Functional Fitness

FOCUS POCUS NOTE! FocusPocus is now one complete post (art, focus, playlists and announcements) all together on Thursdays! So whether you come to the blog for the art, the information, the music or the latest happenings and offerings, you are in the right place. Every Thursday, you’ll get it all. Thank you so much for being here.

A dear friend of mine had a stroke several years ago. I love spending time with her and witnessing her courage and determination to keep her body moving and to heal. She is positive and optimistic and is grateful that the stroke happened on the left side of her brain so she is able to use her right, dominant hand. Sometimes we talk about how different her life is now. I asked her once what she missed most and without hesitation, she said, “I miss walking smoothing and being able to do things with both hands.”

So often do I take for granted my ability to move through spaces easily, open a jar of tahini, and drive my husband’s big red truck (both hands on the wheel!). Spending time with her reminds me to appreciate the small miracles my hands and feet, and in particular my thumbs and big toes allow me to perform.

As my friend points out, it’s not just one opposable thumb, but TWO that make our daily tasks so amazingly easy. Have you ever had an injury to one hand or thumb and suddenly realize what you are unable to do? I loved this piece about just that.

The thumbs are, of course, the largest finger on the hand and the strongest. It’s how we grip and pull and squeeze. It can also be where we hold tension. Right now, take the thumb of one hand and massage the big muscle at the base of your other thumb. Then give it a shake out and see if you were holding tension there.

Thumbs also are helpful in orienting the upper body. The whole hand is full of stretch receptors which are part of the proprioceptive system which allows us to sense ourselves in space. The thumb is a big part of that system that helps the nervous system to relax by knowing where we are and how to get where we’re going. The orientation of the thumb is also how we shift the orientation of the shoulder joint. You can do it right now by turning one thumb left and right with the opposite hand on your shoulder. Feel that rotation? Pretty cool, right?

Energetically, the thumbs are the nurturing finger. Think of a baby sucking its thumb for comfort and how when hands are in prayer, the thumbs rest at the heart. Focusing on the thumbs gives us a chance to mindfully choose what we want to nurture in this moment.

It’s in my yoga practice that I tend to notice my big toes the most. Balance is challenging for me but pouring awareness into the big toe helps me find and keep myself balanced. Focus on the big toe directs energy down the inside of my leg where it is most stable and roots me strong.

The big toe isn’t just about rooting down. This largest, strongest toe is also about propelling us when we walk and move. Many of us spend most of our time with our feet encased in shoes. So even if you’ve never had a foot injury, it’s likely that your feet have been in “casts” of shoes for most of your life. The restriction that happens when we are in shoes prevents the full range of motion through the toe and foot and that has surprising ramifications.

As this piece from Yoga Journal points out, big toe movement strengthens the arch of the foot and the arch of the foot is connected with the chain of muscles up the back of your leg, so “weak big-toe flexors, the muscles that bend the toe, may change the strength and effectiveness of your largest glute muscle, gluteus maximus.”

Focus on strength and mobility in thumbs and big toes ripples throughout the body. I’d love to hear what you noticed this week in your practice. Leave a comment below and we can all learn from each other!

Here are our playlists for the week. If you’d like to listen to the music, you can find almost all the songs on Spotify (you can listen for free)! As always, please let me know if you have any questions about any of the music we dance to!

There are THINGS happening, you guys! So before the playlists, here is all the details on what’s coming up!

Nourishing Movement Classes at the Studio at Dancing Water on Thursday mornings at 11am!
Nourishing Movement classes with Susan on Thursdays at 11am ~~ my mix of guided and unguided movement, meditation and creativity! Please go to for the details. Come join us in the trees by the river for grounded, flowing, spacious movement. Second Thursdays are followed by a pot luck lunch! Nourish yourself with movement and bring something nourishing to share! There is space in upcoming classes so please go HERE to sign up!
* The Studio at Dancing Water is at 2370 Old Lynchburg Road ~ detailed directions at and via email when you sign up!

Four Thursdays of Nourishing Movement Classes at the Studio at Dancing Water in February!
Let the love flow in February! Four Nourishing Movement classes on Thursdays, Feb 6, 13, 20 and 27 from 11am-1215pm for just $40. Put pleasure and movement and yourself on the top of your list. Go here to join us!

