Awareness of Movement: Sensing Stimulation

For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Movement, 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 The Body's Way.

Tracy Stamper, Nia Trainer and Teacher, says:

When did you last twirl just to twirl? Move purely for the pleasure of moving? Are you merely going through the motions, or are you consciously moving through your days? How we move (or don’t move) our bodies is a metaphor for how we move through our lives. Do you move fluidly with ease, or are your motions restricted, stiff, lacking in vitality? Bodies are barometers of aliveness. How does yours read?

Young children and animals are masters of living in sensation. Picture a cat luxuriously arching her spine to open and stimulate her supple body. Picture the delight of a child twirling purely for pleasure then puddling onto the ground to experience the sensation of swirling. How did we go from there to buttoned-up business suits with little space to breathe? To inertia on the couch of trudgery and drudgery? The topic of awareness (mind) of movement (body) speaks to the mind-body connection. When the impulse or desire to move is lacking, it speaks to disconnect.

Moving with awareness is not something most of us are encouraged to nurture. Although we are born coded to be aware of sensation and to be highly attuned to the stimulation and information that our bodies send us in every moment, we are trained to tune such messages out. All of the “Sit still,” “Stop fidgeting,” and “Calm down" messages we hear eventually condition us to ignore the stimulation the body is coded to feed us, resulting in inhibited movement. We disconnect from our sensation and our impulses to move. Our mind divorces our body, and we lose fluency in our native tongue of body wisdom. We pay the price of our birthright of living in our body in pleasure and being so attuned to our body that we can read its earliest signals of ease or dis-ease to guide us in making healthy choices.

It’s little surprise, then, that so many of us step into our first Nia classes disconnected from bodies that have been moved mechanically from the outside, if much at all. Nia invites us back in, coaxing us to sense, feel, personalize, self-guide, come home to our body, reconnect to movement as stimulation, and reawaken. Nia invites bodies to dance pleasure-oriented movements rich from the inside out, guided by stimulation of sensation. This is a powerful practice of beckoning us back into our body while pointing the way towards the potential for pleasure in every experience.

How does Nia work this magic? One elemental way is through the beautifully simple and powerfully profound tool of sensory-based somatic communication. When Nia teachers share words that come from their own bodily sensations, they model marriage of mind and body, energetically inviting students’ mind-body healing. Witnessing a practitioner connected to his or her own personal body wisdom opens the door and energetically creates a template for reconnection. Nia invites us to pick up those threads of connection to sensation and of impulse to move. We re-pattern our nervous system, dance the synapses of fluency of sensation, and reclaim our birthright to move with awareness. Nia tells us: "Through Movement We Find Health." And through awareness of movement, we find self-knowing, pleasure, vitality, connection, and wholeness. This integral piece of awareness elevates Nia to movement medicine. Our movement becomes our meditation of awareness. We dance to re-weave the tapestry of our birthright as embodied, conscious, sensate, aware beings.

Tracy’s tips on movement:

  • Trust that your body was born coded to be aware. Simply relax into the encoding.
  • Track movement within stillness to stimulate awareness. As you sit, what do you sense moving internally? With fewer sensory input signals, space is created to hone in on the more subtle sensations.
  • Take your sensate self on a Sensation Scientist field trip. Go on a walk, do your grocery shopping, visit the art museum with the intention of basking in awareness of as many of your bodily sensations as possible.
  • Craft your own focus for the day with an intent to deepen your awareness of sensing the stimulation of movement. For example, pay attention to sensations in your feet as you move throughout your day.
  • RSVP "YES!" to Nia’s invitation to dance through life! Sense every movement as a dance. Refer to page 292 of The Nia Technique by Debbie Rosas and Carlos AyaRosas.

Vickie Saito, Nia Trainer and Teacher, says:

What kind of movement really makes you feel alive?

Is it the sensation of accelerating down a mountain on a snowboard and feeling the wind on your face? Is it the vibration that pulses through your bones while listening to music? Or is it the utter joy of jumping on a trampoline and laughing for hours with your kids? Our bodies are stimulated in a variety of ways and yet we all seem to come alive a little more when we tap into the voice of the body – sensation.

Nia provides us with countless tools for stimulating sensation in the body. Awareness is most certainly the umbrella tool that oversees and witnesses all others techniques. And yet, the three that stand out the most to me are the five sensations of conditioning, the nine movement forms of Nia, and the Nia 52 Moves.

As a movement practice, Nia focuses on five sensations that we can personally activate to condition the body and balance the nervous system. These sensations are flexibility, agility, mobility, strength and stability (also known as “FAMSS”). Flexibility can be sensed as energy moving outward; it offers freedom to expand into life. Agility is a sensation of quickness – stopping and starting the movement of energy. Mobility is the sensation of energy in constant motion, continuous, balanced actions producing sustainable movements. Strength is sensed as energy moving inward, containing and sustaining power. Stability is a sensation of energy moving out from the center of the body in all directions, simultaneously. It offers optimal alignment that feels solid and peaceful. By purposefully activating all five sensations in our movement, we build awareness, condition the body and learn where we may need to place more attention in order to achieve optimal health.

