Awareness of Thinking: Sensing Perception

For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Thinking, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Read on to hear what they have to say about developing body literacy and self-knowing, by exploring perception in The Body's Way.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

In our society, “thinking” seems to get a lot of attention. The whole idea of what it means to process information and perceive what is going on is limited to the brain, while the rest of the body remains left out. I believe the world needs us to think in different and better ways, to engage the body and consider its natural intelligence. Now more than ever, I see students and teachers using Nia to unite the sensory body with the thinking brain. Every Nia class supports this union through the Seven Cycles. 

Cycle One is all about setting the focus, which helps students consciously connect with one concept or body part to place their attention on as they dance. The focus initiates the Nia in-body experience and creates a map for students to personally follow to get to know their body – in their own way, in their own time. Next, in Cycle Two, everybody steps in by walking toward the front of the room together or making some other kind of symbolic motion. This helps calm and quiet the mind. Distractions are left behind to ensure students are fully present in the "now." Stepping in also helps people tap in emotionally to their experience.

Cycle Three is dedicated to warming up, and guides students to look inward and to sense the 13 main joints of the body, which are designed to move energy. Attention is placed on sensing comfort, pleasure and ease while playing with the three planes of movement: high, middle and low. Releasing the spine, hip joints and knees, students guide their bodies to move close to the ground and back up to standing. Cycle Four is where students "get moving." They expand their ranges of motion, moving in place and around the room. Structured choreography and freedance (unstructured movement) are their tools. This enables students to break free from movement habits, to experiment with creativity and "non-thinking" in a tradition sense.

Cycle Five is the cool-down. This cycle is where movements become slower and less intense, in preparation for moving down to the floor. Cycle Six consists of FloorPlay. Students creatively use the floor and gravity to improve strength, flexibility, mobility, agility and stability. Cycle Seven is devoted to formally stepping out. This concludes the entire Nia experience. Students focus on the healing benefits they received, the renewed sense of health and well-being. 

As Nia Teacher Michele Kaye explains, "I was so addicted to being in my head, to thinking, that it wasn't until I had taken several [Nia] classes that I actually connected with sensation and joy." Nia student Teresa McDonald shares, "I’m... learning to appreciate my body as it is, rather than having so much self-loathing and trying to beat it into submission."

Nia Teacher Tracy Stamper says, "Nia is an intricately woven, impressively scientific, awesomely artistic, brilliantly comprehensive (though simple and accessible) path to physical fitness – though physical fitness is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Nia has to offer. The potential to transform the landscape of body, emotions, mind, and spirit through Nia is vast and ever expansive."

Nia continues to teach me the importance of following The Body’s Way through the seven cycles. I believe this practice will help us learn from what we think, do and say by feeling and sensing. I know through the stories of others that it is eliminating pain and disharmony, creating love and pleasure, and fostering and a more compassionate world. 

Julianne Corey, Nia Black Belt Teacher / Next Generation Trainer / MFA, says:

Awareness of Thinking might seem like a funny title for a Nia educational topic, since it is entirely possible to spend whole days completely unaware of thoughts and how they affect us both physically and emotionally.

I live in Boston, a hub of academia. Here, thoughts are currency, and it is the brain that is held in the highest regard. I teach Nia at highly regarded “thinking institutions” such as MIT and Harvard, and I am often amazed at how many people I encounter who express a need to “get out of their head” for a little while. The thing about the brain is that it wants to be kept busy. Have you ever tried to turn off, or to “stop thinking?” Not so easy, is it?

I often remind the “brainy folks” who surround me that perceiving a solution to a problem or exercise requires the recruitment of multiple organs. Real perception arrives when we are receptive to information that is delivered through more than just our thinking brain.

As a writer of fiction, I have learned that I can’t always “think” my way through a story. Any innovator – from scientist to artist to accountant – will tell you, the best ideas often come when we get out of our “thinking” mode and allow ourselves entry into a “being” mode of simply experiencing life.

I like to call the shower “my office” simply because of how many times I’ve been in there, enjoying the sensations of the warm water and a good scrub on my skin, when the plot of one of my stories has moved itself forward. The minty scent of the shampoo seems to suggest resolutions I’d never considered while hunched over my desk.

How is it that this phenomena works? Since I fancy myself as a writer, let’s look at this strictly from the language point of view. According to Merriam Webster online, thinking is, “the action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts.” Sort of limited, don’t you agree? Moving on then. “Awareness” is defined as, “having or showing realization, perception, or knowledge.” The term “aware” is described as, “imply(ing) vigilance in observing or alertness in drawing inferences from what one experiences.”

