Awareness of Chest - Sensing Expansion + Contraction

For this month's continuing education focus on the chest, 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 expansion and contraction by exploring The Body's Way. Be sure to also register for the January 7th telecourse with Nia Co-Creator Debbie Rosas and Nia Black Belt and Alexander Technique teacher Chris Friedman.

Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:

If you’ve ever broken a rib, you know that every breath you take, big or a small, affects everything you do. Turn to the left or right, stand up, sit down, walk, or breathe — every action hurts. But is the pain coming from a broken rib or is it something more? How do you know what is really wrong if you can’t read the messages your body is sending you, messages telling you if a body part is out of alignment, an organ needs more water, your heart is over-taxed with life stress, or a muscle is overused?

The answer lies in becoming a sensation scientist, researching the signs of what it means to be healthy or unhealthy. Answers come from researching the form (design) and function (how things work) of all parts of your body. You can also receive information by listening to sensory signals, such as those that say, “This is the sensation of comfort, ease, and pleasure, the sign of being healthy. This is how your body is designed to be used." You can also receive signals that say, “This is the sensation of pain, effort, and discomfort, the sign of being unhealthy. This is not how your body is designed to be used.” Once you receive these signals, you then have the option to choose pleasure over pain and make choices for your body that bring about greater health and wellness.

What is the result of doing this? By researching your body as a sensation scientist, you’re going to gain a tremendous amount of self-knowledge not only about the body, but about your body too. This body wisdom and body awareness is what you use to help you live a happy and healthy life, one where you have the energy and the body to do the things you love to do.

When it comes to the chest, think of it as one of the body’s cavities, a container you know as the ribcage. As the center weight in what we refer to in Nia as the three body weights (pelvis, chest, and head), the chest is amazingly open and has a light, bony, and cartilaginous design that surrounds the body’s thoracic cavity. Unique to its beehive design is that it supports your body’s pectoral girdle: the shoulder girdle. It is also one of the parts of your body that forms a core portion of what you see as your skeleton. Typically, most ribcages consists of twenty-four ribs, a sternum (the long flat bone shaped like a "T" in the middle), costal cartilages, and twelve thoracic vertebrae. Designed to protect the cardiovascular and respiratory system, your ribs attach at the back to your thoracic vertebrae. Along with skin, associated fascia (connective tissues), and muscles, the thoracic wall of the chest provides places for the muscles of your neck, thorax, upper abdomen, and back to attach.

When it comes to observing anatomy, I love nothing more than people watching. Having just returned from two very different parts of the world (Mexico and New York), I can honestly say that I had plenty of people to watch. In Mexico, I was part of a Power Places Tour, celebrating the end of the Mayan’s 5,125 year cycle. And in New York, I spent the holidays with two of my girls, Monica and Jenny). I wasn’t surprised to see men and women holding and compressing the natural movement their chests. For women, holding is often the result of having to literally "hold up" the weight of their breasts. It can also be from figuratively “Holding up” after physical or emotional abuse. For men, the holding is often seen as a puffed up or deflated chest, something I interpret as posturing as either strong and powerful or emotionally beaten down. Regardless of what the reason is, any kind of holding or rigidity in the chest will diminish your ability to efficiently move, breathe, and express yourself and your passions freely. But the real downside of any physical or energy restriction in a body part is overall diminished health.

So how does one improve the health of his or her chest? Here are a few of my favorite ways to improve the health and wellbeing of your center bodyweight. Add one tip a day to your life and workouts and soon you’ll be moving, breathing, and expressing yourself in ways that enhance the function, healing, comfort, and conditioning of your body and your life!


  • Move: Integrate Nia's four chest moves into your workouts. These include Chest Isolations, Shimmy, Spinal Undulations, and Spinal Roll.
  • Sound: Add sound and express yourself emotionally in life and in your workouts.
  • Energize: Create movement and energy variety in your workouts by integrating any one of Nia's nine movement forms: Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, Modern Dance, Duncan Dance, Jazz Dance, The Work of Moshe Feldenkrais, The Alexander Technique, and Yoga.
  • Heal: Add a daily dose of the Nia 5 Stages practice to your daily movement practices, using it in the morning to get ready for the day and/or in the evening to experience a more restful night's sleep. 


Allison Wright, Nia Trainer, says:

To love means to open ourselves to the negative as well as the positive - to grief, sorrow, and disappointment as well as joy, fulfillment, and an intensity of consciousness we did not know was possible before. - Rollo May

The chest, the heart's center, the center for exchanging energy and for giving and receiving love. I can think of no other anatomical part of the body that carries with it so many non-anatomical and emotional associations, including love, compassion, heartbreak, warmth, kindness, grief, connection, relationship, sadness, forgiveness, shame, confidence, empowerment, anger, strength. I could go on and on with the feelings commonly associated with this emotionally expressive part of the body...

As we study the chest this month, our tagline is sensing expansion and contraction. How appropriate! All emotion moves through this incredible energy center in two types of waves: expansion or contraction. Love expands my chest. Shame contracts it. Forgiveness expands it. Heartbreak contracts it. The ebb and flow of emotion, as it turns out, is not without a deeply influential effect on our bodies.

When I feel confident, self-assured, and in a place of great self-love, I sense strength, flexibility, and openness in my chest. Naturally, these are expansive sensations that I love to sense. And yet, I've discovered there is great beauty and lovely lessons to be learned in being comfortable with sensing contraction. My ability to be vulnerable and to allow myself to draw inward is of equal importance and validity to expanding outward.

When I sense and allow the natural contraction of my chest, I feel as though I'm giving myself permission to be fully human. It's ok to feel exhausted. It's ok to feel sad. It's ok to feel introverted and need to draw inward towards myself to recharge. Through the chest, I've learned that health (both physical and emotional) is found via the integration of opposites - through the ability to expand and contract and knowing when is the best time to do either.