Nia also fuses nine movement forms to offer us movement variety. The nine movement forms include Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Jazz dance, Modern dance, Duncan dance, yoga, Alexander Technique and The Feldenkrais Method. Each form offers a different sensation to our body. For example, when I embody martial arts movements (from Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do or Aikido), I sense precision with my arm blocks, and sense strength and confidence when I incorporate stances or kicks. While moving with the dance arts (Jazz dance, Modern dance or Duncan dance), I integrate arm shapes to sense playfulness and emotional expression. The healing arts (yoga, Alexander Technique and The Feldenkrais Method) have taught me how to cultivate sensory awareness, achieve optimal alignment and self heal. Moving with each of these forms adds a new flavor to every class and allows you to explore and stimulate all aspects of yourself.

The Nia 52 Moves build awareness in the base, the core and the upper extremities of the body. Each move also stimulates one or more of the five sensations and can be infused with any of the nine movement forms. For me, the 52 moves bring a sense of discipline to my practice. When I take the time to sense the details of how each move is performed, I feel confident in my delivery of the technique. The awareness I have cultivated from practicing my blocks, kicks, finger techniques, core movements (and all 52 Moves) has created a higher level of impeccability in my movements and helped me obtain my goal of greater physical conditioning.

Every component of the Nia practice, including the five sensations of conditioning, the nine movement forms and 52 Moves, educates us on how to cultivate a healthy body and life through movement and awareness.

Vickie’s tips on movement:

  • Sense how the five sensations are present in your everyday movements.
  • Journal about which of the nine movement forms inspires you most and why.
  • Stimulate new awareness by infusing each of the 52 moves with one sensation and one of the nine movement forms (for example, infuse a Cross Front Cha-Cha-Cha with the sensation of flexibility and techniques of modern dance).
  • Stimulate new awareness by practicing the 52 moves. 

Caroline Kohles, Nia Trainer and Teacher, says:

I often say, “to be able to move well is to be free.” Moving with grace, agility and ease is our birthright. Every animal on the planet is coded to move in coordinated and efficient patterns to ensure survival. That means you are too. Unfortunately, as humans, we suffer from domestication. Let’s face it: we sit around a lot! Since we no longer have to hunt and gather, we rarely practice moving with great speed and/or agility. If we aren't active, we lose our natural movement skill and don’t practice consciously connecting to sensation.

As a way to reclaim our birthright to move, we can practice the first principle of Nia, The Joy of Movement, in every Nia class and at every Nia event. There is no greater example of this principle increasing awareness and happiness than when Nia students take part in the annual “Dancers Who Care Benefit Performance” in New York City.

Every October, at the JCC in Manhattan, professional dancers and members of the JCC Health Club come together to dance and raise money for breast and ovarian cancer research. Many of the JCC members are Nia students performing for the very first time. Many of them love to move but don’t consider themselves dancers. Some of them have even stood in front of people on many occasions for work-related presentations.

But performing movement in front of 250 people is different. It pushes members outside of their comfort zones, sometimes into a worried state where they fear not being ready or good enough. So why do so many “non-dancers” hop on stage for this event? They are looking for freedom. They are looking to learn and grow and do something they never imagined they could.

What makes Nia so amazing to watch is the embodiment of sensation that the Nia students bring to the movements. They are totally connected to joy. They forget about their fears, their inhibitions, and it is riveting to see these real bodies move with such abandon. Sure the professionals can turn, leap and sweep to floor, and extend their limbs to heights that defy gravity – and that is amazing. Yet it is equally fascinating to observe a real person reclaim their connection to their grace and power and then courageously share that connection with an audience.

Moments like these are the reason I teach Nia. Through my own personal practice, I stay connected to my birthright too. Nia challenges my whole body to pay attention, to move in many directions to all kinds of music. It helps me attain fluid agility, power and grace in my body. My hope is that by practicing Nia, I will move free until my last breath. I invite you to do the same.

Caroline’s tips on movement:

  • Start small. Connect to sensation by noticing the temperature of your body, the weight of your body, or any pleasure or pain you might be feeling. Are your hands hot or cold? Does your right leg feel heavier than your left? Can you expand your chest when your breath or does it feel tight in places?
  • Experiment. Become interested, curious and fascinated by how your body moves and how movement affects your body sensations. Walk down the street and take small steps then big steps. Pay attention to how your body feels when you change your gait. Play with these kinds of subtle changes in your Nia class too.
  • Be emotional. To increase your stamina and expand your breath capacity, allow yourself to feel and be expressive. Animals make noises when they stretch and use physical effort. You can too. Sing in the shower. At home, don't just have quiet time. Have loud time. Read aloud to yourself or others in a dramatic voice. In your Nia class, when the instructor guides you to use sound, try it! (You are making your abs stronger.)
  • Be playful (and a bit outrageous). Our awareness is automatically heightened when we change our routine, attempt something new or learn a new skill. Notice what happens if you wear a color you don't usually wear or surprise a neighbor with a loud hello or a big hug. In Nia class, stand in a different part of the room. In the freedance section, add in a push up, sit up, twirl, or freeze... anything you don't usually do to challenge your body.
  • Above all, remember that moving is your birthright. To move well is to be truly free.