Awareness of Muscles: Sensing Action and Relaxation

For this month's continuing education focus, Awareness of Muscles, we're excited to feature the following masterful voices from the worldwide Nia community. Read on to hear what they have to say about sensing action and relaxation by exploring The Body's Way. Be sure to also listen to this month's telecourse call with Debbie Rosas and Kevin VerEecke.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

In the world of fitness, muscles get a lot of attention. Whether you’re wanting to lose weight, define your upper body, walk across the room or pick up a cup of coffee, it’s muscles that do the work. Thanks to the muscles of the larynx, mouth and tongue, we get to sing and speak! Muscles are how we express every emotion, thought and idea we have. Skeletal muscles help us dance, run, and speak through body language. Muscles are incredibly sophisticated and efficient at turning fuel into motion. Smooth muscle makes it possible for us to fill and empty our stomachs with food and drink, while the cardiac muscle keeps us alive. Muscles do everything from helping us walk to keeping our blood flowing and lungs working while we’re fast asleep! They’re long lasting, self-healing and able to grow stronger with practice. The key is moving them -- this is the practice we need to keep them healthy.

At 61 I’ve read more than most on the subject of muscles. Most recently I've been learning how to maintain healthy muscles as we age. I’m constantly amazed at the volumes of information yet lack of clear language used to turn that information into something people can relate to. It always seems to come down to communication. Everyone knows you need to exercise muscles to stay fit, lose weight and stay healthy, and yet, so many people are still couch potatoes. I don’t know the answer, but I do know it is tied to language and communication.

When writing The Nia Technique in 2004, I wanted to make sure people could get something of great value out of reading an exercise book. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine who worked out with exercise books when there are DVDs. Apparently a lot of people like me love pictures and words that don’t move.

One of the best things I did when writing the book was provide language to describe what to sense, so the reader would have something to work with to track the presence of these sensations in her or his body. I described five main sensations I believe are present in the body, and when balanced, I believe one can create a body with healthy muscles and joints. I chose the five sensations based on the actions of the body, from studying The Body’s Way (the map that taught me how to live in my body, both on and off the dance floor). I looked at all the parts of the body, studied their design and learned about their function. It was through the function of parts that I chose the five sensations: flexibility, agility, mobility, strength and stability.

Flexibility is the sensation of energy moving outward. Agility is the sensation of starting and stopping the movement of energy. Mobility is the sensation of energy in constant motion. Strength is the sensation of energy moving inward. Stability is the sensation of energy at rest. These five sensations are food for your whole body, especially your muscles. When combined and added to your movement practice, these five sensations keep your muscles ready for action. Best of all, a good, balanced dose of all five will result in your muscles being toned, ready and relaxed -- just what the doctor ordered!

Many will argue that there are many other sensations and I will agree. However, these five sensations are key to sustaining health and well-being. Each can be found in the body, and each are a source for the life, balance and harmony of our parts and our whole.

Next time your on the dance floor ask yourself, “Do I always sense the same thing?” If your answer is “yes,” pull some words from the The Nia Technique and feed your muscles with something new. You’ll leave feeling a whole new sense of vitality from head to toe.

Jill Pagano, Nia Trainer and Teacher, says:

Every muscle in our body is dedicated to keeping us alive and actively participating in life. Our heart is the central muscle to our aliveness. This muscle doesn’t attach to any bones to produce a high front kick. And you don’t exactly see the heart’s curvy shape in a skin-tight pair of designer jeans. Nonetheless, our heart (and its healthy function) is a vital muscle in our body. It features a unique, four-chamber design and has a relatively straightforward (albeit demanding) job -- to relax and receive blood inward and to act and push blood outward. 

From an early age, we recognize our heart beat. It’s the one muscle we hear at work -- lub-dub, lub-dub -- through the doctor’s stethoscope. When we sprint up a flight of stairs, we can sense the “pounding of our heart." When I first started writing this article, I was under the incorrect impression that the heart muscle contracted and thus produced a heartbeat. After my research, I learned the heartbeat sound comes from two pairs of valves closing inside the chambers of the heart. Like turnstiles, these valves allow blood to move in one direction through the heart, and keep it from backing down a one-way street of the other chamber.

Heart Anatomy 101

Our heart is simultaneously acting and relaxing in every moment of our life. The heart is made up of four different blood-filled areas, and each of these areas is called a chamber. The two chambers on top are called the atria. The atria are the chambers that fill with the blood returning to the heart from the body and lungs. The two chambers on the bottom are called the ventricles. Their job is to squirt out the blood to the body and lungs. The atria and ventricles work as a collaborative team — the atria fill with blood, then dump it into the ventricles. The ventricles then squeeze, pumping blood out of the heart. And here’s the magical part: while the ventricles are squeezing, the atria refill and get ready for the next contraction. Aha! Simultaneous acting and relaxing! Our dedicated heart muscle shares the perfect balance of yin and yang energy,  “complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system” (Wikipedia).

Our Musculoskeletal System

Well, what about other muscles in our body? Can we increase our awareness of their simultaneous acting and relaxing? I believe most muscles in our muscular skeletal system thrive in the same way our heart does -- by working with a seemingly opposite entity to produce a greater whole, dynamic system. Most of our major muscles in the body work in pairs, like a buddy system. When one muscle initiates the movement by contracting (referred to as the agonist) the opposite (antagonist) allows for the contraction by lengthening, thus the pair collaborate for movement

My Story

Having been in the fitness industry for nearly 25 years, I spent a lot of time getting my muscles to act, over and over again (and often times in the same manner and direction... usually fast, and straight lines). Relaxation never entered my mind. My body left me clues all this action was not healthy in the form of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Shoulder Impingement and chronic shin splints. These overuse injuries are classic signs of performing too much action without the balance of relaxation.

