Awareness of the Head - Sensing Up
For this month's continuing education focus on the head, 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 the head by exploring The Body's Way. Be sure to also register for the February 4th telecourse with Nia Co-Creator Debbie Rosas.
Debbie Rosas, Nia Co-Creator, says:
I use my head every day. So do you. But do you use it the right way?
One of the most revered parts of the body - your head. It’s also one of the three body weights. It’s the one that sits at the top, resting over your chest and pelvis. It’s the heaviest of the three weights, weighing about 8 to 10 pounds. And it’s the part you spend most of your time messing around with, brushing your teeth, combing and fixing your hair, putting on make-up, and checking yourself out in the mirror to see how you “look.” I imagine you’re like me and you spend far more time checking your head and all its parts then checking your knees and shoulders.
In Nia, we perceive the head as the place where energy is directed; the chest where energy is exchanged; and the pelvis where energy is contained. What I mean by the head directing energy is that the head is the place where we think and process, using the mind, of course. But it is also where we gain knowledge through the senses, listening to hear, tasting to nourish, smelling to breathe, looking to see, touching to feel. And, yes, it also houses lips to kiss.
By design, the head is made up of eight cranial bones, fourteen facial bones, and a brain. As a bony structure, it is deigned to be light in weight. If it weren’t for the weight of your brain, your head would float up and sustain an upright posture a whole lot easier. But the weight of the brain demands support from inside and underneath. So where does your head get its support and what is your head designed to do?
Your head is supported from the inside by 7 cervical vertebrae in your neck and by the muscles of your neck, upper back, and chest. Your head also gets support from the spine, pelvis, and chest. Even your feet serve to support your head in moving up, out, and away from your torso, floating up to the sky in order to balance the downward pull of gravity. As for what the head is designed to do, think of your head as a control center that relies on cognitive and sensory input and output decoded by the brain and nervous system.
As I said, like me, you likely use your head a lot, everyday. You use it to orient yourself in the world, to think, and to make intimate contact through the senses. Of all the senses, the eyes are the ones most people avoid. The act of looking directly through our eyes connects our energy body to the physical world around us, deeply increasing what we feel and sense, which is why most people avoid and limit eye contact.
The most natural way to move your head is to use your eyes. Looking engages the eyes. Lead with the eyes and head and the whole body follows. But start out slowly. Because head movement stirs the energy flow around the eyes, ears, and mouth, it stimulates the crown, third eye, and throat chakras. Head movement agitates the fluid in your inner ear, which is a part of the vestibular system that helps you balance and orient yourself in space.
So if head movement is new to you, it can create feelings of dizziness, nausea, and even fear. Not to worry, as this is common and partly due to the physical changes caused by an increased flow in the energy moving through your vestibular system.
The good news is that with continued movement of your head, over time, you will be able to tolerate larger amounts of energy moving in your head and neck and through the vestibular system. You’ll be able to turn, spin, and move up and down from the floor and at different speeds without getting dizzy. You’ll also be able to change directions quickly without feeling nausea or fear. So how do you keep your head fit and healthy?
There’s no better way to improve the health and fitness of your head than by making sure you integrate movement of your entire spine on and off the dance floor.
Here are some visuals to help you conjure up free movement of your head:
- Imagine a white feather lengthening along the back of the neck, high into the clouds. As you step, walk, and dance, play with the clouds, tickling them with the tip of your feather.
- Imagine that your brain is a helium balloon. As you inhale, fill the brain balloon with air. Use this lightness to lighten the sensation of rising into a relevé.
- Imagine your ears as large as Dumbo the elephant’s and support them freely by moving your head. Flap them at the sides of your head.
- Imagine yourself as a marionette with a puppeteer pulling the strings to move your head up and out, away from the legs.
- Visualize a halo of light around the crown of your head. Dance and align the halo of your head with the halo of your shoulder girdle. Dance these two halos, imagining them playing with each other.
- Imagine a cobra behind you. See the cobra coming from behind you, over the top of your head. Feel the weight of the cobra and support the cobra’s body and power from underneath. Move the crown of your head up and settle the back of your head into the cobra. Wear the power as you dance.
- See a question mark and rest the back of your head into the question mark as a way to lengthen the back of the neck.
- See with the eyes of an eagle. Visualize that you are an eagle and look directly into the space you intend to move into to help you align your head.
Caroline Kohles, Nia Trainer, says:
There's no question about it: Nia is a HEAD-liner in brain and body fitness!
