5 Sensations of Fitness

How have you moved today? Have you walked or run? Have you reached for a bowl in a high cabinet or pulled some weeds? Have you lifted a child into the car or put your shoes down into the floor of your closet? Have you caught an apple falling from the counter before it hit the ground? Have you stroked and animal’s fur? We all have tendencies and habits and patterns but our bodies are designed to do a wide range of movements, not just thumb-type on our phones.

In the mindful movement classes that I teach, we focus on this variety. The co-founders of The Nia Technique, Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas, gave it a name: The Five Sensations of Fitness. They identified those sensations as Flexibility, Agility, Mobility, Strength and Stability or FAMSS. A body that can access all five of these sensations is a body that is creating fitness and health.

Nia defines these sensations as

  • Flexibility ~ the sensation of energy moving out along the bones
  • Agility ~ the sensation of quick start and stop movement
  • Mobility ~ the sensation of movement flowing without beginning or end
  • Strength ~ the sensation of energy moving into the bones
  • Stability ~ the sensation of energy moving out from center in all directions equally

Intentionally taking the body through these five sensations is one way of expanding the way the body moves beyond habit and tendency. And that expansion into a winder range of movement is one way of increasing fitness and health.

And FAMSS is not just for the body. Our minds, hearts and spirits can benefit from these sensations, too. And no time is this more true than in times of transition.

Late in 2011, my teacher Carlos Rosas left the practice of Nia. Carlos had been one of the most influential and impactful teachers I’d ever had. He changed the way I lived my life and saw the world. When he left, I had plenty of thoughts and feelings and spiritual wonderings about it.

The same sensations that gave me fitness in my body, served to help me be with the reality of Carlos’ departure.

  • Flexibility ~ I practiced feeling and thinking out to the horizon, lengthening my perception of his leaving.
  • Agility ~ I played with noticing the quick changes in my thoughts and emotions about Nia without Carlos without feeling like something was wrong.
  • Mobility ~ Allowing my emotions (and sometimes tears) to flow, my imagination to roll, inspiration to move fluidly helped me decide how I wanted to proceed.
  • Strength ~ I pulled energy in from what I knew, from the resources I had around me, and generally feeling my own power even without the leader I’d looked to for more than a decade.
  • Stability ~ Connecting not just to grounding but also expanding into what was possible started me on the path of taking ownership of my teaching, my creativity and my life.

Now, my beloved friend and teacher, Mary Linn is leaving her teaching practice. I find myself reminded of many of the thoughts and feelings I had when Carlos retired. Mary Linn is my sister in movement and in life. I love working with her and while it is my hope and intention that our friendship will not end, I know it will change when we aren’t teaching together. So I’m reconnecting with FAMSS to give me some holistic fitness and health.

Mary Linn’s leaving. But not yet. So this week we are teaching together on Tuesday and Wednesday our collection of some of our favorite Carlos choreography…as we interpret it.




Both mobility and stability are movement sensations that train, condition, and heal the body uniquely. Creating the mobility of fluid, constant movement around the joints lubricates connective tissue, stimulates intrinsic muscle, and creates more ease in the nervous system. Sensing that stability is not only a rooting down, but an energetic radiation from center, creates stability even in the inherent instability of our bodies and the world.

But put them together and…



(Okay. I didn’t actually SEE the totality when it happened this summer. I was actually kind of MEH about it. This art was inspired by Rebekah Wostrel and Annie Dillard’s extraordinary essay that Bekah shared with me.)

If you’re interested in more good writing, check out this post that I wrote while I was in the midst of a big move. Read it here!

Utter confusion.
Complete disorder.
In Physics it’s defined as “behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.”


The original word in ancient Greek (khaos) meant a gaping void or a vast empty abyss. But mostly, when we use the word now, we’re talking less about groundlessness and more about intense unpredictability, incomprehensible disorder, and absolute confusion.

In Gabrielle Roth’s movement practice of 5 Rhythms, the body goes through movements that follow the patterns in nature.

Flow to

Staccato to

Chaos to

Lyrical to


I was fine with Flow and Staccato. Lyrical and Stillness were totally approachable. But Chaos intimidated me. It felt scary. Teachers warned, “Relax in chaos or get hurt.”

How in the world do you relax into utter confusion?