In Nia, we say that the pelvis, chest, and head house the seven primary energy centers of the body, also known as chakras. My favorite writer on this subject, PhD psychologist Anodea Judith, describes chakras as, "a center of activity that receives, assimilates, and expresses life force energy." Chakras three and four are both situated in the bodyweight of the chest. Chakra three is all about power, autonomy, will, proactivity, and self-esteem. Chakra four is about love, relationship, balance, devotion, and intimacy.

When we work with expanding and contracting the chest (as we do with countless Nia movements), we activate these energy centers, and, in turn deeply stimulate our abdominal muscles, intercostal muscles, rib cage, spine, internal organs, and breathing. In fact, the breath itself is our most essential tool to working with expanding and contracting the chest, as our inhale and exhale do exactly this.

When you breathe, allow your breath to fill your entire chest cavity, imagining the breath filling the base of your lungs first, then expanding upwards to fill the entire chest. Inhale and sense your heart center open with flexibility, supported from behind by the strength of your upper back muscles. Exhale and allow your spine to lengthen upwards, resting into the spaciousness of your thoracic spine and chest cavity. Use the tips below to continue to breathe life into the bodyweight of your chest and to sense the dynamic interplay between expansion and contraction.

With a new year upon us, the time to focus on the chest could not be more ideal. Open, inhale, and expand into the New Year as you exhale to release what has come before, letting your heart's center guide you into a magical year of health and wellbeing!


  • Practice deep, diaphramatic breathing techniques. Visualize your belly ascending with breath as you inhale through the nose, then descending as you exhale through the mouth. Sense your body fill with energy on the inhale, then releasing energy on the exhale.
  • Attend a class or workshop focused on pranayama (yogic breathwork).
  • Practice sounding the vowels A, E, I, O, and U and sense the reverberation of sound through your chest.
  • Lay over a yoga bolster length-wise. Allow your hips to rest on the floor, your arms and legs open wide, and your chest and spine elevated and cascading over the bolster. Sense expansion through your chest. 
  • Practice the Nia moves Chest Isolations, Shimmy, Spinal Undulations, and Spinal Roll.


Maria Skinner, Nia Trainer, says:

As the home to our lungs and heart, the chest has deep meaning to us as the symbolic seat of love, grief, joy, and pride. There are so many expressions in our language from “heartbreak” to “heartthrob” that relate to the emotional experiences we sense in the life and movement of the chest.

How much do you move your chest?

The chest itself, known as the thorax, is comprised of the bones of the frontal chest (the sternum, manubrium of the sternum, and xyphoid process). Attached to the sternum at the front are the ribs, which wrap around and meet the vertebrae of the spine in the back of the body. All but two floating ribs, which attach at T11 and T12, do this. The thoracic spine encompasses the vertebrae that are connected to the ribs, creating the thorax.

Like a lightweight guard, the ribs protect the precious heart and lungs from injury and blows. Although the ribs offer this protection, they are incredibly light and have quite a lot of movement. They have the ability to expand and contract with the breath, move laterally, and flex and extend. Muscles that activate the movement of the ribs include the scalenes (connecting the cervical vertebra (neck) to the first two ribs), intercostal muscles, diaphragm, serratus and pectoralis group, quadratus lumborum, transversus, rectus abdominus, and the obliques.

These muscles are all activated when we do Chest Isolations, Shimmy, Spinal Roll, and Undulations in Nia classes. I often find that many newer students, much like myself in my early days of movement exploration, are not moving their chest very much. Sometimes, there is the belief that they are moving their chest when they move their upper extremities, imagining that the movement of their shoulder blades is the movement of the chest. I call this "being seduced by the arms." It is possible and absolutely delicious to allow the arms to move the chest; but the arms moving by themselves should not be confused with chest movement. Some students begin to move their hips and sense their chest for the first time in relation to what is happening in the pelvis; but still their chests are barely moving.

I have found that consciously activating movement in my chest requires attention to the detail of leading with different parts of my thoracic spine, my sternum, and the sides of my ribs. Letting the thoracic spine lead the dance, rather than the head or the pelvis, allows for some really unique sensations. When I studied Samba and learned to shimmy for the first time, I felt like something opened up inside of my chest! Suddenly there was more space for air and a channel of energy that made me feel twice as large from the inside out.

When I teach my students to Shimmy, I remind them that it is not about the clavicles. Rather, the clavicles are coming along for the ride that the ribs are giving them. Shimmy is one of Nia's seven core moves. Ask your Nia teacher to share Shimmy with you the next time you are in class. Like anything else in life, Shimmy improves with practice and thankfully, also with the release of tension. The magic of the Shimmy is that it is also a great way to release tension in the upper back and neck. Just make sure your jaw is released when you practice this move. Practicing Chest Isolations in conjunction with Shimmy is great for conditioning, as together they create more flexibility and strength in the chest muscles than either can create alone.

This awareness and cultivation of sensation in my chest has given me so much more than the physical gift of delicious sensation. I feel more attuned to what feels right or wrong for my heart simply by tuning into the more sensation that is available. As a result, following my heart has taken on a whole new meaning.


  • Move your chest with intention. Remember: When it comes to the chest, small and gentle is best.
  • Isolate the movement of the chest and then integrate movement of the head and pelvis. See if you can stay aware of the chest even when the top and bottom of the spine become active.
  • Breathe with the intention to expand your ribcage from the inside out. Sense the dance of your breath.
  • Touch your ribs from front to back, feeling for the spaces between the ribs. Get to know your amazing body!