Awareness of Spine - Sensing Creative Adaptability

For this month's continuing education focus on the spine, 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 creative adaptability by exploring The Body's Way. Be sure to also register for the December 3rd telecourse with Nia Co-Creator Debbie Rosas and Nia trainer and Licensed Physical Therapist Rachael Resch.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

My spine is a pain in my neck. It’s also a pain in my back! How’s yours?

Yesterday was one of my good days. I had hands-on, doctor-healer help. I went to both my acupuncturist and chiropractor, something I do at least twice a month, if not weekly. Perhaps you also use these approaches to healing.

My chiropractor, Tony, is unique. He has worked with my acupuncturist, Charles, for over twenty years, partnering in one office to provide two avenues for healing. The two complimentary approaches they provide helps me reestablish comfort and function in my body, helping me to heal and feel better faster. It works. Acupuncture uses needles to tap into the energy pathways of the body, which incudes the twelve primary and eight extraordinary meridians of the body, to help reestablish harmony and improve the flow of energy throughout the whole body. Chiropractic work offers a hands-on approach to determine which bones, muscles, nerves, and parts of the spine are out of sync. Using a hands-on approach to adjust bones helps reestablish free movement, the flow of nerve supply to affected areas, and yes— comfort. While every healing modality has its own “avenue of approach,” for me, these two work very well.

As someone who has worked with people’s bodies for over thirty years, my “avenue of approach” for healing is movement. This means I have been privy to people’s aches and pains. I must say that when it comes to the body, there is no other part more responsible for causing discomfort than the spine. Having lived with a reversed curve in my cervical spine, the neck, and with severe scoliosis in two parts of my spine, I know this all too well.

If you look at me from the front, you’ll see how my head sits almost two inches from the center line off to the right. For me to sense my spine as straight and vertically aligned, I have to drastically rotate my pelvis forward and turn my right foot inward. When I sense a healthy alignment of my spine, I am vertically aligned with the bones of my spine suspended between the space above (the heavens) and the space below (the earth).

The good news is that no matter how out of alignment a body is, the body is designed to move and can figure out how to move, even in a body that has scoliosis. The bad news is that if bone misalignments are ignored or go undetected, permanent damage can be done to the nerves, muscles, and joints. There’s no need to panic, but there is a need to wake up to the sensation of what a healthy and unhealthy spine feels like and to recognize the many approaches for keeping your spine in tip-top shape. Integrate the following Nia tips and moves into your daily life to create a healthier spine.


  • Practice Pelvic Circles. Imagine you're moving a hula-hoop
 and learn to create even circles on the left and right
. Move with the intent to loosen your hips and lower back
  • Practice Hip Bumps: Imagine you're bumping helium balloons
 and learn to start and stop
. Move with the intent to bump in many directions.
  • Practice Chest Isolations. Imagine your ribcage is the ball in a roulette wheel and learn to isolate the ribcage
. Move with the intent to free your spine.
  • Practice Shimmy. Imagine you're shaking water off
 your body and learn to start slowly to coordinate the forward and backward motion. Move with the intent to sustain the shimmy for longer periods of time.
  • Practice Undulations. Imagine your spine is a third arm
 and learn to move the arms and hands from your spine. Move with the intent to unlock your spine.
  • Practice Spinal Rolls. Imagine your spine is waving like seaweed in the ocean
 and learn to fold and unfold
. Move with the intent to open the front and back of your spine.
  • Practice Head and Eye Movements. Imagine following a butterfly with your eyes
 and learn to move your head by following your eyes
. Move with the intent to free your neck and shoulders. 


Rosanne Russell, Nia Trainer, says:

While I am still in bed and before my eyes open in the morning, my awareness of my spine begins. Slowly, like a camera lens opening, my inner awareness of my thoughts and images are revealed as my body responds with gentle, liquid-like movements. In my organic dance of awareness, one leg extends outward, the other coils inward, an arm pushes itself beyond the frame of my bed, while the opposite hand draws in and then pushes me from my belly, onto my back. Sadly, this dance does not last long, as my alarm clock signals me with loud throbbing beats, startling my nervous system as I am jolted awake! Without a thought, I begin my morning routine and I am in my kitchen, turning on lights, making coffee, and helping my son get ready for school.

As I go about my routine, I think about the amazing mechanics of what is happening in my spine for me to be an upright, functioning being. Like an after-school special streaming through my mind, I visualize how my brain and spinal cord, along with a complex network of neurons, make up my central nervous system, the processing center of my nervous system. Responsible for sending, receiving, and understanding information from all parts of my body, the nervous system is divided into two parts: the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. Contained within the spinal canal, the spinal cord is protected by rings of bones called vertebrae. This long bundle of nerve tissue is about eighteen inches long and as wide as a finger. The brain and spinal cord are both protected by connective tissue, called meninges.

Slowly, I touch the back of my skull, where the lower part of brain exists and the spinal cord begins. I trace its path along my spine to my tailbone where it ends. Closing my eyes, I imagine all the nerve roots of the the peripheral nervous system that exit the sides of my spine from the spinal cord - thin, thread-like branches that send sensory and movement signals by way of neurons between my central nervous system and my body. The knobby parts of the vertebral bones where muscles and ligaments attach are called the spinous processes. These are the bones that stick out and are easily accessed via touch. Located on the side of my spinal column are the transverse processes, which are not easy to isolate due to my deep back muscles (the paraspinal muscles) and ligaments.

