Nia and Medicine: A Harmonious Blend

By: Skye O'Neil PA-C

As a Physician Assistant with extensive training and experience in Hospice and Palliative Medicine, I am invited each year to join a group of Palliative Care Clinicians in educating third year medical students at the University of Colorado on how to communicate with very ill patients and their families. This year, the invitation was waiting for me upon my return from my Black Belt training.

Our task as facilitators of these student groups is to guide them in developing an understanding that communicating is an art, and while it can be learned, it must also be sensed. The focus of the course is to introduce them to specific skills they can utilize while delivering difficult news, especially in regard to End of Life Care. We achieve this through exercises that involve role playing, digging deep into their own emotions, learning the art of listening, and much more.

While preparing, I could not help but hear and sense the language of Blue Belt, reading words in medical journals echoing our training - “art and craft,” “relationship,” “attention,” “awareness,” and “mindfulness.” As the articles moved deeper into the art and skill of communication, I read about “energy” and “intention.” Suddenly I was immersed in Brown Belt! It was deeply thrilling and satisfying to experience the merging of these two distinct paths so profoundly. The realization that I could bring the lexicon of Nia into these group sessions was a great surprise and even greater opportunity to actively and purposefully practice Dancing Through Life. The idea of teaching took on a much deeper meaning than in previous years. It was alchemy!

The students sensed this and their energy levels rose. Layering the language of Nia with the science they already knew provided a beautiful foundation from which to step into discussions. This went beyond the science and into the art of being a healer, and in this particular course, the art of listening. It has been written in medical journals for decades and is widely accepted, that having the ability to connect with patients is at the heart of practicing medicine. The art of listening, suspending one’s own agenda to practice deep empathy and presence, provides both the patient and the clinician with a much more satisfying relationship that will endure regardless of potentially challenging medical outcomes.

One of the methods used to help the students develop the art of communicating is a mnemonic, SPIKES, which is similar to the seven cycles of a Nia class. Set-up is “Stepping Into” the conversation with a clear intention. Perception and Invitation are like “Warming Up” or moving into the conversation. “Get Moving” is likened to the Knowledge section of the conversation during which the news is given. Practicing Empathy can be compared to “FloorPlay” and finally when a Summary is presented to assure the patient they have been heard, this is the “Stepping Out” phase. The relationship has been established and there is a path ahead. The similarities between our discussion and Nia were incredibly enriching.

I shared many stories of my career in medicine and eventually our conversation turned to medical burnout. One of the students asked how to avoid it. Without having to think I replied, “You will find what heals you, you will find your medicine,” then he asked, “What is your medicine?” and I replied, “I dance.” I went on to say movement has been critical to the sustainability of my long career, and that I spend as much time in nature as possible, walking. Nature is my medicine, and dancing Nia in nature is my ultimate self-healing. I told them a story of dancing barefoot in the mountains of Idaho during Blue Belt and the astounding healing connection to the Earth we all felt that day. We ended the session with a spontaneous dance around the room. It was an exquisite moment in time and I left with a deep reverence for life.

Skye O’Neil is a Physician Assistant with 20 years experience in Hospice and Palliative Medicine and a Black Belt Nia Instructor in Colorado. She was introduced to Nia in 2008 and is extremely grateful for the gifts she has received from her work and from Nia. Skye is most at home in Nature, on the dance floor and with patients. 

Photo by Skye