Charlottesville Climate Collaborative Plant-Based Cooking Class on Monday, February 3, 6-8pm ~ CLASS IS FULL ~ GET ON THE WAITING LIST!
This is something I’ve been wanting to do for years: I am excited to be leading a plant-based, whole-food cooking class in collaboration with the Charlottesville Climate Collaborative on Monday, Feb 3, 6-8pm at Bread & Roses at Trinity Episcopal Church off Preston Avenue in Charlottesville! We will be preparing a simple, versatile, delicious, fun, whole food, plant based meal and sharing it together while talking about easy ways of giving plants a bigger place on our plates. Our class will introduce the concept of the Buddha Bowl – a nourishing, plant-based meal that is essentially a little bite of everything. The Buddha Bowl is a one-stop shop for proteins, grains, and veggies. It’s also super versatile – break it down for picky eaters or dress it up with sauces to impress your dinner guests. You can also prepare ingredients ahead of time and then repurpose for multiple weekday meals.
Space limited to 12 participants so please register by sending an email to and submitting a $10 donation here: Can’t wait to share a meal with you!

An Extra Day To Play ~ Guest Teaching on Saturday, Feb 8, 9-1010am at acac downtown!
It always feels like a special occasion when I get to guest teach for Anne on Saturday mornings! We’ll explore music and movement, sensation and space around the courageous choice to feel good AND to tolerate discomfort! See you then.

Full Moon Restorative Yoga with Shandoah ~ Moonday, February 10, 430-6pm CLASS IS FULL ~ GET ON THE WAITING LIST (THERE ARE ALWAYS CANCELLATIONS) AND Moonday, March 9, 430-6pm!
Shandoah Goldman returns to The Studio at Dancing Water (2370 Old Lynchburg Road, Charlottesville) to continue the full moon restorative practice! The full moon is a time of completion. The fullness of the cycle lends itself to a practice of non-doing. Join Shandoah for a deeply nourishing practice of restorative yoga. Using props to offer support and comfort, the body is invited to profoundly let go and unwind. Rather than efforting or stretching, this is the practice of releasing and relaxing. We’ll celebrate what is finished and soften into the next cycle. Shandoah is a gifted guide for deep release and is a Shiatsu practitioner offering hands on assists during class. All bodies welcome, no experience in yoga or anything else is needed. Email Susan at to get on the waiting list.
Monday (Moonday!), February 10, 430-6pm at The Studio at Dancing Water is FULL and please let me know if you’d like to be on the waiting list.
Monday (Moonday!), March 9, 430-6pm at The Studio at Dancing Water ~ $30, $25 if registered before Feb 28!

First Friday Freedance with Kate ~ Feb 7 at 11:25am
Nia Freedance is an opportunity to play and tap into the creative wisdom in our body, emotions, mind and spirit. For a full hour we get to dance together with the intention of stimulating our own unique movement creativity. The next Nia Freedance will be at ACAC Albemarle Square Friday, Feb 7 from 11:25 -12:25.

Resetting & Balancing the Nervous System with Mindful Practices & Herbal Nourishment: Book Signing and Workshop with Susan & Heather ~ Saturday, February 29, 2020 ~ 10am-12pm at Nourish Louisa

“Stop the glorification of busy….It is OK not to be busy. Repeat this with me: it is OK not to be busy.” ~ Joshua Becker
Mid-winter is the perfect time to look inward at the rush and tumble of our days and practice ways of reconnecting and restoring our frazzled nervous systems. Join teacher and artist Susan McCulley and Clinical Herbalist Heather Wetzel to explore a realignment of our busy, over-scheduled days at the beautiful Nourish Louisa shop ( at 205 W. Main Street, Louisa, VA 23093
10:00-11:00: Book signing and conversation about the counter cultural choice for presence and less busyness with Susan, author of Octabusy: How to Let Go in a Sea of Doing. Come talk with Susan, watch an art demonstration, and have a cup of something warm.
11:00 – 12:00: Susan and Heather will present a short workshop focusing on re-balancing body, mind, and spirit using mindfulness life hacks and herbal strategies for moving from the habitual responses of our nervous system’s “fright, flight, or freeze” reactions into a more balanced, flowing, and peaceful state of “rest and digest.”. Topics include:
· How to support yourself to be more centered, calm and relaxed.
· Physical and mindful practices that can bring you back to center and be done anywhere, no matter what is happening around you.
· Tastings (including recipes) of tried and true adaptogenic herbal preparations to enhance your resilience to stress
· New ideas to support and encourage graceful adaptation to change and less reactive to stress
We all need encouragement and new ideas to support us as we move through our fast-paced, stress-ridden world. Reserve your seat now as space is limited at! Saturday, February 29, 2020 ~ 10am-12pm ~ $15 ~ includes lunch and small drink of your choice / Limited to 12 participants.

