Nia's Answer to Stability—Naked Feet

I thought a lot about what to discuss for this month's focus, White Belt Principle 6: The Base of the Body. After much deliberation, I decided to talk about the feet and also to share part of Nia's history with information from our first book from 1987. This book introduced our crazy notion of working out in bare feet and eliminating the high-impact jumping and jogging of popular aerobics. It was all about stability and comfort – and it ultimately became the foundation of Nia movement.

Back then, our way of moving was not only unique, it was seen as a radical approach to fitness. Bare feet? No repetitive jogging and jumping? People thought we were crazy! Now it's 2010 and we continue to work out barefoot, providing people all over the world – both the fit and unfit – with a fun, safe fitness practice without the repetition and pain. Of course many programs still rely on jumping up and down to get the heart rate into the aerobic zone – and for some people, this works. For many others however, this method is not only uncomfortable, it's boring. Nia offers a smart, stimulating and less injurious way to get fit by shifting the body weight slowly and deliberately, sinking and rising and moving along a "smile line" with conscious, controlled power and precision. Not only is our way safer, it thoroughly exercises and integrates your whole body by strengthening your muscles, steadily pumping your heart and gently increasing flexibility.

As a Nia dancer, you've experienced how Nia enhances your balance, improves body awareness and stimulates your entire nervous system, all the while protecting your bones, joints and muscles. The sensation of pleasure you feel from your head to your toes entices you to move again and again. But where do you find the stability to support all this expressive, conditioning and healing movement? From underneath you, from your naked feet! Whatever your mood or style, be it snappy and jazzy, lusciously lyrical, powerful or sensually smooth, your feet support you in expressing your thoughts, feelings and movements. They connect you to the ground you stand on, to the world you live in, to your unique and sacred self.

If you watch a runner’s feet in slow motion, I guarantee you will gain a new appreciation for how much impact your body actually receives. Every time you jump up, you land with an impact three times your body weight! This is no "small shakes" to your ankles and feet – not to mention your shins, knees, hips and lower back. Trust me: once you learn to move in a grounded way, sinking into and working with gravity, you will feel the wonderful sensation of pleasure, the sensuality of moving fluidly and lyrically – and your body will thank you!

Love your feet. Kick off your shoes and wiggle your toes and sense life through the soles of your feet. Dance Nia and discover your not only your feet but your whole body, your own rhythms and beats, from the ground up. Thank your feet for all they do! Learn how to choose the right shoes for your feet in this download.

And now, I'd like to share some excerpts from our first book. In one section, Carlos and I included an excerpt about barefoot running. That was back in 1987. Guess what? Now barefoot running is being promoted as something new! As an example, check out this great video and article by Christopher Joyce called, "Humans Were Born To Run Barefoot." Finally, take a look below at what Carlos and I said "back then." It's clear we Nia dancers were ahead of the times!




Finding Our Feet

An excerpt from our first book in 1987, Non-Impact Aerobics, co-authored with Katherine Martin

The reaction that night was mixed. It was hard to let go, to start over, to trust that this new, unfamiliar way of moving was really a better way to get fit. The aerobic mind-set, the “no pain, no gain” mentality, was hard to buck. Our students went through withdrawal in the beginning. We empathized. It hadn’t been easy for us either. Truth is, we’d had heated arguments about the issue of pain. We had grown accustomed to it being a benchmark of fitness, we had actually set up goals based on how much pain we could endure. Without it, we were edgy. Was a workout really any good if we didn’t work up the kind of muscle fatigue that left us feeling wiped out, if we didn’t press through searing “burns” that we conquered by pounding the screaming muscle with a fist? Even after realizing that the answer was an unequivocal yes, we worried about convincing our students. Would they come back if they didn’t have those familiar aches and pains they associated with fitness? Maybe we should leave in just a little hurt, just enough to convince them that this was bona fide exercise. Gradually our own need for a hard aerobics “fix” had waned – and so did our students’. Hesitant at first, they removed their shoes. The thought that they could strengthen their ankles and feet by not relying on the support of a shoe did little to alleviate the awkwardness of naked ground contact. Having paid more attention to shoes than to the feet within, they encountered those marvelous sensors of stability for the first time.

