healing myself. I honored my "natural time"- a primary tenet of the Nia practice which describes the method of moving, learning and healing at your own speed- while dancing with the awareness that every single movement was an opportunity to come more deeply into sensation.

Whenever anyone has asked how I healed so much at such a young age, this is the only answer I can give: I wanted to heal. I yearned for healing. I was open and I have always been open to doing whatever it takes to awaken more fully to myself. It was this openness that led me into an experience that I believe will last a lifetime: the experience of living an embodied life.

Research in the field of mind/body health reveals over and over again the power of our own ability to self-heal. What is so fascinating about Nia is that it is a personal growth program packaged as a fitness. You think you're just going in to take this movement class, but what you are getting is so much more. You are receiving tools for self-knowing, self-awareness, and transformation. Every time you do a side kick and sound "Hey!" you are increasing your personal power through the energy of Tae Kwon Do. Every time you rise into releve and allow your arms to drape behind your body, you are softening and opening to the healing power of modern dance. Each time you move slowly and consciously, you are increasing your awareness of sensation through Tai Chi. Every time you sense touch, you are affecting your sensory awareness through the work of Moshe Feldenkrais. Everything in Nia has an intention and a purpose. Thus the practice is appropriately named, as "Nia" means "with purpose" in Swahili, and "with intent" in Arabic.

Nia is movement with purpose.

Nia came to me as a practice of self-healing. Nia came to me as a reflection of myself- my true self, the best version of myself that I can step into at every moment simply by using choice.

My story with Nia is like the story of two lovers who finally found one another after years of searching and then realized truly: they were in each other all along. I will never be able to see this practice as being outside of me. Rather, Nia is an extension and expression of the deepest, most authentic part of me - my spirit.

With great respect and great love, I am honored to call myself a Nia teacher.