“Heal” Lead

barefoot runA couple weeks ago, I went to a Bikram Yoga class with my friend, Laura.  For the uninitiated, Bikram Yoga is also known as Hot Yoga.  The room is heated to about 105 degrees and sweating is a major activity in the 90-minute experience.  You can practically hear your classmates sweating.  It may sound daunting, but it actually feels great.

Every class follows the same series of asanas, or postures.  Exactly the same, every time.  Instructors also tend to use the same language to guide the class.  There can almost be a mantra-like quality to the classes that is meditative as well as instructional.

One thing almost every teacher says is, “Lock your knees.”  What the?  This phrase pulled me out of my meditative perspiration.  I have been told as long as I can remember never to lock my knees and to always keep them “soft.”  But here in Bikramland, over and over, they said, “Lock your knees.  Lock your legs.”

So, I got brave and asked one of the instructors, “What do you mean by ‘Lock your legs.’?”  Turns out, it wasn’t what I thought at all.  What the instructor means is to straighten the leg AND pull up the kneecap so the quadriceps muscle engages (which aligns the leg and takes the stress out of the joints).

Ohhhhhh.  That makes sense.  I just didn’t know the story behind the instructional short-hand.

I started thinking about Nia and wondered what instructional short-hand I use that students might not fully understand.  And right away, I thought “Heel Lead.”

I’ve been teaching Nia classes since May 2000.  On average, let’s say I’ve taught 4 classes a week.  So as I calculate it, that’s 606 weeks, or 2424 classes.  And in those 2424 classes, I have probably said, “Heel Leed, everybody” about … 6 million times.  Give or take a million.

There are 52 Moves in Nia and Heel Lead is move number one.  We use it a lot.  But what do I really mean when I say, “Heel Lead”?  Turns out, there are layers of meaning in those two little words!

On a physical level, it’s a simple, yet profound movement.  To do a Heel Lead, step directly forward, diagonally or to the side so that your heel connects with the floor first.  Focus on the sequence of heel, then ball, then toes as you shift your body weight.  There is nothing fancy about this.  It’s just a normal walking step the way the body was designed to do it.  But it’s a walking step of which we are completely aware.

Simple as it is, there are great physical benefits to leading with your heel.  By using the heel lead, the joints of the leg, and particularly the knee, automatically align.  Practicing the Heel Lead develops awareness so regardless of how you are moving, you are aware of how you are placing your feet.  Just by using Heel Lead, you are grounding and aligning your body with every step.

Pretty cool, right?  But Heel Lead offers more than just physical benefits.  By leading with your heel, your body relaxes its weight through the big calcaneus bone in the heel.  By relaxing and grounding, a heel lead step is one of confidence and courage.  Experiment for a minute:  stand up and take a step forward onto your heel.  Do it a couple of times.  Then step forward onto your toes or the ball of your foot.  Feel the difference.  For most people, a heel lead feels confident and relaxed.  A toe lead feels tentative and hesitant.  Is that true for you?  (A toe lead will also lead to bothersome blisters on the big toe and ball of the foot:  the most common complaint of tentative new Nia students!)

Nia Move #1:  Heel Lead has physical, mental and emotional merits.  This simple movement, when done with awareness, aligns with The Body’s Way and is intrinsically healing.  To lead with the heel is to lead with the heal.

I’ll be focusing on “Heal” Lead in classes this week.  And whether you’re dancing with me or not, I invite you to move through your days leading with the heal.  Tell us about what you notice by leaving a comment below!

Dance on, my darlings!



  1. Kristin vonthelen said:

    Sadly I do not think I will be dancing with you this week Susan. But I will espically think of you when I am doing heel lead. Now thankfully that my plantar faciaiitus is healed it is back to a pleasureable move. Kristin

    • I’ll miss you this week, Kristin, and am grateful for my body’s ability to heal! I’m so glad your feet are feeling good again! Much love, Susan

  2. Laura said:

    Interesting! Was I in Bikram with you when the instructor said that when the knee is locked, it will actually bend back to be
    behind the ankle??? That’s not just locked, that’s hyper-extended. I think it’s possible that different instructors may mean different things when talking about a locked knee. Fortunately for Nia students, “heel lead” means the same for all of us! xox

  3. holy moly, nope that’s not the instructor *I* got the goods from. She actually showed me on her own leg how “locked” brought the knee forward in a way that hyperextended did not! Yes, thankfully, Nia language is consistent!

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