Awareness of Touch: Sensing the Physical World

For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Touch, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Here's what they have to say about developing body literacy and self-knowing, by exploring and using our sense of touch in The Body's Way.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

Touching is the act of putting one thing into contact with another – the process of feeling something. What you perceive as the sense of touch originates in the dermis, the bottom layer of your skin that is filled with tiny nerve endings. However, every part of your being – from both the external and internal body – feels and is designed to respond to physical and mental stimulation.

On your journey to become a Nia sensation scientist, choose to seek touch that brings pleasure; it will lead you to improved health and well-being. Pay attention to signs of pain and discomfort, even small ones, and receive them as hints that you need to keep researching to find The Body’s Way.

If you're interested in reading about my own personal journey towards becoming a sensation scientist, check out the Nia company story. But first, read on to hear from Next Generations Trainers William Stewart and Gail Condrick (and for additional information on touch, download this month's student handout). Be sure to join us for the free Monday telecourse call with guest speaker Gil Hedley, founder of Integral Anatomy Productions and Somanautics Workshops.

William Stewart, Black Belt Certified Nia Teacher and Next Generation Trainer, says:

Touch is our most immediate, intimate and pervasive sense. While our other senses – sight, hearing, smell and taste – are primarily experienced through specialized organs, the sense of touch is experienced throughout the body, from the surface of our skin to deep in our gut.

Touch experiences the world through three vehicles: exteroceptors, interoceptors and proprioceptors. Exteroceptors are sensory receptors that receive extermal stimuli from outside the body. Interoceptors are sensory receptors that receive stimuli from within the body, especially from the gut and other internal organs. Proprioceptors are sensory receptors found chiefly in muscles, tendons, joints, and the inner ear, that detect the motion or position of the body or of a limb by responding to stimuli arising within the organism.

We touch to know, comfort, heal, and give and receive pleasure. When someone is hurt, our first instinct is to touch to heal. When we want to know how someone is, we ask, “How do you feel?” When something moves us deeply, we say that we are touched. When we hug a child, caress our lover, or stand upon the earth, we are in a relationship of touching. We cannot thrive without contact.

I think Jeni Couzyn summed it up well when she wrote, “The way towards each other is through our bodies. Words are the longest distance you can travel, so complex and hazardous you lose your direction” (The Way Towards Each Other, Cries of The Spirit).

Sadly, our culture is deprived of touch. Everything is now experienced at a distance – through the Internet and television. In the blog NetFuture, biologist Steve Talbott investigates this notion in a fairly disturbing article about rat-bots (rats with remote controlled electrodes implanted into their brains), in which he explores the relationship between technology and the living organism.

He writes, “A massive portion of our lives is spent watching television. This means that a substantial amount of our sensory input — while still mediated by our sense organs (unlike the virtual whisker sensations of the rats) — is almost as radically disconnected from all the rest of our lives as those experiences of the rats. We lose ourselves in sense experience without meaning or significance, in sensations designed to be high-impact, but without any coherent relation to the meanings and purposes we pursue, or once pursued, apart from the magical screen. We sit there passively sucked up into the disconnected, chaotic dreams spun out by, yes, technicians at keyboards. Except that these technicians happen to reside, not in scientific laboratories, but on Madison Avenue, in Hollywood, and in the high-tech industry. With our concurrence, they steal our senses from us.”

In a world of mediated, meaningless, "stolen" sensations, the Sensation Science of Nia offers us a direct and meaningful experience of reality, an experience that is becoming increasingly rare. It offers us a direct connection to the world and each other – a chance to touch, connect and heal.

One of the ways Nia does this is through White Belt Principle 5. This principle explores:

  • Awareness - In Nia we define awareness as “paying attention to your body sensations.”
  • Pain - We measure pain in increments of slight, moderate and acute. Read more on this here.
  • Pleasure - We primarily explore pleasure through three main concepts: Dancing Through Life (the practice of cultivating the same awareness you have when you’re dancing into your daily activities), Living Meditation (the practice of sensing touch as a form of meditation), and Life As Art (the practice of altering your perception to create something that is pleasing to you).

