Nia founder Debbie Rosas presents a twenty minute class called MoveIT.
It was like something out of the Mists of Avalon, all the way up through the Inside Passage into Glacier Bay of Alaska, gorgeous rolling mists and fog. This mountain reminded me of my mental picture of the Tor in Avalon, which (as I just learned while looking up the right spelling of ‘Tor”) actually exists. I thought it was fictional! We were on a cruise ship of course – line of choice, Holland America. We are now two-star members!
The sun broke through for one of the few sunny days of their summer at both the Johns Hopkins Glacier and again the next port of call at Ketchikan. We did a lot of walking on deck, and a lot of reading – reading in the Thermal Suite on heated benches, and reading in the ship board library and coffee shop (see photo below). I got through two Isabel Dalhousie books and at least one of the Corduroy Mansion series. (Have you read any Alexander McCall Smith books? My new catch phrase is now “what would Isabel do?)
We also played scrabble in the coffee bar, something we haven’t done for years. I remembered why: I tend to win, making my husband work harder than he’d like to. Oh yes and the other main activity was eating. I heard more than one woman sigh blissfully at the start of our trip: no cooking and cleaning up for a week! A cruise really is the woman’s vacation.
And then it was home and back to work the next day (except my work feels like play) and starting back with Nia and the routine Awake. And I have two new routines to play with: Soul, which features Native American music and the 52 moves of Nia, and Fly with its fun dance-y music and the five sensations of Nia (FAMSS): flexibility, agility, mobility, strength and stability. And it looks like the year’s new routines will be out very soon! I love getting new routines because I have the opportunity to be a beginner. Yes, even though I’m a seasoned Nia instructor, when I have a new combination to learn I am like any beginner as my brain figures out the Neuromuscular Integrative Action (NIA) or new to me move.
I’m also starting a new study focus this year with Katy Bowman’s Restorative Exercise™ program. I have been interested in this for a long time, I actually realized that this kind of alignment was a big attraction when I was studying yoga (especially my teacher’s training). I decided to offer alignment classes after being asked by several different people for stretches and alignment help with uterine prolapse, incontinence, herniated lumbar disks and sacral pain. Not all the same person, thankfully. But problems are not usually isolated. My acupuncturist shared that about half the women she sees have pelvic floor problems.
What I’m finding as I make myself my first student, is that alignment-wise, I’m in not as good a shape as I thought because I’m hyper-mobile and I’ve (probably) been using the space in and around my joints for flexibility and mobility rather than my muscles. And I sort of knew this but loved how Katy Bowman put it:
People who are hyper-mobile actually have poor muscle flexibility. And stretching is difficult because these folks don’t *feel* anything in a stretch because they open the joints — not the muscles.
So, my calves and hamstring muscles are tighter than I realized and as I do the exercises to stretch them properly, I can see a difference in my abdominal muscles, which is why, even though I gained a few pounds on vacation, I feel more streamlined.
So, anyway I am getting my head around having tight muscles in my legs. Well, all of me, actually I think because I do too much sitting, especially computer work. You’ve heard the big new ‘dis-ease’ is the sitting disease, right? Which is why I’m now going to stand and do some movement. I’ll be keeping you updated on my progress with Restorative Exercise.
(This is an updated post).
In my mid-twenties yoga was my life, so much so that after a few years of being a student, I felt compelled to take teacher training.
At that time there weren’t yoga schools everywhere like there are now, so I went to the institute my teachers had gone to. I can’t remember now how many intensives I had to take to qualify as a teacher, but I completed two of them. The first one was heavenly: I learned so much and it really solidified my practice, not to mention the thrill of travelling to an exotic location (it was the first time I ever travelled alone). I went back for the second course a year later expecting the same great experience but it turned out quite differently.
I’d heard some stories of course, but in my second intensive I experienced it myself: how much yoga practice was based on discipline and surrendering the will. I am going to use a generic yoga rather than the school I studied from because I believe (rightly or wrongly) that it was cultural and systematic.
