Building from the Base: Rehabilitating My Brain with Nia

In learning Nia choreography, we are taught to start with the base of the body, move to the core, and then add in the expressive upper extremities. No matter how intricate or beautiful the arms, if the base is not stable and the core is not filled with dynamic ease, the rest gets lost.

Shortly after having brain surgery for epilepsy, I realized that I had to apply this practice to my rehabilitation. In the days following the surgery, my doctors gently gave me a base for my rehab that felt not only unstable, but untenable. I had some permanent brain damage caused by the seizures and surgery, and there was no rehabilitation plan for the loss.  

I would need to adapt and learn to live with limited memory, speech delays, an inability to recall words, a limited ability to track and understand time, and an inability to do work that required doing several things at once. My vision was impaired, and I would have to learn to live with a brain that often felt foggy and confused.

The brain fog was relentless. Like others who suffer from a traumatic brain injury, the fog was seductive. In the months following the surgery with a compromised memory and no sense of time, I was easily content to sleep a lot and stare out a window, doing nothing but feeling sorry for myself. On a day when the fog briefly lifted, I felt a bit of my own self-spark reignite and I went back to the base of Nia. I wrote myself a note:

“White Belt Principal One: Choose the sensation of life-force energy=JOY!”

Returning to Nia

I realized that I wanted to be able to dance and teach Nia again. I decided I was not going to allow my diagnosis of limited brain function to define or defeat me. I went back to my studio, put on a routine I had known well, and even though I thought I wouldn’t be able to remember it, I allowed the music to move me. Building from the base, I could feel my unique life-force energy coming back, greeting me like an almost lost friend. As the music played, my body started to dance the routine, “Alpha Omega.”

I had the amazing experience of my muscle memory retraining my brain memory (my hippocampus) how to remember and retain information. Remembering and learning new Nia routines became the core of my memory rehab. Learning to cue again became the core of my speech rehab. I relearned how to understand the clock through teaching the slow and fast clock, cuing the numbers and moving from simple to complex patterns. The surgery left me without a sense of right and left. I even lost my own hand preference. I relearned right and left through teaching, giving credit to my wonderful students who put up with me saying “Go left!” as I moved to the right. As they followed my contradictory cues, they would crash into one another!

My Medical Journey

My medical team is intrigued by my recovery and how I have engaged neuroplasticity through my Nia practice. The next time I see them, we may do some new scans to look at “Kristine’s brain on Nia,” to help them explore what areas of the brain are being activated by the practice. We already know many of the tasks traditionally done in the left brain have shifted over into the right hemisphere of my brain (language, for example). I attribute this to the whole brain activity of dancing, remembering, cueing . . . all the things it takes to teach.

My journey with my rehabilitation continues. Currently, I am working with head and eye movement, specifically the move, “Catching flies” with the intention to rehabilitate my visual tracking (again impaired from the surgery). I am also challenging myself by learning to teach Move I.T., which is helpful in cleaning up some of movement and memory compromises I was starting to accept as a new normal. Now I am motivated to move my sometimes cloudy brain, to a place of increased clarity. The surgery seems to have been successful, and I am now in the process of reducing the anti-seizure medication I take.

I would be remiss to not mention how important my Nia tribe, the Nia community, has been and continues to be in my healing journey. My students and the community of my local studio have been critical in my rehab, as have been the many loving, inspirational teachers I continue to encounter along the way. In this past year, Winalee Zeeb, became a source of heart and inspiration as she heard my story and encouraged me to continue my Nia education (I received my black belt in September). Of course, I have incredible gratitude for Debbie and Carlos, and the creation of a practice that has taught me to continually build and rebuild from the base, living in my potential as a sacred athlete.


This is the 3rd blog of Kristine's Brain Journey. View the 1st and 2nd blog to catch up with her brain rehabilitation journey through Nia!

Kristine Zakarison is a Nia Black Belt, a certified yoga instructor, as well as an ordained minister. She is the mother of two children, wife, and the owner of Aloft Studios in Pullman, WA. She shares her thoughts and practice at aloft-yoga.com and seizejoy.com. After living in Boston for many years, she returned back to eastern Washington, where her family still has a farm. She loves living close to the soil as she dances through life.

Photo by Unsplash