Chaos is not my favorite feeling and it can’t be avoided. Chaos is part of life. In the routine I’m choreographing*, chaos keeps bubbling up in the music, the movements, even the process. My schedule feels chaotic, too, with much more teaching than usual in unfamiliar settings with unpredictable variables. These days the very world feels deeply unpredictable, teetering precariously on the edge of chaos. I keep reminding myself to relax but…dang.

When I told a friend about all the chaos swarming me, he smiled slyly, “You know about chaos theory, right?”

Um. No. I’m an English major, remember?

In chaos theory, he explained, the utter randomness and confusion is actually a way of reorganizing. Self-organization theories in a wide range of disciplines – from physics and biology to computer and social science – demonstrate that chaos is a way of finding an organic and highly stable order. Let a whole gaggle of things happen higglety pigglety, and new patterns and possibilities emerge.

I’m no scientist. I’ve just told you the sum total of what I know about chaos theory. And yet, as a dancer, this idea of self-organization makes sense to me.

In Nia, we use a huge assortment of movements to train, condition and heal the body~mind. The practice is based on 9 different movement forms and we energize those forms with 5 Sensations of Fitness (Flexibility, Agility, Mobility, Strength & Stability). We take movements at all different speeds and ranges of motion and we take them through the three planes of high middle and low. We use sound and breath to strengthen the core and move energy. We use emotion and expressiveness to enliven movements from the inside out. We use form to gather our collective attention and to break habit. There is also a boat ton of freedom. A Nia class in full swing can definitely look and feel chaotic.

It’s actually one big reorganization project.

All those different movements and patterns and speeds opens new possibilities. I reorganize my muscles: the ones that are tight and sore and the ones that haven’t been used. I reorganize my bones and joints by lubricating them and nudging them into better alignment. I reorganize my mind to pay attention, to invest in what matters most: what’s happening in this precious present moment.

Sometimes the most healing thing we can do is shake things up and allow them to find new patterns. The notion that life is solid and unchanging is an illusion anyway. Why not relax and find a new order out of chaos?

* The new routine is called Love Warrior and I’ll be launching it on March 3 at an event to raise money for 5 Charlottesville refugee families (this is a special event routine and not one I’ll teach in my regular classes). You can get the details here. I hope you’ll come.

If you enjoyed this post, I’m delighted and I hope you’ll share it.

You might also enjoy these two:
Dragonlily (or the Dance of Mobility and Agility)

Stability Within Instability

elements interconnected 041816

Art in Action is a weekly post: a simple, practical guide to applying the ideas and principles in the Focus Pocus posts to your body and life. As always, I love to hear from you about how you use them and how you translate the ideas into action.


The basic elements of life are inextricably interconnected and intertwined. We may look at a boulder and think “Earth” but the stone was born of Water and Fire and Air, too.

Since they are of this planet, our bodies are made of the same stuff — all the ingredients blended inseparably together. The brilliance of this design is that in any moment, we can choose to emphasize whatever element is most needed.

Like a sound system mixing board, we can turn up the volume on whatever track needs to be highlighted. Use sensation and awareness to guide yourself toward healing and well-being.


Feeling over-excited or anxious? Have you been up in your head solving a problem or analyzing a situation? Feeling spacey or zoned out? Grounding with Earth energy can get your feet back on the ground

  • Drop in. Stand up, lift up onto the balls of your feet and firmly drop your heels down to the floor several times. Relax your hands and jaw and shoulders.
  • Get on the ground. Lie on the floor (or extra bonus points for lying on the actual Earth) and relax into the support (without going to sleep). You can roll and stretch but whatever part is in contact with the floor, let it soften.
  • Focus on the exhale. Extend your exhale as long as you can to relax and integrate the energy.


Feeling hot or irritated? Been in an argument or had someone pushing your buttons all morning? Feeling jagged and sharp? Smoothing out the edges with Water energy can help calm your prickly pointy parts.

  • Move smooth. Roll your neck and shoulders, stand up and circle your hips, rotate your ankles and wrists. Imagine your body flowing especially in places where you tend to hold tension.
  • Get in touch with water. Take a shower or wash your hands. Drink a big glass of water or a cup of tea. Listen to a recording of ocean waves, rain, or (my favorite) water running over rocks.
  • Breathe evenly. Inhale and exhale for the same count (say, 4 in and 4 out) with no pause between them.


Sleepy or bored or distracted? Feeling lethargic or low energy? Sparking the Fire element can wake you up and get your attention.