Okay I need to be transparent here and tell you I have been unable to have much of a yoga practice for many years because in that second intensive I was injured and it effectively ended my envisioned yoga career. I was injured doing Baddha Konasana (Butterfly pose) of all things. The lesson in that particular teacher training class was on modifying the pose with support (blocks) under the heels to prepare for full lotus pose. Now, I have always had one hip that is tighter than the other, so I’ve been able to do lotus on one side but not the other. During the class, I felt comfortable with the pose I was in—until the teacher manipulated my heels into an even higher rotation through which I could feel my S.I. joint going into a spasm. Several minutes of discomfort later I released the pose but the spasm didn’t go away.
The Hyper-Mobile Yoga Student…uh oh!
For a long time I blamed the injury on this teacher who I thought should have had enough experience to avoid that sort of thing, and maybe if I was a regular student, maybe if I hadn’t just met him, he would have. I also made my wonderful hyper-flexible joints the bad guy. I could get into poses so easily that it looked like I wasn’t trying; ‘hanging out’ was what I heard continually. In reality I was already at my limits and looking like I was hanging out, and my teachers would then frequently adjust my pose, sometimes by using their own body weight to force my body into a deeper stretch. Really, getting an injury was just a matter of time. You may not be aware of this but hyper-flexibility is really about muscles that are so tight and/or under used that (quoting Katy Bowman here) “the body creates a hyper-mobile joint by relaxing ligaments to allow movement.” Read more about that here.
Feeling the Pain
I believe now, something much deeper was going on that was really about discipline. First, why force the body into a position it doesn’t want to go into? Second, why tolerate pain? The answer is basically because the teacher said so and I (we all) wanted to be good students. This attitude wasn’t limited to yoga. At that time you also heard in aerobics “feel the burn” – work through the pain – so we were all primed to think that pain was good. Pain mean progress. Pain meant surrender. But what if pain is just pain, with no meaning? Pain with a purpose is one thing: childbirth or menstrual cramps, while not good, at least reflect internal changes in the body. There is a reason and a purpose.
Pain experienced through stretching is something else. You never know if what you are doing is helping or causing more damage. There is anxiety and fear as well. We look to our teachers, the ‘experts’ to reassure us that we doing the right thing for our body. The conclusion I’ve come to in my reading is that embedded in the philosophy of yoga is the idea that accepting pain promotes spiritual growth, and western fitness teachers (initially) adopted without realizing what is behind it. I think (I hope) that this is changing. Anyway, I came home from that second intensive in pain and feeling disillusioned and had I known then how long it would take me to physically recover I would have also been devastated.
I was disillusioned because it appeared at the higher level of yoga training, the bigger the reputation and closer to the ‘source’, the meaner it got. Not every teacher (but many) used shame and humiliation as part of the lesson. One teacher – who had a reputation for hitting – slapped me on the head because I was a couple of seconds late in helping my partner come down come from a bridge pose. I felt I deserved it. Another instructor singled me out to demonstrate a pose and felt justified in making comments on my body that weren’t related to the pose we were learning. It was inappropriate – something about my ample thighs and buttocks – and it was humiliating. Someone, bless them, gasped in shock on my behalf, but I calmly and inwardly owned the remark. In good Yoga Etiquette that’s what you did.
Meanwhile, at home…
The teachers I worked with at home would never treat their students that way. Or would they? In hindsight I realize that all of the wonderful, caring and compassionate teachers I learned yoga from at home had gone through the same training, same system, and had seen far more. They were, in their own ways, spreading the same negative messages, at the very least by continuing the pain-is-gain mentality and teacher knows best philosophy.
My rebellion began in earnest. I morphed into a ‘bad’ student by speaking up when a pose hurt and questioning the wisdom of certain moves. I was told a variety of things in response: a) it was just my body realigning itself, or b) it was just my body detoxifying, or c) just work through the pain. All of which I’d heard before of course. It is fairly common for newbies to complain (bless them) until they either quit or got with the program of acceptance and silence.
What teachers are taught to say, passed down through generation and lineage of yogis, is especially difficult for the female western mind. I’m talking 1970s here. Just when we began to finally overthrow paternalism and stand on our own, this comes along, and not only from yoga but also eastern meditation and spiritual practice. In western culture we’d been told: don’t trust the signals from your body; shut up and do as we say; ‘doctor/teacher/father/boss’ knows best. You can insert any authority figure really. It just seems so ironic to me that the feminist movement gains of control over our bodies and minds in western culture were surrendered in an eastern culture of spiritual practice and movement. I guess it is all about finding a balance.
