Walking Upright with All Four Paws ~ White Belt Principle 9

This month we are focusing on White Belt Principle 9, The Upper Extremities of the Body. For those of you just joining us: This is one of the 13 principles of the White Belt, Nia's first level of training, which lays the foundation of the Nia practice, philosophy and lifestyle. As with all Nia principles, the concepts of Principle 9 can be adapted to fit any physical, mental and emotional needs, carrying beyond the classroom into a sensory-based movement lifestyle.

The Upper Extremities of the Body focuses integrating your arms, hands, fingers—and all associated body parts—into every movement through the sensation of touch. "Touch" sensations make it possible to reach, push, pull, hold, grasp and hug; to play tennis; to feel your child's temperature. Through touch, hands connect you to your physical body, to your heart and to every thought and emotion when you recognize and "tune in" to what you are sensing.

When we talk about the upper extremities in Nia, we include your hands (and all ten fingers); your wrists, elbows and shoulder joints; your four forearm bones (two on each arm), two upper arm bones, two clavicles and two shoulder blades. All of these play a huge role in your life, but how often do you consciously connect to these parts of your body? Well get ready! When you tune into your upper extremities—when you begin exploring your full range of movement and sensation—a whole new world of healing, conditioning and self-expression opens up!

Nia teachers are trained not just to deliver a fun workout, but also to teach you about the body. Throughout the routines, they explain how each part of the body is designed for a specific function—and how all parts work independently and together. Nia teachers always share a "focus" at the beginning of every class and use a variety of Nia tools to help you explore your own body, with the goal of integrating your whole being into everything you do.

The primary tools we use for exploring our upper extremities in Nia are imagery and visualization. These powerful cognitive "tools" naturally inspire our arms, hands and fingers to come alive, to express what we think and feel through movement. Let's try this now: As you read, imagine your hand is a paintbrush. Now move your body. What happened? I bet your hands and wrists came alive and began "painting" the air—as if on their own! In class, your teacher might invite you to imagine brilliant colors flowing from all ten fingertips as you dance; or to imagine you are a lion, triggering your hands to contract like sharp claws, or relax like soft paws. While these exercises may feel like playful fun (and they are!), everything we do is in fact an intentional technique based on The Body’s Way, Nia's applied science of following the natural design of the body. The Body's Way is like a living, breathing "roadmap," guiding us to the best ways of moving, conditioning and integrating our whole magnificent structure.

By design, arms and hands are designed to reach out and draw in, moving energy into and away from the center of the body: the spine. The spine is the first structure formed in the mother's womb—and from the spine, all other limbs are birthed. Why is this important to think about? When movement originates from the spine, our limbs have the support they need to move in their full range with power, ease and efficiency. Ultimately, this means we move better and experience more overall comfort and pleasure. Best of all, we have more energy to enjoy our lives, as our bodies are not struggling to compensate for imbalance and improper use.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? "Just make all movement originate from the spine." Well, if it were this simple, we wouldn’t have the back and neck problems we often do. Over time, gravity and poor lifestyle habits (poor body mechanics) can take their toll by replacing the organic form and function of The Body's Way with your body's adapted way of moving—which may not always be the best way to move. We are often not even aware of when this is happening, but if you experience chronic aches and pains, or a limited range of motion, chances are a little awareness can quickly set you on a path toward realignment and improved functioning.

For a great example of moving from the spine, take a close look at four-legged animals in motion. Notice how their spines stretch and elongate with each step, while all four paws (or hooves) remain in continuous contact with the earth. For those of us who walk upright on two feet however, moving with this full-body "touch support" and lengthening our spines and is more of a challenge. This is why we use imagery and visualization to consciously activate our other two "paws"—our hands. Walking upright and touching the space around you—connecting to it with both hands as though it supports you like the ground under your feet—naturally inspires you to reach out with your upper extremities, easily stretching and lengthening your spine with every step.

I don’t know about you, but nothing makes my whole body feel better than the sensation of my spine growing; feeling the spaces between each vertebrae opening and yawning. Activating my hands is The Body's Way of moving from my spine, stimulating me to walk upright with "all four paws." The best part is, this literally allows me to move with more awareness—to recieve more sensory details about the world around me—by triggering the huge concentration of proprioceptors in my hands. Proprioceptors are movement-activated sensory receptors found in our muscles, tendons, joints and inner ear, which detect the position of our bodies in space. By engaging my hands with space, these receptors can provide more information about the position of my upper extremities in relationship to other parts of my body, which means I feel connected and whole as I move. I can sense my entire body from top to bottom; my spine feels supported from below, above and all around by my feet and hands—which are not just hanging, but dancing with touch!

So how do I walk upright with all four paws, all day long?

Throughout my day, I use my hands to activate my upper extremities by consciously sensing touch. I do this without anyone noticing, by integrating Nia’s arm, hand and finger moves into my daily activities. My favorite hand move for this is called "Creepy Crawlers." In this move, I "tickle space" as I walk, wiggling all ten fingers (including my thumbs) simultaneously and at various speeds, while continuously changing the direction of my palms.

Another favorite hand move for activating my upper extremities is "Finger Extensions," which I use in the morning as I prepare for my day. To practice Finger Extensions, I extend energy out one finger at a time, sensing it move all the way through my hands, fingertips and beyond—out into the world. I begin by walking freely while sensing my thumb, the nurturing finger, connecting to my heart; to the love I will both give and receive throughout the day. I then extend my index finger, the desire finger, consciously setting what I desire for the day into motion. Next, I extend my middle finger, the power finger, and reflect on what I wish to cultivate, based on my desires. Then, I extend my ring finger, the commitment finger, taking a moment to recognize and acknowledge the things I will consciously commit to with my body, mind and spirit. Last is my little finger, the boundary finger. As I extend energy out this finger, I observe the boundaries I set for myself, and then consciously dissolve one I feel holds me back from stepping into my greatness. As with all hand moves, I continue changing the direction of my palms to keep my hands and wrists agile.

This is how I dance through life—not "stopping" my day to practice Nia, but integrating it into my life and turning every gesture into a dance. Your mission this month: Activate all four of your paws and start dancing through life with your feet and hands!


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