Interview about Octabusy & Other Things on Lisa Jakub’s Embrace Your Weird podcast!
It was my honor and pleasure to have a conversation with Lisa Jakub about the seduction of busyness and ways of navigating it on her fantastic podcast, Embrace Your Weird. Please listen, share, review and spread the word! Go here to check it out!

Support local retailers by buying Octabusy
at New Dominion Bookshop on Charlottesville’s downtown mall (, 434-295-2552,
and at The Telegraph Art & Comics
and at the beautiful Nourish Louisa shop in downtown Louisa! Go here for more. I’ll be sharing more soon on events at this super-cool spot!
And just this week: both Buddha Cat and Octabusy are now available at the lovely Wine & Country Shop in Ivy! Please check them out here. It’s an amazing store full of wonderful finds, not just super-cool books!
You can also order signed copies of Octabusy (including discounts on multiple copies) now on my website at
and get Kindle and paperback editions on Amazon!
(And wherever you buy it, please leave a review there!)

As always, please let me know if you have questions or how I can help more.
Dance on. Shine on.
Susan sig

Monday, Jan 27, 2020, 1045am ~ Thumbs & Big Toes

The Rising 4:47 Bruce Springsteen
Bubble Toes 3:57 Jack Johnson
Luna 6:06 Ganga
Spinning the Wheel 6:24 George Michael
Under My Thumb (Paradise Mix) 3:28 Anakelly
Work That Body 5:35 Rodney Hunter
Toe Jam (Feat. David Byrne And Dizee Rascal) 3:22 The Bpa
Thumbs 3:36 Sabrina Carpenter
Catu (Vienna Sub Mix) 6:21 Ikarus
Popsicle Toes 4:34 Michael Franks
Sunsethighway 4:00 Kiln
Onwards 5:27 Afro Celt Sound System

Tuesday, Jan 28, 2020, 840am ~ Thumbs & Big Toes

The Rising 4:47 Bruce Springsteen
Bubble Toes 3:57 Jack Johnson
Luna 6:06 Ganga
Under My Thumb (Paradise Mix) 3:28 Anakelly
Work That Body 5:35 Rodney Hunter
Toe Jam (Feat. David Byrne And Dizee Rascal) 3:22 The Bpa
Thumbs 3:36 Sabrina Carpenter
Catu (Vienna Sub Mix) 6:21 Ikarus
Popsicle Toes 4:34 Michael Franks
Sunsethighway 4:00 Kiln
Onwards 5:27 Afro Celt Sound System

Thursday, Jan 30, 2020, 11am at the Studio at Dancing Water ~ Thumbs & Big Toes

Nature Boy (Live) 8:51 Beautiful Chorus
The Rising 4:47 Bruce Springsteen
Bubble Toes 3:57 Jack Johnson
Luna 6:06 Ganga
Under My Thumb (Paradise Mix) 3:28 Anakelly
Work That Body 5:35 Rodney Hunter
Toe Jam (Feat. David Byrne And Dizee Rascal) 3:22 The Bpa
Thumbs 3:36 Sabrina Carpenter
Catu (Vienna Sub Mix) 6:21 Ikarus
Popsicle Toes 4:34 Michael Franks
Sunsethighway 4:00 Kiln
Onwards 5:27 Afro Celt Sound System

Am I accepting bids for connection?

This preview of the focus for my classes this week underscores the small choices that we make all the time about whether to turn toward or turn away from any bid for our attention. Whether it’s in relationships, in movement, in community, or in the body, the more we turn TOWARD the bid rather than away, the more we ACCEPT the bid rather than reject it, the healthier our connections are.
I’ll post much more here on Thursday and for now, be on the lookout for bids for connection in all kinds of realms. I’d love to hear about what you notice.

choosing sides revolved head to knee pose
My first yoga class with Mia Hamza focused on the side body. Afterwards, my body’s increased ease, range of motion and depth of breath amazed me.

Inspired, I read Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews to understand more about what is physically happening in different postures and movements.

In particular, I appreciate Kaminoff’s definition of breathing (explained simply and briefly here) as “shape change in the abdominal and thoracic cavities.”

So, it makes sense that length and strength in back, core, and rib muscles allow for ease, range and breath. May you get on your good side, too.

don't just sit there woman sitting on bench“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death.” – Dr. James Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative

As a movement educator, avid yogi, biker and hiker, it’s safe to say that I’m active. Even so, I’m amazed at how much time I spend sitting ~ at my desk, in my car, at the table, watching movies. It’s kind of stunning.

