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It’s a miracle that I never threw my computer out the window when I was building my web site. Not a Mother Theresa kind of miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

All I needed was a simple site where I could tell people about my teaching and events, showcase my writing and art and maybe, if I wanted to get fancy, take payments for my work. The site-building platform ad said “the simplest way to create a beautiful website.” Simple and beautiful was what I wanted. The ad said I could have a site up in 15 minutes. I’m not a dimwit. I am well aware that I’m a not-tech-savvy middle-aged artist. I figured it would take me 45 minutes. Maybe 50.

It took me weeks. Weeks and weeks. I watched dozens of tutorial videos starring hip groovy people younger than my step kids. I looked at pages and pages of templates. I had an intimate relationship with the help desk. (Those poor people must have seen my facile messages come in and arm wrestled for who had to respond to me. They were always kind and cheerful, bless them.)

I didn’t want to build a web site. I would have preferred to hire someone to build it for me. But my business is small and not only did I not want to spend the money on a designer, I wanted to have the flexibility to make changes and additions on my own.

It took me weeks and weeks to build my site. I swore a lot. And more than once I really really wanted to throw my computer out the window. But I didn’t. And now I have a simple site where I tell people about my teaching and events, showcase my writing and art, and it even takes payments.


Here’s how I like to do Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana): I like to put my elbow on my bent leg and extend my top arm over my head. Annoyingly, my teacher Kelly often has us do the pose differently. Sometimes, she’ll have us “cactus” the top arm so the shoulder blade draws toward the spine, opening the chest. Sometimes, she has us lift the bottom arm so it’s parallel with the top one to build core and side-body strength. I hate it when she does that.

Here’s what she says when I make grumpy faces at her: “Move into skill by moving away from preference.”


In his fascinating book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg says that 40-45% of what we do every day is habit. Many of those things feel like decisions, but they are actually deeply ingrained unconscious patterns.

Habits are the brain’s way of being more efficient and saving energy. But if we want to keep our brains and bodies strong and robust, we have to be willing to recognize and break habits. Or as Kelly says, we have to be willing to move into skill by moving away from preference.

Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher, author, essayist and poet, Dr. Norman Doidge explains in his book, The Brain that Changes Itself that

…just doing the dances you learned years ago won’t help your brain’s motor cortex stay in shape. To keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus. That is what will allow you to both lay down new memories and have a system that can easily access and preserve the older ones. (p. 88)

This is why mindful, attentive movement is more beneficial to the whole body-mind system than mindlessly watching TV or texting while on the treadmill. It’s not just the muscles of the body we want to keep strong and healthy but the “muscles” of the mind/body system.

Feldenkrais, one of the foundational movement forms of The Nia Technique focuses on moving out of habit and preference and into a wider range of possibility. By paying attention to the details of how we do what we do, we can recognize parts of the self that are not moving, efforting unnecessarily, or are out of awareness. As the brain recognizes additional possibilities, the new information is organized and distributed through the whole body leading to overall improvement of ease in the nervous system. Practicing mindful movement like yoga, Feldenkrais and Nia helps us live more fully, comfortably, and effectively by expanding the repertoire of possible ideas, options, and movements.

Paradoxically, moving away from preference (and perhaps through some uncomfortable computer-throwing moments) not only moves us into skill but into greater health and ease. Move into skill by moving away from preference.
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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.

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This week we’ve explored what it means for an activity to be a practice — and in particular, we’ve looked at the basic components of the practice of Nia. To do that, we danced a routine I created in 2014 called Practical Joy that takes us through the 13 Principles. Plus it works the butt like nobody’s business.

Many thanks to all who offered their insights into what makes something a practice. We’ll end the week with some thoughts from Alison about her two practices:

NIA and meditation complement and combine to nourish mind, body and spirit. However I approach either practice, it recalls the other, and rather than “leave” my dance or sit, I like to bring the practice along to help me be aware and grateful for the rest of my day/life.