  • Shake. Do some jumping jacks or simply shake your hands, feet, shoulders or head. Literally shake yourself up.
  • Fire up the iPod. Listen to your favorite up-tempo energizing music. Two of my favorites are Sandstorm by Darude and Raging Fire by Phillip Phillips. Dancing is optional, unless the song is super good and you can’t help it.
  • Bellows breath. Sit tall and forcefully exhale and inhale using bhastrika breath or bellows breath. Find instructions here.


Feeling tightness in your muscles or your mind? Find yourself in a contracted position on a plane or around an issue? Been slumped in front of the computer or TV for a while? Opening up space with the Air element can release tension and offer a broader perspective.

  • Stretch. Lengthen your body along the bones. Let your whole body find length from feet to spine, from legs to fingers. If you’re on a train or at a meeting, stretch what you can – maybe your hands or sit up taller or imagine yourself in a big open space reaching long in all directions.
  • Look at the sky. On your way to the car, take a moment to look up and see how much space (even on an overcast day) there is all around you.
  • Breathe in. Expand your internal spaciousness by breathing deeply in. Let your ribs expand to the front, sides and back.

* The mind is a powerful tool. If you can’t move due to injury or circumstance, move what you can (e.g., shake out just your right hand if your left hand isn’t available) or imagine yourself moving. Just using your imagination will have almost the same effect!

breathing along bones pigeonThink of somebody who is strong.
Now thing of somebody flexible.

If you’re like me, not only did you think of two different people. On the surface, two wildly different people.

But when I look more closely at that strong person and the flexible one, both of them are both. The strongest people I know are amazingly flexible and the most flexible have deep strength.

Strength and flexibility. While we often think of them as two separate things, just like the inhalation and exhalation are two sides of a breath, strength and flexibility are two sides of the same thing.

Strength and flexibility has been a topic on Focus Pocus over the years (if you haven’t read them, or even if you have, you might be interested in Creating Flexibility with Strength, Soft Strength, and Strength in Length).

Our culture tends to think that strength looks like this

breathing along bones strong guy

And flexibility looks like this

breathing along bones flexible woman

Apples and oranges, right? But in the body, it doesn’t work like that. In order for one part of the body to contract, another has to lengthen. Strength and flexibility are inextricably linked: our bodies can’t do one without the other. When we look more closely at The Body’s Way, strength and flexibility are most definitely not apples and oranges, but rather … um … a delicious layered apple and orange parfait.

In Nia, we use the Five Sensations of Fitness – Stability, Mobility, Agility, Strength and Flexibility – to increase health and well-being in the body. (In my practice, I also call them the Five Sensations of Life, since I find that all five sensations benefit every aspect of me.)

Strength is defined as energy moving in toward the bones and Flexibility as energy moving out along the bones. When I move with strength and flexibility I am really just breathing along my bones. In and out. Contract, release. I can’t do one without the other.

Where ever you are right now, sit up straight and squeeze your upper back, drawing the muscles between your shoulder blades together (drawing the energy toward the bones). As you do, notice what happens along your collarbones and in your upper chest.

Now stretch your left arm up and over your head and tip to the right, letting your left ribs open. Feel the energy move out along the bones on the left side and squeeze into the bones on the right.

Understanding this strength/flexibility balance of in and out, can help us when we are self-healing muscle soreness or injury. If, for example, your left hamstring is sore, stretch it by engaging the opposing muscles (the quadriceps) in the leg and do the same on the other side. If you have an injury in your right shoulder that only allows you to move it to shoulder height, then do the same on the left even if the left isn’t injured. The more I understand the way the body balances itself – front and back, left and right, up and down — the more I can help it heal and even avoid injury in the first place.

This balance of strength and flexibility is happening all the time. Every time we move, our muscles are breathing in and out along the bones. This week, play with noticing that breath. It’ll be yummy. Just like an apple orange parfait.

DragonLily purpleYears ago, my teacher Carlos approached me at breakfast.
I was so excited and moved so quickly that I spilled tea all over his shoes.

I am agile. A dragonfly.
Sometimes, I could use more mobility.
A little more water lily.

Knowing how we do what we do is powerful. Awareness of my tendencies gives me choices.

Mobility: the constant flow of movement around the joints.
Agility: quick, crisp starts and stops.

Both increase fitness in the body (and mind) but most of us tend toward one more than the other.
Dancing with both creates health and well-being.