A couple of weeks ago, my yoga teacher posted an article about the muscular ramifications of prolonged sitting. This brilliant article (please read it, it’s full of great information and helpful visuals) outlines how muscles compensate for the sitting for long stretches leaving some muscles tight (and overworked) and some muscles weak (and underworked). It’s called the Upper Crossed Syndrome (UCS) and Lower Crossed Syndrome (LCS) and the criss-crosses of tight and weak muscles result in shoulder, hip/lower back, knee and foot pain. (The article does a brilliant job of explaining the details of the muscles involved and the anatomical consequences, so I won’t recount them all here. Go read it!) Understanding the UCS and the LCS helps me see clearly why I’ve had issues in my shoulder, knee and even gives insights into the plantar fasciitis I occasionally grapple with.

The body is designed to move but our culture is designed to sit. Even fit folks are sitting a lot during the course of an average day. The UCS/LCS piece sparked my curiosity to look into the other consequences of extended sitting. What with the wonder of the World Wide Interwebs, it took me about 30 seconds to come across the phrase “sitting is the new smoking” (the phrase’s coiner, Dr. James Levine, is quoted above) and then to be inundated with articles and research about the health risks of sitting.

Holy first-world health hazards, people. Sitting increases the risk for obesity, muscular issues and joint pain, sure, but it’s not just that. Cancer. Heart disease. Diabetes. Depression. More. It’s a mess, I tell you. Sitting a lot makes a mess. (The phenomenon is fascinating in a frightening kind of way. If you’re interested in reading some more, you can find them here, here, and here but you’ve got the Interwebs, you can find even more, if you’re so inclined.)

So if extended sitting sets up not just structural imbalances but systemic health hazards AND if sitting is an inextricable part of life, what’s a person to do? In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about my personal strategy for combatting the tight, the weak, and the sad, sorry ails of sitting.

Principle 7 – Three Planes & Levels…the ups, downs, ins and outs

P7 up down out

The body has 13 major joints (see Principle 2!). The central joint, Number 7, is the spine (a strand of joints, actually). Is it a coincidence that Principle 7 is about moving up and down and out and in from the spine? I think not.

Three planes (low, middle, high) and three levels (in, out, full range) invite us to make movement and life choices from love rather than fear — allowing us to step into potential, to ride each cycle of what the body and mind can do now … and now … and now.

The Unofficial Guide
to the 13 Nia Principles
~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what the heck the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)

p7 pt 2 less is more

Principle 7, Part 2 – Three Intensity Levels

(This week’s principle covers a lot of territory so we started with Part 1 yesterday and today, we’re on to Part 2.)

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

Part 2: Three Intensity Levels

The Three Intensity Levels allow you to personalize every Nia move, encouraging you to adjust your movement to fit the moment. … Use the Three Intensity Levels to choose what is the best for you from moment to moment by monitoring your comfort, breath and the sensation of ease. Practice each move in a way that feels right for you and personalize your practice by making your own choices. Do not force your body to move like any other body; this creates unnecessary tension and can cause injury. When your body moves with ease, it naturally takes care of itself. Choose what feels good and replace effort with ease. Replace will with desire.

This part of Principle 7 encourages you to choose from three intensity levels when moving. Level 1 (movements are close to the core), Level 2 (increased range of motion / exertion) and Level 3 (full range of motion / exertion). The look and feel of the three levels are personal and unique to each person. Each level offers unique conditioning benefits for the body, mind, emotions and spirit and should be explored with equal passion and curiosity.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

“Less is More” ~ Robert Browning
“Less is more?? More is more!” ~ Susan, circa 2000 and intermittently thereafter

Three Intensity Levels is used in Nia to offer everyBody in every class a version of the movements that feels right – a version of the movements that can be executed with an easy breath and steady balance. The common assumption in Nia is that Level 3 is better than Level 1. In fact, all three levels have benefits for everyone and exploring all three in every class is ideal.

My friend Kate just returned from taking her Nia Black Belt training. In one class, she said the trainer taught the entire routine at Level 1. Kate’s experience was that she was more relaxed and even with complicated choreography, she felt that she had more time … and she still got a workout. My experience is that while I love the energy of Level 3 – reaching far out from my center – I find that my larger extrinsic muscles and my momentum often “skip over” my smaller, supporting intrinsic muscles. Level 1 is about conditioning my body close to the bone.

