Three Planes & Levels

Twenty years ago, Nia Technique Founder Carlos Rosas created the routine Bliss. I was a new Nia student at the time and remember the buoyant, powerful feeling when I danced the routine. I felt like I was flying.

In the intervening years, I come back to some of my favorite songs from Bliss but I rarely teach the routine as a whole. This week, Mary Linn and I will teach our interpretation of this classic routine together on Monday and Thursday* and I’ll offer my own Bliss-ish playlist on Tuesday and Wednesday**.

The original music of the routine is largely selections from Rae & Christian’s 1998 album Northern Sulphuric Soul. I love the variety of sounds and the rich, passionate vocals in these tracks which offer ears and imagination and bones a playground. Bracketing Rae & Christian are three pieces from Shantel’s Higher Than the Funk album, also from 1998. These have a meditative pulsing quality that help my thinking mind relax and my body to explore.

Carlos’ focus was on the balance between gravity’s grounding and the electromagnetic pull up. The image he used was the flame: fueled and rooted to the source while pouring energy up. After dancing this focus in different ways over the years, I think of this energetic balance as the way humans soar. The way we can fly is to push up out of the Earth itself. Earth grounds us and Heaven pulls us. In our bodies, the 1st and 7th Chakras create that even energy pull of rooted and expansive.

And, as Buddha Cat (that wise creature) reminds me, a simpler view of this focus is the balance between up and down.

Please experience Bliss this week — either with us in the studio or wherever you are.

* Bliss with Susan & Mary Linn
Monday, May 14, 1045am-12noon, acac albemarle square
Thursday, May 17, 840-940am, acac downtown
Thursday, May 17, 630-730pm, acac albemarle square

** Bliss-ish with Susan
Tuesday, May 15, 840-940am, acac downtown
Wednesday, May 16, 11-1215pm, acac albemarle square


Dive into the realm of the heart and find layers to explore, sense, and heal.


Build strength in the heart and mobility in the body by moving the heart around in space. Taking it up and down, side to side, front and back — even without moving the feet — develops cardiovascular strength.

In Nia, we use the three planes of movement to build cardiovascular health. Moving the heart, even slightly, low middle and high gives powerful training to this all important muscle. Early in my Nia training, at my Blue Belt with Carlos Rosas we were working through the 52 moves of Nia. We went through them one by one, over and over so we could feel the nuances of each move. There are only 7 Core moves, so when we began them I thought, “Easy peasy!” But when we got to Spinal Rolls, we’d only done about 6 before I was sweating. What in the world? “That,” said Carlos, “is the power of the three planes.”


The emotional energy of the heart is (not shockingly) compassion. The heart chakra (or energy center) has two aspects — one in the front in the center of the chest and one in the back between the shoulder blades. The front aspect is where we feel love, happiness, joy. The back aspect is where we feel sadness, grief, sorrow. A healthy emotional heart is balanced between the two: front and back, light and dark.

Years ago, after a long, drawn-out breakup, I got a massage. Face down on the table, the therapist asked me how I was doing. “Oh, I’m FINE,” I said. “Just FINE. It was a long time coming and the right thing to do.” But when she put her hand on the middle of my back she said, “Your heart feels like concrete.” As the warmth of her hand softened into my back, I started to cry. Grief and sadness were trapped in my “FINE” heart chakra.

I recommend this short piece on healing and balancing the energetic heart.


What is your heart’s desire? What do you feel pulled to do with your one precious life?

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.” ~ Martha Graham

Graham is talking about your heart spirit, that energy which is uniquely yours and which is really a combination of the energy of your Will Center at your solar plexis and your Expression Center at your throat. Be alert to those “urges that motivate” you. Pay attention and follow them. The world needs your heart spirit.

About the Art

Sometimes I get ideas for pieces in the misty squishy place between sleeping and waking. That’s what happened here: an image of a layered piece reflecting the aspects of the heart materialized at about 5am (and then there was no more sleeping).

The first layer is a simple image of the physical heart painted in shades of green (the color for the Heart Chakra).