Continuing my morning with a heightened appreciation for my spine and nervous system, I see a notebook on the ground meant to go to school with my son. Reaching down to grab it, a loud “voice” coming from my lower back muscles shouts, “Oh no you don’t, I am too tight!” Suddenly, the floor seems very far away. My mood changes and I feel irritated that my body is not as limber as I need it to be. My soured mood creates stress, my breath shortens, my body tightens, and my morning tasks seem daunting. Fortunately, Nia has taught me to pay attention to my body sensations. White Belt Principle 5: Awareness has taught me how to reclaim pleasure in my body by changing my movement, posture, and/or actions. I can use stimulation to attend to my own self-healing, and in doing so, I will feel better. 

As I continue to move, the voice of my back says, “Keep going; I want more movement!” I smile as I am all too willing to grant this request, and I choose my two favorite Nia moves I know my spine will enjoy: Undulations (waving my spine with fluid ease) and Spinal Roll (folding and unfolding, opening the back and front of my spine). In just a few minutes, I feel like a completely new person. My mood is elated, I feel lighter, more rejuvenated, relaxed, and most of all, my back feels great. Now I am ready to begin my day!


  • Use visualizations to guide your spinal movements e.g. imagine butterflies along the back of your spine, tickling your back. Imagine your ribs are fingers; a hula hoop is attached to your pelvis; or that your ears are attached to helium balloons. Finally, imagine you are at Fenway Park in Boston, MA doing the "wave" (a Red Sox fan tribute dance done by the entire crowd).
  • Integrate Nia’s seven core moves into your daily movement. Undulate while waiting in line at the grocery store. Practice Chest Isolations while waiting for a red light to turn green. Greet a friend with a gentle Hip Bump!
  • Be inspired by the anatomy of the spine. Looking at anatomy books and reading about the body's natural design can help us to understand why we move the way we do.
  • Change your spine's relationship to gravity by turning yourself upside down. Yoga inversions such as handstand, headstand, or supported bridge pose with a block are ideal. To practice supported bridge pose, lie on your back with your knees bent. Push your feet into the floor and raise your pelvis off the floor. Place a four inch yoga block under your sacrum on the second level, parallel to you hips (making sure it is placed on the widest side). Place your hands below your heart on the floor, palms up to rotate the shoulder. Rest for five minutes before you remove the block to rest your entire spine on the ground. Sense the release of fluids flowing inside your spine.
  • Practice the Nia 5 Stages for five minutes each day. At only a minute per stage, you can make this a part of your morning routine.  


Maria Skinner, Nia Trainer, says:

When I first began taking movement classes, especially Modern Dance and Contact Improvisation, I heard teachers ask that we, "roll up from forward fold one vertebra at a time." Whenever I heard this, I literally had to stop and think about what that meant. What does it feel like to sense each vertebra moving individually and then also in relation to each other? It was a puzzle to me. I found that there were places in my spine that I could not sense at all. There was a lot of sensation happening around my cervical vertebrae (my neck), not too much around the thoracic spine (mid-spine), maybe too much around the lower thoracic and some kind of kinky "ouch" around my lumbar spine (lower spine). Definitely, the seed was planted for inquiry and exploration of my spine!

If I had known then how much articulation and sensation would come to exist in my spine, well, I never would have believed it. Fast forward twenty-five years, where I'm now doing Spinal Undulations and Spinal Rolls in Nia classes. I can initiate the movement from the top of my spine, the middle of my head, the middle of my spine (leading with the heart), or from the bottom of my spine (my tail) and sense the wave of movement in every other part of my spine. Along with this integrative wave of energy, there is also the gift of precision that comes from isolating different areas of the spine. In Nia, we do this by playing with Hip Bumps, Pelvic Circles, Chest Isolations, Shimmy, and Head and Eye Movements.

What are the sections of the spine? Although the spine moves as one joint system, the vertebrae belong to one of four sections: the cervical spine (the neck), the thoracic spine (the vertebrae that are connected to the ribs or thorax), the lumbar spine (the lower back), and the sacral spine (including the fused sacral vertebrae, tailbone, and coccyx). The spine can flex and extend, bend laterally, and spiral around its axis. Some areas naturally have more mobility, while others are geared toward creating stability. For example, the mobility of the neck supports our eyes in looking around to take in as much of the world as possible without having to move the whole spine around. The sacrum and larger lumbar vertebrae above it are more geared towards stability, creating a strong foundation from which to undulate. The movement of the lower spine really comes from the ball and socket structure of the hip joints, not the lower vertebrae themselves.

My spine comes alive like another limb, reaching out and touching space like a starfish. It is also the central activation force for my extremities, as my arms and legs reach out and touch the world around me like an octopus. When I move my spine, my internal organs also get to dance. Moving my thoracic spine massages my stomach, liver, lungs, heart, pancreas, spleen, and gall bladder. Moving my lumbar spine activates the energy around my intestines, bladder, and sexual organs. When I move my cervical spine, I get to dance and stimulate my brain, eyes, jaw, and the tubes that connect my head to my lower organs. When I bring a heightened awareness of all that is moving within my body, this awareness creates a delicious array of sensations and, dare I say, health!


  • In and out of class, practice Nia's seven core moves: Hip Bumps, Pelvic Circles, Undulations, Spinal Rolls, Chest Isolations, Shimmy, and Head and Eye Movements.
  • Take a few minutes each morning before getting out of bed to connect to your whole spine. Choose sensation and notice what parts are asking for self-healing, then stimulate these areas throughout your day.
  • Move your spine in long, languid movements that create flexibility and integrate small staccato movements, isolating different parts of your spine. Intersperse these movements with shaking and vibrating (whole-body shimmies) to create more space between the vertebrae by releasing tension in the spinal muscles.
  • Find a good body worker, such as a massage therapist, and have him/her work around the back side of your spine. Use these sessions to learn about your spine via the outer stimulation of touch. Have the practitioner tell you which vertebra is being touched.