You can find all playlists below or you can choose to listen to them by going to Spotify! You can listen for free at Spotify! Sign up for free, follow me at “susanmcculley” and you’ll find my public playlists ~ just click and listen!

First a couple of announcements about upcoming happenings:

• Saturday Play Date with Susan ~ Saturday, May 14, 9am, acac downtown Studio A
What do you do when it’s going to be (another) rainy Saturday? Set up a play date, of course! A definition of play that I read recently on Todd Hargrove’s Better Movement blog is a repeated movement pattern with some variation. Just what we do in Nia! Join me to celebrate Dance Like A Chicken Day (I know, right?) with some Prince mixed in.

• AFRI-Cardio with Live Drumming on Friday May, 20 at acac Downtown, Group Ex Studio
AFRI-CArdio is a fusion of West African Dance and a great cardio workout. This class will be accompanied by members of Charlottesville Drum Choir. The live drumming will amplify the energy and offer a more authentic, traditional dance-workout experience. There is no choreography to learn, instead the goal is to relax, groove to the rhythms and forget you are sweating. EVERYONE WELCOME, even if it’s your 1st time taking AFRI-CArdio. NO dance experience (of any kind) required! If you can breathe, you can do this class. Christine studied dance in Guinea, West Africa and returned -burning with joy for this dance-style . She created AFRI-CArdio as a way to share that passion with others. She is kind, inspiring, inclusive and easy to follow. Jason, Rosie and Kevin (Cville drum choir) have studied traditional West African rhythms for many years. They all find joy and peace in the creation and participation of music-making.

• Ageless Grace at Buck Mountain Episcopal Church in Earlysville with Sheila Queen ~ Every other Saturday, starting May 21, at 11 a.m. in Deese Hall
A wellness program for all ages and abilities, Ageless Grace combines physical activity, brain exercises, imagination, and a sense of humor with music to stimulate a sense of pleasure and well being. Movements address joint mobility, spinal flexibility, brain coordination, and more. The class is done seated, making it inviting for those who may have physical limitations or balance issues. There is NO choreography to learn. All you need are comfortable clothes and a willingness to try something new! Join us and bring a friend. Suggested $5 donations help pay for this class and support Buck Mountain’s Health & Wellness Ministry.

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

*** PLAYLIST NOTE: My playlists can also be found on Spotify https://www.spotify.com/us/ by following “susanmcculley” (no space) and look for Public Playlists. Sometimes music is not available on Spotify so I may replace with another version or skip songs . ***

Monday, May 9, 2016, 1045am ~ Welcome to Your Practice

Turn On, Tune In, Find Joy 5:04 Freakpower
Inlakesh 3:58 Lou Rhodes
Listen to the Music (DJ Malibu Mix) 5:01 The Doobie Brothers
I’m Free 3:51 Soupdragons
Heal Me 3:39 Melissa Etheridge
My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now 3:10 Buckwheat Zydeco
Get Up and Get Down 3:10 The Dramatics
Groove Is In The Heart 3:52 Deee-Lite
Sweet Hands 3:37 Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Dr. Bones 3:34 Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
Back In Business 5:13 Madonna
You Learn 3:59 Alanis Morissette
Sense Of Purpose 3:03 The Pretenders
Subtle Body 7:02 Wayne Jones

Tuesday, May 10, 2016, 840am ~ Welcome to Your Practice

Turn On, Tune In, Find Joy 5:04 Freakpower
Inlakesh 3:58 Lou Rhodes
Listen to the Music (DJ Malibu Mix) 5:01 The Doobie Brothers
I’m Free 3:51 Soupdragons
Heal Me 3:39 Melissa Etheridge
My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now 3:10 Buckwheat Zydeco
Get Up and Get Down 3:10 The Dramatics
Groove Is In The Heart 3:52 Deee-Lite
Sweet Hands 3:37 Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Dr. Bones 3:34 Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
Back In Business 5:13 Madonna
You Learn 3:59 Alanis Morissette
Sense Of Purpose 3:03 The Pretenders
Let It Go 2:16 Jamie Catto & Alex Forster