The classical and soft blues music soon grew sweet, relaxing, calming, helping to melt tension and quiet their minds as they opened to a new awareness of their bodies, their internal energies, their feelings – all of which would help them move more efficiently, effectively, safely. Slowly at first, one foot at a time, they stepped out, the heel extended, the toes drawn back, sinking and rolling through the flat of the foot. Moving rhythmically, back and forth, sinking and rising, becoming in sync…with the rhythm…of the body. Feeling the heat rising up from the feet, through the legs, into the hips, and now sweeping upward with arching arms, fingers rippling the air, feathery, hands floating like leaves caught in an updraft, around and around…while the torso…lilted up and down…swaying side to side. Breathing steadily with the motion, like an undulating wave, a collective heart beat. The memory of the hard yank of conventional, linear aerobics gave way to the soothing flow of circular movements that tone more muscles and take the strain off otherwise overused ones. Little by little, we could see them gaining new freedom of motion, their bodies becoming more flexible, responsive, agile. Inhibitions gave way to soft sensuality and a playful wriggling of fingertips, wrists, elbows, and shoulders, clear down to the toes, until the whole body was engaged. Reluctantly at first, they exposed their exhalations, working up to a full chorus of those karate “Yeet!” grunts that help protect the lower back and tighten abdominals.

At the end of class, one of our students who had been a devout jump-aerobics student likened the way she felt to the glow of a full-body massage. But, she asked, could something that felt so wonderful really be aerobic? Fortunately, the answer wasn’t to be construed in a subjective sort of way. Pulse rates are inarguable. We now have to caution students that, because they work so many more muscle groups, they can easily slip over their aerobic target. That same student, who had also been running six miles a day during her jump-aerobics days, found she could get her heart rate higher and steadier with the Nia Technique without feeling that her body “had just taken a royal beating.” Later, at the Center for Sports Medicine, St. Francis Hospital, San Francisco, we would test Carlos on an EKG to validate the Nia Technique conditioning on an already highly fit person and discover that his heart rate maintained at a steady aerobic target, whereas traditional aerobic dance rates can zigzag up and down.

Soon we were hearing a new language from our students. They spoke of internal strength, control, and power-mental as well as physical. They spoke of agility, grace, and increased range of motion. They spoke of groundedness and balance – emotional, as well as physical. They were relaxed even when working strenuously. Simple daily tasks like playing with the kids, cleaning the house, even turning around in the car, were becoming easier. Best of all, they began to equate fitness with movement, not simply isolated exercise, to see that fitness was not confined within the walls of a health club or rec center, not bound by the large hand of a clock. At its best, the Nia Technique was carrying them through the entire day with greater ease and grace.


What Runners Have Learned About Shoes and Pronation

An excerpt from our first book in 1987, Non-Impact Aerobics, co-authored with Katherine Martin

In the December 1984 issue of “Runner’s World,” writer David Prokop brings to light a little known myth about shoes and overpronation, which can strain ligaments, tendons, or the entire leg, causing knee, foot, and ankle injuries, shin splints, and Achilles tendinitis. “We tend to think of shoes as a supportive, protective aid to runners,” writes Prokop, “but did you know that the amount of pronation is always greater when you’ve got running shoes on than it is when you run barefoot?”

“It’s true: People pronate less when they’re running barefoot,” says Tom Clarke, Ph.D., director of research and development for Nike. “This has been proven by a number of researchers.” Clarke explains that when you’re running barefoot, the heel is very well shaped to minimize pronation. “It’s narrow and has a fat pad that’s round, soft and moves over to the inside, adapting as the foot pronates. By comparison, when you’re wearing a shoe, the lever arm, as biomechanists would call it, underneath the heel is increased, since the heel of the shoe is invariably wider than the heel of your foot. The longer lever under the heel will tend to snap the foot into a more pronated position. Also, when you’re wearing shoes, your heel is in an elevated position, resting atop the cushioning. This softer material – the midsole – offers a lot more room for deflection than the fat pad underneath your heel. In other words, you can sink down much more into the midsole material on the media (inner) border of the shoe than you can into the fat pad under your heel. The fact that you can deform a shoe midsole much more as your foot rolls inward, while the longer lever under the heel serves to whip your feet into a more pronated position, explains why we pronate more in a shoe no matter how much rear-foot control it provides.”

Prokop goes on to quote Barry Bates, Ph.D., head of the University of Oregon’s biomechanics laboratory, who conducted a study of rear-foot control and discovered that “a good shock-absorbing shoe” could promote injury among people with rear-foot control problems. Bates explained it this way: “When you’re standing on a piece of sponge rubber, obviously it’s a much different feeling than standing on a hardwood floor. Your foot can kind of roll around in the spongy rubber, whereas it’s much more inclined to stay firmly planted or fixed on the harder material. So by putting the foot on softer material, which is what we do when we put on a well-cushioned shoe, we decrease its stability. When the foot starts to roll or move to the inside in the action of pronation, the soft material allows the inside of the shoe basically to collapse, and it doesn’t provide support underneath the inside of the foot. So the foot rolls over farther than it would on a firmer surface.