Be a DragonLily.

DragonLily whiteCarrie usually flows into 4:30 yoga just as it starts. I overheard in the locker room that she is a teacher, so she just has time to make it across town from the middle school. With her loosely braided, long blonde hair, her complicated earrings, and her Heely high tops, I was sure she taught art or English, but no, she’s just the coolest math teacher you ever did see.

I’d seen her many times, but for the first time on a recent afternoon she slipped into class and unrolled her mat next to mine.

For better or worse, I find myself affected by the yogis and yoginis who are practicing around me. It happens during Nia class, too, that I am touched by the energy of the dancers around me. Depending upon what’s happening in the neighboring spaces, I can get distracted or inspired. If someone’s fidgety or anxious, focused or rock solid, it ripples onto my mat. I focus on my own movement, I do, but somehow I can feel the practice that’s happening near me.

When Carrie set up next to me, a graceful softness unfolded as she unfolded her towel. It felt like a flower had just bloomed next to my mat. She moved from posture to posture like a time-lapse nature film of a water lily. Opencloseinout.  Her movements glided together with no sharp edges, only petals folding over each other and then unfurling again. Lovely to behold, it was.

Breathing in her gracefulness, I shifted my attention more clearly back to my own postures. And I was aware of a certain, how shall I say?, contrast. I noticed that I stopped and started quickly and sharply. Palms snapped together. Twist, shift, open, close. My first reaction was one of negative comparison which in my head was a whining 7-year-old, “Noooo, I want to be a flowwwer like Carrrrie!!” But as I watched my own crisp movements and sensed Carrie’s fluidity, I could see the gifts in both.

I was the dragonfly to her water lily.

In Nia, we train, condition, and heal the body with 5 Sensations of Fitness — Stability, Flexibility, Strength, Agility, and Mobility. Each sensation contributes in different ways to the health and well-being of the body. We all tend to gravitate toward some more than others.

For some people, one sensation comes to the fore. You might call it a “Signature Sensation.”

Carrie’s Signature Sensation appears to be mobility: the constant flow of movement around the joints. My Signature Sensation (in yoga, anyway) is agility: quick, crisp starts and stops. Both are essential for increasing fitness in the body. Mobility creates ease and relaxation in the muscles and nervous system, lubricates the joints, and activates supporting, intrinsic muscles. Agility strengthens connective tissue and large, extrinsic muscles, and sharpens the nervous system with its precision.

My yoga habit is to hang out in my agile dragonfly style, but practicing next to Carrie, I started playing with letting a little flow into my flitting. I stepped my feet more softly in and out of postures. As we moved to the floor, I let my hands gently float down to my sides instead of plop and firmly flip. I experimented with relaxing my eyes and breathing more deeply. I let the postures emerge and evolve more; sharply start and stop less.

Offering the body both mobility and agility creates balance and flow. Both sensations increase our fitness and well-being. And, of course, we can benefit from our awareness of mobility and agility not just in the body.

Notice if you tend toward dragonfly (agility) or water lily (mobility) in your physical movement. How do you move on your mat, in the studio, at your desk*, across the parking lot, or around the kitchen. Then notice your thoughts: do you flit from one thing to another crisply or flow seamlessly? Emotions, too: to you tend to swing sharp or drift fluidly?

Once you recognize your tendency, experiment with its opposite (if neither really feels like you, stay tuned, next week we’ll play with Strength and Flexibility **). Play with introducing more lily-ness if you are a dragonfly and vice versa. Breaking habits of all kinds create new pathways in the brain and new possibilities in everything we do.

Since she usually comes in after me, I just have to hope that Carrie will blossom on her mat near me again soon. In the meantime, I still like to scoot and shoot around on my mat, but I am enjoying letting my hands and shoulders flow more lily-like and softening my sparkly dragonfly eyes.

* In the midst of writing this post, my hand shot out across my desk, knocked my cup and spilled my tea on my keyboard. I zoomed around, cleaned up the mess, found a screwdriver and dried the inside of my keyboard. Dragonfly. Very dragonfly.  And evidently, dragonflies swear like sailors.

** A Note About Stability: Stability is the first and last of the 5 Sensations of Fitness. Stability, defined as energy radiating out from center equally in all directions, is necessary for any of the other four to happen. As you notice mobility and agility this week, also notice how stability plays a role.

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