Wednesday, May 11, 2016, 11am ~ Welcome to Your Practice

Turn On, Tune In, Find Joy 5:04 Freakpower
Inlakesh 3:58 Lou Rhodes
Listen to the Music (DJ Malibu Mix) 5:01 The Doobie Brothers
Freedom 6:31 George Michael
Heal Me 3:39 Melissa Etheridge
My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now 3:10 Buckwheat Zydeco
Get Up and Get Down 3:10 The Dramatics
Groove Is In The Heart 3:52 Deee-Lite
Sweet Hands 3:37 Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Dr. Bones 3:34 Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
Back In Business 5:13 Madonna
You Learn 3:59 Alanis Morissette
Sense Of Purpose 3:03 The Pretenders
Subtle Body 7:02 Wayne Jones

Thursday, May 12, 2016, 840am ~ Welcome to Your Practice

Turn On, Tune In, Find Joy 5:04 Freakpower
Inlakesh 3:58 Lou Rhodes
Listen to the Music (DJ Malibu Mix) 5:01 The Doobie Brothers
Free 2:29 Donavon Frankenreiter
Heal Me 3:39 Melissa Etheridge
My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now 3:10 Buckwheat Zydeco
Get Up and Get Down 3:10 The Dramatics
Groove Is In The Heart 3:52 Deee-Lite
Sweet Hands 3:37 Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Dr. Bones 3:34 Cherry Poppin’ Daddies
Back In Business 5:13 Madonna
You Learn 3:59 Alanis Morissette
Sense Of Purpose 3:03 The Pretenders
Let It Go 2:16 Jamie Catto & Alex Forster

Saturday, May 14, 2016, 9am ~ Saturday Play Date

Twinkle Berry ‘The Belly Dancing Chicken’  4:39 Brent Lewis
When Doves Cry  4:04 The Be Good Tanyas
Mulatica Mia (Cuba Remix)  5:32 The Tao Of Groove
Dixie Chicken  3:56 Little Feat
No Quiero Nada Mas  4:46 Sancti Spiritus
Keep On Searching  5:08 Kraak & Smaak
Kiss  3:39 Prince
Baila Morena  4:10 Zucchero & Maná
Delirious  4:01 Prince
Chicken Payback  3:14 A Band of Bees
Follow Me, Chicken  5:11 Nathan Williams/Zydeco Cha-Chas
Little Red Rooster  3:07 The Rolling Stones
Shanti (Peace Out)  6:59 MC Yogi

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT NIA?

For more information about Nia and this rich system of training and learning? Everything Nia is at http://www.nianow.com…
If you’re traveling or moving, you can find a teacher or classes wherever you’re going.
Interested in teaching or deepening your practice? Check out the Nia White Belt Training. They are offered all around the world so you can find one near you or where you may want to go!

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Walking out of the yoga studio with my friend, Hannah, I said what I always say whenever she parks her mat and her amazing self near me in class:

“It was great to practice with you.”

She graciously said, “You, too!” And then she paused and said, “It took me a while to say ‘I practice yoga’ instead of ‘I do yoga.’”

Her comment got me to thinking: what does it mean to have a practice? How is a practice different than a hobby, or an exercise class that I go to? Is calling it a practice pretentious woo-woo lululemon doohockey?

While I was noodling on it, I asked some friends what they thought about having a practice. Here’s what Amy, Sarah and Gina said:

Practice means coming back…coming back into the pose…coming back to the present moment…coming back to intention…coming back even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable. It is the ability to stay with what is uncomfortable and breathe. ~ Amy Kidd

I have days that practice is painful. I have days when practice is hyperactive and unfocused and days where I’m downright lazy. I keep coming back because most of the time it makes me better than I was before. ~ Sarah Creef Baugher

A practice means … wanting always to do better but learning that some days your best may not be what it was yesterday or what it may be tomorrow. Having the ability to be ok with whatever it is today. ~ Gina Williams

A practice is something that I do whether I am in the mood for it or not. I hike when I am in the mood to hike. I read when I feel like reading. But I practice mindful movement – on the mat or the dancefloor – even when I’m cranky or tired or sad or angry. I sit in stillness whether I’m up for it or not.