What was the answer? Was I moving too often or was I simply moving with too much force? Was I doing the work of the ventricles and always pushing out, never allowing for the “relax and receive” spirit of the atria? Practicing Nia answered my question. Having a healthy musculoskeletal system wasn’t determined by the amount of time I either acted or relaxed, but was instead determined by balancing my action and relaxation in every movement.

Have you experienced the balance of action and relaxation within your muscles while dancing? Have you experience the pleasure of effortless power, referred to in Nia as dynamic ease? Take it from an over-muscle-active-ator, the balance of action and relaxation is a powerful body sensation. And our heart muscle is a great example of our body’s natural design to simultaneously engage in both acting with relaxing.

Jill’s tips:

  • Get to know your muscles. The Anatomy Coloring Book is one fun guide. The Nova Muscle System Pro App on your tablet is a wonderful 3-D tool for muscle anatomy. As Linda Hartley wrote in her book, Wisdom of the Body Moving, “To work with the muscles in a specific way, we first look at pictures of them to get an idea of their shape, location, where they are attached to the bones and to understand their lines of action and function.”
  • Play on the floor. Yes… play like a baby! Roll, scoot, crawl, push and practice standing. Sense your body weight in relationship to the floor. Use imagery to pull taffy from the floor or squish into mud. As you engage in floor play, sense for the perfect balance of action and relaxation within each movement.
  • Play “flip the switch within shapes.” Create a shape that is muscularly stimulating and/or demanding. Retain your shape as an investment in your muscles. After a period of time, flip the switch to relaxing. The key: retain the shape even when you are relaxed. When you “flip the switch” begin to sense for relaxation within your form. Repeat with a new shape.

Laurie Bass, Nia Trainer and Teacher, says:

Muscles are responsible for every move you make, for every breath that you take, and for every beat of your heart. Like our bodies, muscles come in many shapes and sizes. Our muscles shape us and we shape them. By design, their action is to contract and release, to shorten and to lengthen. This month’s Nia topic invites you to cultivate an awareness of muscles, to essentially “tune in” to your muscles by sensing this action and relaxation.

I began my research on this month’s topic by reading about muscles in anatomy books, looking at pictures, consulting Wikipedia, playing with my iPad apps and culling from my Nia resources. Muscle tissue is made up of thousands of individual fibers bundled together like a rope. Within each fiber are filaments that are activated by chemical signals to draw together and apart to contract and release. Like rope, all fibers work together -- it’s the “all or none" rule.

There are three classification of muscles: skeletal, smooth and cardiac. Skeletal muscles, as the name suggests, attach to your skeleton at one or more ends (via tendons), and are mostly under voluntary control. They are striped (striated) in appearance and hold us up, even in stillness. As you sit here reading this article, your muscles are acting to support your posture while your eye muscles are moving across the words. Skeletal muscles are what move us in every Nia step, kick, block, punch, spiral and finger flick.
Smooth muscles perform automatic tasks regulated by your nervous system. Think about the peristaltic action of digestion or the dilating and constricting of your arteries. Cardiac muscles are striated (similar to skeletal) and also non-voluntary. These muscles are uniquely designed to transmit electric messages quickly and efficiently to keep your heart pumping strong.

What really made the sensation of my muscles come in alive from my research was putting it into action by weaving the information into my Nia classes and truly exploring it in my body. From there, I guided my students to sense action as strength, flexibility, mobility, agility, and stability balanced by sensing relaxation as ease and rest. We explored fast and slow movements, intrinsic stimulation (those tiny muscles layered inside and around our joints) and extrinsic stimulation (larger muscles muscle groups), lines and spirals, isolation and integration, muscles on the front and back of the body, and even facial muscles via emotional expression. We explored “200/700” movement potential, a Nia term that refers to the unlimited combination of moving our 200+ bones with our 700+ muscles to condition our whole body.

Beyond its fitness and lifestyle benefits, what I love about Nia is the endlessly creative ways it educates me about my body. And this month it was all about muscles!

Laurie’s tips:

  • Connect to your breath. Pay attention your breathing. Witness the natural rise and fall of your chest, the automatic action of your diaphragm drawing air into your body as you inhale and the relaxation as you exhale.
  • Squeeze and release your muscles. For example, make a fist and squeeze the muscles of your arms to sense strength, then release, opening your hand and fingers to sense flexibility.
  • Notice your heart beat. Simply sense the beating of your heart at rest. Then move to the rhythm of your favorite song and notice the aliveness of your heart in action.
  • Become curious. Look up pictures in books, online or at an anatomy app. Notice where the muscles connect to bones and move them! Imagine your muscles fibers like rope. Twist and untwist them.
  • Explore your 200/700 potential. Move your bones and muscles in unlimited ways. Notice your movement habits, play with range of motion, and move down to the floor and back up in a variety of ways.

Recommended Reading

  • The Nia Technique by Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas
  • The Anatomy Coloring Book
  • Wisdom of the Body Moving by Linda Hartley
  • Bodystories: A Guide to Experiential Anatomy by Andrea Olsen
  • Anatomy Of Movement by Blandine Calais-Germain
  • Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
  • The Muscle Book by Paul Blakey
  • The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga by Ray Long, MD
  • Wall Chart of Human Anatomy by Thomas McCracken
  • The Human Body (The Wonders Inside) by Jan Stradling
  • The Way We Work by David Macaulay

Educational Apps

  • Real Bodywork: Muscle Trigger Points
  • Muscle & Bone Anatomy
  • Nova Series: Muscle System Pro