(To learn more about these learning tools, consider registering for an upcoming Nia White Belt Training.)

Bill’s tips on touch:

  1. Take time to notice textures with your hands and then with the soles of your feet. Feel the fabrics you wear. Reach out to stroke the bark of a tree. Dance across the grass. Roll in the sand. Swim.
  2. Feel the support the earth offers you as your feet (the hands that touch the earth) stand on the ground.
  3. As you hold someone's hand, feel the beat of their heart in your palm.
  4. Initiate movements by reaching out to touch something real or imaginary. Feel the difference between this sensation and simply initiating movement from the intention to “move your hand.”
  5. Eat with your fingers. Play with your food. Knead bread. Crunch vegetables. Feel butter melt on your tongue.

Gail Condrick, Black Belt Certified Nia Teacher and Next Generation Trainer, says:

I believe touch is the first sensation. Even before breath, there is the touch of creation that brings life to existence. Touch can bring pleasure and pain, and always brings awareness and attention. As a Nia sensation scientist, I can activate my own healing as I touch the world around me through my body movement. I can also be “touched” and moved mentally though the release of emotions that flow naturally in a Nia class.

At the core of Nia is a unique fitness philosophy, which involves seeking the sensation of pleasure in all we do. I was reminded of this recently, when I branched out from my regular routine and attended an aerobic dance class to see what was preceding me at a new venue. The participants, men and women aged 50-plus, were following a leader who responded to a tape with voice-over instructions and music. She illustrated the movements as the students followed her. They were jumping, twisting knees and torsos and turning quickly with challenging choreography. All of their attention was on the teacher. They pushed through the hour as if they were running to a finish line. At the end there was no cool down; there was only goodbye. Many left complaining of aches and pains, wearing these “battle wounds” as a medal of honor that they had “worked out” and had an athletic experience. Value was measured in the amount of sweat they wiped off their bodies.

The sensory-based practice of Nia is the opposite in almost every way. While also a cardiovascular workout, Nia invites me to connect with my body sensations, to give and receive pleasure for myself as a practitioner and for my students. I begin by sensing with my feet, the hands that touch the earth. As I become more conscious and aware, my body seems to slow, and I am more deliberate in my dance. I touch the space and notice that I can feel the air softly on my hand; I step and am aware of the hardness of the wood floor under my bare feet; I move my hips, shimmy and jiggle, and my body responds in celebration with me.

As I continue the dance, I am developing a sensory relationship with the world outside of my body and with my interior world. I touch the space with my head, hands, chest and feet, and I move molecules around me and within me. Underneath my skin is another dance of touch and sensation; my organs shift and move, and my connective tissue warms, lengthens and releases. In this place of awareness, I am sensing every moment and living in the ultimate “now zone” of existence. I am giving myself an internal and external massage, a body-worker of my own body.

At the end of the hour I am dripping with sweat, but I do not feel pain. Instead, I receive the final sensation of pleasure, that invisible touch that emanates from the warm blanket of Nia that has folded over me. I realize I am the mother of my own body, birthing my own feeling, sensing, pulsing, touching, pleasurable body awareness experiences through my Nia practice.

Gail’s tips on touch:

  1. As you connect with your feet and your body touches the space, ask yourself, “Is this pleasurable?” If the answer is yes, continue. If it’s no, adjust your movement in a way that feels good today – and remember that sensation may change tomorrow.
  2. Become a sensation scientist as you experiment with touch and the nine movement forms in your body laboratory. Explore the sensation of power in your body as you explode through space with Tae Kwon Do kicks and punches. Mix in modern dance creativity as you sculpt with your body and touch the space around you. Experience self-healing as you move energy along your bones and come into postural alignment. Note how the sensation of touch shifts with each of the movement forms.
  3. Move through the Nia 5 Stages and chart how your experience shifts as you concentrate your awareness on the sensation of touch, moving from the embryonic stage to the standing stage.
  4. Imagine the music makes physical contact with your body as you dance. Do you move any differently? If so, how?
  5. Pay attention to how stress or tension is affected when you make physical contact with others. How does your body respond to a high-five, a hug, a foot massage?