In the end one of those delightful, well-meaning yoga teachers finally made me pay attention to the medical advice I was getting. This teacher loved a particular quad stretch so much she insisted on doing it in every class: a kneeling position, shin pressed into the wall and with the weight on the knee. Forget the quad stretch, I couldn’t bear the weight on my knee and the only modification given was to pad it. And even though I spoke up, it still didn’t feel like an option to do an alternative pose because the teacher felt that because it hurt, it meant that I should be doing it. Now on top of S.I. pain, my knees became very unstable and chronically inflamed. Outside of class I began walking with a limp and was barely able to climb a set of stairs. For a good number of years I wondered if I would end up permanently disabled. It was bleak: I was doing chiropractic, physiotherapy and massage to try to recover and the advice given to me was I’d have to stop doing yoga to allow my body to rest and heal.
Standing on my Own
Well, I tried. I did stop going to yoga class but I turned around and started teaching my own brand of yoga: Restorative Yoga with props: blankets, bolsters, chairs, and guided meditation. I made the space as spa-like and inviting as I could by painting a forest on the walls. And I added music. As far as I know, I was a pioneer in putting music to yoga movement. I don’t know of anyone else using music in that way, at that time.
I guided my students through gentle supported stretches with mostly demonstration and verbal cues and minimal physical corrections. It made such a difference to how relaxed students felt. I knew it was a success when students began bringing their friends to class, and especially the day I had an amputee come and casually remove her artificial leg and settle on her mat. It worked because I emphasized ‘your energy, your way’, encouraged students to listen to their body for cues, to move slowly and do less. The best yoga teachers I met were those who used a soft touch to bring awareness to a place the student isn’t working: the student does the adjustment themselves and that was the model I based my classes on.
Your Energy, Your Way
I didn’t last long as a Restorative Yoga teacher. What I was doing was too new and too different and I misjudged how long it would take my new venture to begin paying the bills. I ran out of money and the studio closed. The silver lining from my experience as a yoga teacher is that I really learned ‘your energy, your way’. I have a firm belief that you are the expert of your own body and it means finding your voice.
My role as a fitness instructor is to create awareness of the sensation of movement in the body to allow you to tune into your body’s wisdom. It doesn’t mean never pushing yourself or extending beyond your abilities but that you can do so in a safe and nurturing way, while seeking pleasure as your guiding sensation. There is a stretch limit that simply feels delicious. That’s the sweet spot! In each class I emphasize the importance of listening to your body and adapting as necessary, to experience your energy your way. I give permission to adapt a move that feels uncomfortable or give the option to not do it at all.
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!
I didn’t see that I was absolutely on the right track and that I wasn’t as alone in my thinking as I thought. I started my Restorative Yoga classes right around the same time Nia Technique® was being born. I read about Nia in a magazine and I remember thinking how wonderful it sounded. It would take me 25 years to finally get a chance to take a class, and about six months into it I knew I wanted to teach it. Nia healed and strengthened my body and the yoga component was just enough to rekindle a flame of desire for more.
Then I discovered Restorative Exercise™ the goal of which (in my words) is to restore range of motion and muscle function which is turn has several benefits:
- Healthier joints as you age. Osteoarthritis and joint replacements aren’t inevitable outcomes of aging.
- It can restore your ability to do things like walk, squat, and balance on one leg.
- It dispels the notions about what we need to be in a physically healthy body.
I’m on the track to becoming an RES (Restorative Exercise Specialist) and you know there is an overlap with Restorative Yoga. A lot of the ‘exercises’ are similar, while the biggest difference is the goal. In yoga the goal is often seen as achieving the asana. You know, working towards that perfect lotus position. Whereas in an RE class the goal is more about sensation and awareness, but is also based on biomechanics and the scientific, official body alignment markers, of which there are 25. It is understood in Restorative Exercise that we are all ‘works in progress’, teachers and students alike with their own particular blend of alignment issues.
That I love Nia is a given. To me, Nia offers the perfect combination of components beginning with the moves and how they are put together: I like how they challenge my brain with pattern recognition and how those moves are just repetitive enough to leave me wanting more.