The second is a collage of green hearts over the painting ~ all cut from a Yoga Journal magazine that a friend gave me this week!

The third is a collage of tissue paper hearts in yellow (color of Solar Plexis Chakra) and blue (color of Throat Chakra) over the other two layers.


The grumbling inside my head gets loud.

“How long is he going to keep us doing this?” it says, all cranky and indignant.

The Nia training was more than a decade ago but I can feel it clearly right now. I’m standing in a room full of Nia teachers, learning the 52 basic moves of the practice by doing each one for a minute. We’ve gone through the stances and steps, and now we’re on Spinal Rolls.* I feel my body temperature and heart rate go up and I’m sure Carlos has made a mistake.

The minute has to be up by now.

We’re all fitness professionals, after all. And we’re all breathing heavier and starting to sweat. But no, in his calmly precise way, Carlos was exactly on time. We had done Spinal Rolls for exactly a minute. You’ve heard of people who are head strong. Turns out, moving the heart up and down and around in a big circle makes us heart strong.

One of the powerful benefits about the Nia Technique is that it builds cardiovascular strength by moving the heart in relationship to gravity instead of jumping and pounding on the joints. By taking the heart through the three planes of movement – high, middle and low – the heart gets stronger. The more we move the heart around, the more heart strong we get.

In both my Nia and Vinyasa Yoga practices, we use the Power of the Three Planes to build the heart’s strength and fitness. By lifting high and dropping low, by folding down and unfolding up, we increase the heart’s capacity. Over time, as I move my heart through the three planes, I can adapt to larger ranges of movement and greater overall health and fitness.

What is true for my physical heart is also true for my emotional heart. My willingness to feel my “lower”emotions of sadness, grief and anger expands my capacity to feel my “higher” emotions of joy, love and passion.

While our culture puts tremendous focus on positive thinking, Tori Rodriguez wrote in the 2013 Scientific American article:

In fact, anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. (Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being, May 1, 2013)

This is not about manufacturing drama to create higher highs and lower lows (Life tends to do that without our help). This is about feeling what is there in the moment. Just as I resist getting up and down off the floor or doing a minute of spinal rolls, I can resist feeling the full anger I feel about injustice, or the full grief over the loss of a friend, or the full sadness at the death of a dream. Instead, if I can allow myself to feel it all, I’m stretching my heart muscles to allow in the full range of life.

It may feel more comfortable to stay in the half-way middle ground, but literally and figuratively such mushy middle-ism is the ticket to a slow death. Get heart strong: allow yourself to go low, middle and high.

*How to do a Spinal Roll:
Standing in “A” Stance, inhale deeply and look up and sense the front of your body lengthening and opening. Use your hands for support and slide them down your legs, keep looking up while sinking to a point at which your body says, “Enough, I can’t go farther.” Then gently drop your head and look down, exhale and round up, pushing your heels into the floor, while sliding your hands back up your legs to return to a standing posture. Do the whole movement smoothly, and coordinate your leg and spine mobility. You can also do spinal rolls going in the opposite direction, by tucking your chin and dropping the crown of your head straight down, then at the bottom of the movement, look up and dive back up. Benefits: Practicing Spinal Roll keeps your spine strong and flexible. It’s terrific for self-healing the spine and back and it improves cardiovascular strength while warming up the whole body.

Other Posts about the 3 Planes of Movement are here and here.

big mind Jessica_ScowlingMy teachers (and Principle 7) invite me to choose the level of intensity that is right for me. Say that and – BOOM – I’m in tight mind.

The trouble with tight mind is that it’s crowded: full of “shoulds,” “do I have to?s,” beliefs about getting it right, fear of discomfort.

The trouble with tight mind is that Lazy Daisy and Eager Beaver Overachiever are in there and those two do NOT get along.

When choosing movement intensity, better to go with Big Mind. Spacious, body~centered, present moment Big Mind. That’s where eons of wisdom is. There, the choice is obvious.

big mind knitting eyebrowsMy whole adult life, I’ve been a student of movement. I started in college with traditional aerobics classes and strength training. In those situations, the instruction was clear: do this as much (or as fast or as hard) as you can. Simple. Boom. Go.