Practically and officially speaking, I use the Three Intensity Levels to modulate my energy over the course of a day, week, or a year. Just like in Nia, I find that if I’m going all-out Level 3 all the time with a full calendar and a busy schedule, I miss a lot of nuance and subtlety. Meditation, energetically speaking, is my daily Level 1 experience. When I sit, I notice what I might otherwise have “skipped over.” It also wakes up my awareness to what’s around me – the leaves changing in my neighborhood, the expression on my step-daughter’s face, the shift in Frank’s posture.

Most people (in Nia and in life) pick an Intensity Level and stick with it…all. the. time. You probably know people who are all-out, going full speed, burning-it-at-both-ends (Level 3). Others are more laidback, are easy going and doodle along at a relaxed pace (Level 1). Then there are the middle-of-the-road folks who stay the course, steady Eddy, without pushing too hard or taking it too easy (Level 2). Think about how you schedule and move through your days: which Level do you tend to go to? And which do you avoid?

For years, I was convinced that Level 3 was better than the other levels. If I could push it a little harder, reach a little further, do a little more, then it was better. But that’s not the way the body or our Selves work. There are benefits to all three levels and the most healthful way to move through a Nia class or a day is to have some of all three as part of it.

The Unofficial Guide
to the 13 Nia Principles
~ Practical, Nia-or-Not Applications for EveryBody

(Wondering what the heck the Unofficial Guide is and why I’m writing this series of posts? Click here!)


Principle 7, Part 1 – Three Planes of Movement

(This week’s principle is a big, rich, juicy one so we’ll start off with Part 1 and tomorrow, we’ll get to Part 2.)

Excerpt from the Official Nia Headquarters Description:

Part 1: Three Planes of Movement

The body is designed to build strength by moving as a whole. When we learn to walk, we begin by creeping on the floor, which prepares us to move into crawling, crouching and finally into standing and walking. These actions strengthen our core, upper and lower bodies, limbs, joints and respiratory and nervous systems. Moving through this process is how we develop strong, agile bodies, as well as emotional and mental adaptability. Nia teaches us that in order to maintain our natural movement potential throughout life, we must maintain the ability to move like a child.

This part of Principle 7 encourages you to move your body through three planes of movement along a vertical line: high, middle, and low. The range of motion within each plane is personal and unique to each person.

Unofficial Practical Nia-or-Not Application for EveryBody:

Principle 7 is a two-part principle with a bunch packed into it. Here is my short unofficial take on it:

Part 1 is physical and highly practical no matter what you do with your body…

Increase your strength, your cardiovascular fitness, and your youthfulness by moving your body up and down in relationship to the floor.

Part 2 can also be physical but it applies to non-physical activities, too…

Vary your intensity levels based on your needs (not just the needs of other or the situation) at the moment to create more health, ease, and longevity.

Part 1 of Principle 7: Three Planes of Movement offers a natural, dynamic approach to creating functional physical fitness. By moving your body up and down along the vertical line, you create more strength (especially in the base and the heart) and – super cool bonus! — more youthfulness. This approach is one of the most powerful things we can do and it is one that is often neglected, even by experienced movers.

As adults, we are trained to stay in the middle plane: moving from bed to standing to chair (and car) and back again. Somehow, it’s not dignified to get down low or reach up high. When people peek into a Nia class, one of the comments I often hear is, “Why do you get on the floor?” My answer is always, “Because getting up and down off the floor is one of the best things you can do for your body.” (Cue eyebrow waggling and skeptical face-making from class-peeker.) But it’s true, moving your physical center — your hara (located two inches below your navel) — up and down even a little has tremendous health benefits for bones, muscles, spine, and heart.

Imagine your hara is like an airplane and it leaves a vapor trail behind it as you move through the day. The more up and down that trail goes, the better for your body. So when you drop your towel on the floor, drop your center down to the floor to pick it up. If your child or your pet wants to play, you go down to the floor with them rather than picking them up to sit on the couch with you. If you need something off the top shelf, see if you can reach it instead of asking a taller person to get it for you. Even small variations in the plane that your body travels in can have a huge positive impact.

Don’t take my word for it: do it yourself. Set a timer for 30 seconds and get down and up off the floor as many times as you can and see what your heart rate does! In Nia class, really experiment with taking your hara (not your head but your center point) up and down in relationship with the floor…see how you feel!

Tomorrow, we’ll get into Part 2 which is not just physical but, well, you’ll see. See you then.

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