Patterning is important for health. It fills our innate need for order and form, but it needs the right combination for optimum stimulation. For example a ’grapevine’ is a fairly complex move for a lot of people, but repeated over and over it is going be tedious at the least. (A lot of fitness moves are tedious in my opinion, which I guess is why treadmill and Stairmaster aficionados zone out with magazines or video while exercising.)
The perfect patterning for me are combinations of movement that are a little challenging and maybe a bit quirky or unexpected. Patterning (or choreography) does a lot of things for the body; besides engage our interest, it creates new pathways in the brain. Nia moves (which usually begin with the feet and/or base, and add upper extremities as levels) are so well designed and creative they keep me absorbed in my home practice to music or a DVD, and when I do them with a group, either as the teacher or a participant, the experience goes to whole different level.
There is something healing about moving in unison and rhythm with others; it holds the ‘I-Thou’ relationship in which we have a shared reality. We are all doing the same thing at the same time, but each in our own way. There is authenticity in movement and it is quite evident that we can do the same thing, with more or less the same intent, but so differently. It is a way of truly seeing and acknowledging one another without judgment.
Moving to music activates the pleasure circuits of the brain and in that sense all movement to music is healing, but more than other fitness modalities I’ve experienced, Nia goes a step further by using what I call ‘regular real music’, not music created for fitness with predictable beats per minute, but rather the music you might listen to, that you might hear at a concert or on CD. And like regular music there are varied genres and topics. Some of it is even *gasp* sad and moody.
I had to really think about the role of the music in Nia, especially the moody stuff. I was a little apprehensive with popular dance fitness modalities that emphasize the party aspects of music for movement. Other than its popularity, I’m not sure what the message a movement class of all up-tempo party music conveys (is it just to keep time?) but here is the thing: we can’t be ‘up’ all the time and normally we aren’t. Admittedly we can feel down in the dumps and go to a pumped-up aerobics class and feel better afterwards. But what then? To me it is a little like a sugar-rush that feels good at the time, but is eventually going to wear off with a crash.
There is a tendency to value positive states more than others, but it is only when we label one emotion as better or preferable over another that there is a problem. Society would have us pretend we are all blissfully happy, all the time, and the alternative is to mask our feelings. We don’t talk about those things in polite company.
Sadness, depression, fear, loneliness, anger, and anxiety are emotions all of us face, along with happiness and joy. When I know that participants in my class are going through a difficult time – emotionally or with chronic pain, I think about how Nia classes might be helping them. Movement helps process pain of all kinds, moving it through the body, getting it out of the head.
It is healing to have a movement practice that acknowledges a wide range of emotional states as a normal and valid response to stress – to life. Through that ‘moody’ music – through the choice of all the music for each routine, Nia gives the space to express all our natural emotional states. Many of the great pieces of art (in literature, music, theatre and opera) are sad or tragic and we value them, in part because they are cathartic. They let us experience it all, even if only through identification, and it makes us more compassionate people.
On the flip side there are playful pieces of music used in Nia routine where you can’t help but smile, especially when combined with free dance. One of my current favourites is in the Nia routine Awake called Just for Joy by Emergence. (I love this live version, but on the Awake routine it a bit faster and it kind of makes me want to get out my cowboy boots and hat!)
I appreciate the creation of a micro mood-climate through the choice of music, and how, through pairing the movements with a song, the healing opportunities are presented. I appreciate how the songs create a theme that is woven throughout the class. I feel like I have been given opportunity and gone through a whole range of emotions: including the connection and expression with free dance, and acknowledging the humanity of each person present.
Present: here and now, showing up with our hopes and fears, joys and sorrows. In fact, some people have coined a healing acronym for NIA: Now I Am.
This, I consider is the foundation of how Nia is a healing movement form – though I am sure I will discover others. Through this foundation I read about Nia being used for cancer care and addiction recovery, for grief trauma, depression and autism, as well as a long list of physical ailments. Each week on the Nia teacher’s forum I read how teachers are using Nia as a catalyst for healing of all types and it gave me the inspiration to move beyond fitness, to shift the focus of how I see both my personal Nia practice and teaching Nia as a healing movement practice.
© Deborah Redfern 2013. All rights reserved.