Because it supports eight cranial bones, fourteen facial bones, and your brain, your head carries a lot of weight. In Nia, when we speak of head movement, we include the movement of the eyes, ears, mouth, nose, jaw, and even the cognitive functions of the brain. I want to talk about the how Nia influences the cognitive function of your brain. But since the brain learns best by storytelling, let’s start with a story.
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with benign positional vertigo. Translated into English, this means that the particles in my right ear, that were responsible for my balance, had unexpectedly shifted. So, when I moved my head in a particular way, I was unable to stand upright without feeling dizzy. Physical therapy, that included rolling on the ground, was prescribed as the cure. Once I knew the condition was not permanent and would go away by moving, I decided that instead of being afraid, I would use this injury as an opportunity for exploration and learning.
As a Nia teacher and trainer, I love moving my head. I know how important it is for all my neck, chest, and back muscles, as well as my spine and how it can deepen my breathing. But most importantly, moving my head is the quickest way for me to get out of my “thinking mind” and into my “sensing body.” One of the reasons I am committed to Nia as my fitness and lifestyle practice is that with Nia I can put my head to good use by training my body and brain at the same time. More about how Nia trains the brain later.
So without going too crazy, I began to “tweak” my movements in class to see what I could and couldn’t do. In Nia classes, students are taught how to listen to their bodies and “tweak” the movement slightly so that it works best for their bodies. With tweaking, we stay in the “joy of movement,” the first principle of the Nia White Belt training, and have the opportunity to “try on” new and different movement, as well as condition our bodies and remain injury free at the same time.
My exploration was a whirlwind adventure… literally. At times I felt like I was on the “tilt-a-whirl” at a carnival. If I moved my head too much, I was at risk of falling. And if I didn’t move it enough, I got very stiff. As time passed, I was able to move my head in all of my Nia movements and my benign positional vertigo went away.
So what can we learn about Nia, the head, and the brain from this story?
First of all, a little bit of “practical anatomy.” The head is a bony structure that is composed of pieces of bone that completely encase and protect the brain. The only openings to this skeletal structure are in the front and side. They are the eye sockets, the jaw, the nostrils, and the ears. This is intentional. This structure is designed to provide stability and protection for the brain, as well as provide openings to receive information via stimulation from the senses.
Second, by creating a safe and familiar place for my body to explore and heal my injury, I was able to decrease the stimulation to the amygdala portion of my brain. This is the place in the brain where the fear/rage response is triggered. Since I knew I could “tweak” my movement in any way that I needed, I didn’t have to be afraid and I could focus my attention on learning what movements worked and what movements didn’t.
According to neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, in her book My Stroke of Insight, “When incoming stimulation is perceived as familiar, the amygdala is calm and the adjacently positioned hippocampus is capable of learning and memorizing new information. However, as soon as the amygdala is triggered by unfamiliar or perhaps threatening stimulation, it raises the brain’s level of anxiety and focuses the mind’s attention the immediate situation. Under these circumstances, our attention is shifted away from the hippocampus (learning) and is focused toward self-preserving behavior about the present moment.”
Finally, because I had a focus and intention (exploring ways to move my body and head with the intention to heal my benign positional vertigo), I was using my body to directly access the neo-cortex of my brain. The neo-cortex is composed of the right and left hemisphere. The right brain allows us to see the big picture. It creates a picture of what the present moment looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, and feels like. The left-brain takes each of the pictures of the right brain and puts them in order of past, present, and future. It arranges them in patterns and pays attention to the details. In order not to fall, I needed to pay attention, moment to moment (right brain), as well as to all the details of my movements and recognize which patterns I did that helped me heal and which ones were too much.
Andrew Newber, Eugene D’ Aquili and Vince Rause, in their book Why God Won’t Go Away describe the involvement of the neocortex in spatial awareness in the following way.
“Did you ever stop to consider your brain knows how to define the dimension of your body in space? Amazingly there are cells in your left hemisphere’s orientation association area that define the boundaries of our body – a where we begin and where we end relative to the space around us. At the same time, there are cells in our right hemisphere’s orientation association area that orient our body in space. As a result, our left hemisphere teaches us where our body begins and ends; our right hemisphere helps us place it where we want it to go.”
One of the reasons Nia is so amazing is that it not only encourages you to move your head, but when you move the Nia way, you train your brain as well.
Integrating the head into movement can be disconcerting at first. Remember as with learning anything new, when you feel safe, you will relax more, allowing your brain and body to learn more and you will have more fun.
Keep dancing Nia to joyously keep your brain and body alive. I hope to meet you on the dance floor…
- Use your eyes to look around the room and your head will automatically follow.