Go all-out or go home. Black or white. This, my mind could grasp. And grasp it it did. Tight like a vise.

When I started taking more holistic, mind~body- focused classes, everything got fuzzy and gray-zy in a hurry. Starting with my first yoga class more than 20 years ago until just this morning in my vinyasa practice, my teachers are always tossing around little phrases like,

“Choose the level that’s right for you.”


“Find the variation on the pose that feels best right now.”


“Move in a way that is both challenging and healing.”

All these yoga teachers and Nia teachers and movement teachers tossing little grenades around that lodge in and then immediately explode in my tight mind.

“Choose the level that’s right for me”? What the Sam Hill is that?

My mind reels. (Poor thing is nostalgic for the black and white days of “go all out, period.”) The trouble, it turns out, is that crammed into my tight little mind are two voices (that’s not true, there is a teeming throng of voices in my mind but on this particular subject there are two): Lazy Daisy and Eager Beaver Overachiever.

When my teacher says “Find the variation that is best for you right now,” Lazy Daisy pipes right up. Lazy Daisy absolutely hates anything that is uncomfortable or difficult or awkward. She wants to take it easy. She is afraid of discomfort of any kind.

“Let’s just go easy,” she says. “Let’s just take a breath and…”

In two-tenths of a second, Eager B. Overachiever interrupts her. “C’mon! We can do more than this! No pain, no gain! More is better! Bigger is harder and harder is better! Arrrghh!” (Eager B. is a big fan of pirate noises.)
“Wait, hey, that feels like too much,” says Lazy Daisy. “The teacher says to move in a way that’s easy…”
“ ‘EaseFULL!’ ” says Eager Overachiever, “not easy. And she says to challenge ourselves! So let’s go deeper and do more! ARrrgh!” (E.B.O. also loves exclamation points!)

“But we hurt our foot (hip/knee/ankle/shoulder) is injured,” Lazy Daisy whines. “We need to rest it and stop moving.”

“Oh pul-ease. It’s not that bad. We can work through the pain. That’s the best way to heal it,” says The Dread Pirate Eager Overachiever!

Well. I expect you can see where it goes from here. It’s a crazy shouting match between the two of them and I’m standing by listening as they go back and forth, watching it like a ping pong match. Meanwhile, my body is moving in the medium, habitual way I always do. I’m hypnotized by the two quarreling residents of my snarled up mind. The noise from the fighting is so loud, I completely forget to listen to my body.

In Nia, Principle 7 suggests choosing from the Three Levels of Intensity: Level 1, movements close to center; Level 2, larger movements away from center; and Level 3, full range of motion. As a teacher, I say this like it’s obvious. As a teacher, I gently toss these little mind grenades of “both challenging and healing.” As a student, it’s not that simple. As a student, I feel confused as I grapple with figuring out the right level of intensity for me…because I’m listening to my mind.

Or rather, I’m listening to my Tight Mind. My Tight Mind knits my eyebrows and makes my breath go shallow. My Tight Mind has been trained by almost 51 years of living, and by the messages from much of mainstream fitness and popular culture. The trick is to shift the mind I’m listening to, to listen instead to my Big Mind. My Big Mind is the mind that feels sensation in the present moment. Big Mind draws on the wisdom of millennia of evolution. Big Mind understands the Three Levels easily.

My yoga teachers invite me to choose movement that is challenging enough to keep me focused and compassionate enough to allow full and even breath. Rather than the Tight Mind approach thinking and figuring out what level of intensity I need, yoga teaches me to feel it with my Big Mind.

Approaching my practice from Tight Mind will keep me twisted up and confused, moving out of habit. The trouble with Tight Mind is that it’s like expecting two over-tired, anxious 7-year-olds to sort out a disagreement. When I follow this Big Mind, body-centered approach, Lazy Daisy and Eager B. Overachiever curl up in the back seat and get some rest.

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.

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