Perception is explained as, “awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation” or “physical sensation interpreted in the light of experience.” These latter definitions offer clues about the nature of how our brains process sensory information not simply as pure data. Through awareness we draw inferences, and with perception we interpret the data our environment (both external and internal) provides us with, via physical sensation, in light of experience.

Perhaps more eloquently asserted on Wikipedia, perception is defined as, “the process of attaining awareness or understanding of the environment by organizing and interpreting sensory information. That is all fine and good. We can choose to be receptive to being perceptive, versus relegating ourselves to a big, busy head that just happens to have a body attached to it. But then, how do we put perception into action and furthermore, what do we do with that brain that demands stimulation?

Well, I show up at a Nia class and I give my brain something to chew on: precision, movement and patterns. Finding the rhythm in the music allows my brain to keep track, to do its job, to be happy! Meanwhile, my body gets to sense the sounds of the instruments, the solidity of the floor against my feet, the way the fabric of my clothing brushes my skin. All of this is equally valuable information that helps me understand my environment, interpret what is going on around me, and make choices through awareness of the ultimate raw data: the now moment.

Julianne’s tips on perception:

  • When you notice a shift in mood, such as the arrival of anxiousness or restlessness, bring your awareness to your thoughts. What is your brain busy with? Could your thoughts be redirected? Could you consider more or different data to “reframe” your experience?
  • If you’re struggling over something you just can’t “figure out,” take a walk and let sensation be your guide. Activate your instinct by stimulating your senses. Follow the colors, images, sounds and smells of your external environment that please or intrigue you.
  • Just like kids and dogs, brains love to be active! Stimulate your neurons by challenging yourself to learn new patterns of movement in a Nia class.

Randee Fox, Black Belt Nia Teacher / Next Generation Trainer, says:

When it comes to the topic of the mind and how we interpret information, I immediately think of Anais Nin who said, “It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.” Or my mind recalls the words of Marcel Proust when he stated, “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

It was Tom Robbins who wrote, “One has not only an ability to perceive the world but also an ability to alter one's perception of it; more simply, one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them.”

I was inspired to contemplate these words as I was leaving a horse ranch the other day. Two large, iridescent, blue-black ravens sat perched, looking down on me from the overhead ranch sign. The sight of them took my breath away. I stopped and took in their dark presence against the deep blue sky. The three of us held gazes for a few moments in mutual curiosity. I looked down to get my camera, but they flew off. I imagined them to be saying, "You are on the right track, now goodbye!"

Intrigued, I set out to learn more. According to Norse legend, the raven is symbolic of the mind, thought and wisdom. Odin, The Raven God, was accompanied by two ravens: Hugin, who represented the power of thought and active search for information, and Mugin, who represented the mind and its ability to intuit meaning rather than hunt for it.

Ravens have historically represented healing and transformation, messengers and holders of secrets, cultural heroes, tricksters, creators of earth and even creators of humans. Scientists say that they are highly intelligent and have the largest brains of any bird species. Ravens are problem-solvers, playful, curious about shiny objects, and mimic sounds from their environment including human speech.

I believe the sighting was a positive symbol for me, especially since I was contemplating perception. From observing them to trying to ‘capture them’ in photos to me seeking more information, they became a personally meaningful.

As a Nia teacher I have been trained to both think analytically and alter my perception. I think analytically while preparing to teach a routine, by comprehensively studying music and choreography. I listen and dance to the music, and analyze moves before I present to a class. This can take weeks or even months.

I also alter my perception, through a Nia concept called “Life as Art.” I have learned to utilize and transform split-second thoughts and sensations into pure inspiration. This allows me to relax and teach with a quiet mind, and opens the door for me to spontaneously, consciously and freely “think in pictures.” I am then able to produce an atmosphere for creativity, curiosity, fascination, play, physical conditioning and personal transformation. 

Randee’s tips on perception:

  • While waiting in the supermarket line or in heavy traffic, find something (or someone) interesting to look at.
  • Listen to sounds as if you have never heard them to experience the moment in a different light.
  • While doing boring or “mindless” work like washing dishes or mowing the lawn, view the task as “making art.”
  • Slow down and take in the colors and textures in your environment.
  • During a Nia class, dance in a different part of the room for a new view and perspective.