- Take a moment to breathe deeply and by doing so you will relax and stimulate your limbic (emotional) brain at the same time.
- When practicing Head and Eye Movements, if you get dizzy, gently come back upright and steady your gaze.
- Lightly tap your belly; pull on your ear lobes; or lift and lower both heels up and down a few times to physically ground and center yourself.
Casey Bernstein, Nia Trainer, says:
In Nia, the core of the body is comprised of the three energy centers: pelvis, chest, and head. The pelvis contains energy; the chest exchanges energy; and the head is “the director” of energy. This is so because the head is the home of our brain, housed within the skull. It’s the master of our nervous system and all five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch).
It is unique to Nia that these energy centers are recognized as so and are integrated into an exercise program. Facial muscle can be “exercised” during a Nia class through a diversity of movement forms and the encouragement of emotional expression, ranging from wide eyes of surprise, a fierce face of Tai Kwon Do, and, of course, a wide smile that can erupt with the joy of movement.
The significance of the head lies in our ability to direct energy and enhance awareness while we condition, express, and heal our bodies during a Nia class and life. If the head is dropped and/or used with no sense of awareness, the body is required to continually find stability to stop the momentum and the feeling of falling, which can lead to straining the neck, back, and entire body. The integration of the head begins with our heal lead, which activates the center of the body and then integrates the whole body with the head.
The term in Nia we use when integrating the head while moving is being “online and offline.” Being “online” refers to having the head in a vertical upright position over the chest and pelvis while moving. The playful pearl I like to call “charm school” refers to a time when women would learn to walk gracefully with a book resting on the top of their heads.
Employing principles of the Alexander Technique, one would be required to elongate the cervical neck vertebrae, lifting through the top of the head, while moving with a relaxed body and a heal lead walk. This is really fun to bring to Nia class! I had students experience doing a fast clock with their “charm school” book on top of their head, then remove the book and continue to move from the head down with the recapitulated sensation. They received the sensation of a lifted head, a lengthened neck, a forward gaze, and moving with their feet under a relaxed body.
Being “offline” refers to movement of the head through other planes (low, middle and high) of energy while the spine is moving through its six positions of forward and back bending; rotation; right and left; and lateral movements right and left.
The weight of the head must be stabilized with correct foot placement and engagement of the center point of the body to enhance the potential of these movements. If done incorrectly, other body parts, such as the low back, will compensate to protect the head from feeling like it is falling. When done correctly, utilization of the head creates a powerful, integrated, systematic experience for the body.
Head and Eye Movements is one of Nia's 52 Moves. Structural Integration/Rolfing, the Alexander Technique, the martial arts, the dance arts, and Nia’s 5 Stages all make direct reference to the importance of eye and head movements. Where the eyes go, attention will follow.
A focal point for eyes can create stability for the head while turning. Having the opportunity for students to follow their own hands while moving in a Nia class will empower students to move in their own way, as well as to create total body systemic experiences.
A body isolation/integration exercise would be to have the head still while moving only the eyes while following the hand, then sensing the eyes moving with the head following the eye movements. The final experience is having the eyes following the hand movements; the head following the eye movements; and the body following the head movements for an integrative experience. Consequently, the use of eye and head movement can stimulate the entire nervous system and body for wellness.
The head is the home of Chakras 5,6, and 7 where the endocrine and nervous systems converge, which then influence our psyche and emotions. The throat is the area of our 5th chakra. The thyroid gland, the master of metabolism and our vocal chords, is the center of our voice and one of the ways we express ourselves.
Our 6th chakra is located in the area the between the eyebrows in the center of our brain, where the pituitary gland, the “master” gland, is located. This is our area of intuition and knowing. When we were babies, the fontanel (at the top of the head) was an open, diamond-shaped, soft part of the skull. But, as we grow older, it closes and becomes the area of our 7th chakra, our personal connection to the Divine, culminating in our sense of self in the world.
Choosing the Joy of Movement; sustaining a vertical presence in the world; and being conscious of how we direct our energy, is an empowering way to live life and is supported fully by the Nia Technique.
- Sense the weight of your head over your chest and pelvis in Nia class and in life.
- Play with “charm school.” Put a book on your head and walk, practicing Nia foot patterning. Then take the book off and do the same.
- Sense heal lead of the foot while sensing the head.
- Consciously sense when the head is online and offline in a Nia class.
- Become aware of the use of the eyes to direct the head and body. Play with closed eyes, soft eyes, and directed eyes where the gaze goes to the teacher, to the mirror, or to your hand.
- Sense the energies of 3 chakras: your voice, your intuition, and your crown energy.