A practice is a commitment. My job is to show up the best I can. Sometimes that looks like a pretty decent standing bow and sometimes it looks like a broken umbrella. Sometimes that looks like a solid 20-30 minutes of sitting and sometimes it looks like a squirmy 5 minutes. The outcome is not my business. Showing up is.

(P.S. Sometimes I don’t show up for my practice for a while. Sometimes a long while. The cool thing is, it’s waiting for me whenever I’m ready to come back. The most forgiving friend ever.)

Then this is what Deborah and Melissa and Lisa said:

The practice of yoga [helps me] look for calm and strength on my mat and off. I can look for lessons in asana and find stillness in the crazy around me. ~ Deborah Barry

My yoga practice is something I do to improve my skills at being alive, being present, and being human. ~ Melissa Simmons

My practice is a time to do exactly that – to practice things I want to implement in the rest of my life. A hobby is pure enjoyment in the moment, and I do enjoy the physical act of yoga postures, but my practice goes deeper to remind me of my core values and intentions for life off the mat. ~ Lisa Jakub

A practice extends beyond the activity itself. A practice informs everything else. I do a series of core exercises and stretches most every day, but when I’m not doing them, I’m not doing them. When I finish a yoga class or step out of a Nia class, the principles continue to affect how and what I do. I love riding my bike but riding bike isn’t something that rudders my choices. A practice expands until it is happening all the time.

(P.S. And sometimes my connection to my practice in the course of my life is intermittent at best. It’s okay, it’s a practice not a perfect. I just keep coming back as best I can.)

And finally:

My practice is a conversation with my higher self. It is recognizing how powerful and deserving I am individually because I am connected to everything else. This practice is self-empowering and allows me to see that same potential everywhere I look. ~ Sarah Creef Baugher

[My practice] is a structure that is done consistently and keeps me connected to a soulful intension. In this I try to stay more open to what emerges and it typically is unexpected. It has become a spiritual discipline that keeps me connected and more self-aware. ~ Hilary Nagel

A practice means taking care of my soul. ~ Gina Williams

Having a practice is a way of connecting to my highest values and my greatest potential. Having a practice isn’t necessarily a religious act (it isn’t for me) but it is a spiritual one. A practice connects me with that which is larger than myself.

A practice can be really any activity as long as it has these qualities: I do it whether I feel like it or not, it informs everything else I do and it connects me with something bigger than me.

Mahatma Gandhi (who was not my friend) said “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”* While my practice certainly is a way that I make my own life happier, it is also my best attempt at leaving the world better than I found it.

*As it turns out, Gandhi never said “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

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Comfort is king in our culture. So much so that sometimes I don’t notice what great lengths I go to stay that way. We heat and cool our houses to an exact temperature. Our beds have pillow tops and our shoes have cushiony insoles. Cars have personalized lumbar support, precision environmental controls, heated seats and sunroofs. We all like it the way we like it: super comfy.


In December of 2011, Carlos AyaRosas, co-founder of The Nia Technique, my teacher and trainer for more than a decade, retired from the practice. His departure knocked the wind out of me. I was already feeling disconnected and disillusioned with my teaching and now with Carlos gone I felt…well, I a lot of things that I did not want to feel.


It’s not just physical comfort that I crave. I want to feel comfortable mentally, too. That’s part of the reason habits are so seductive: they feel easy and “normal.” This morning I put a bracelet on my left wrist that I usually wear on my right. Shazam. My mind scrambled all day – prickling with the awkwardness of “different.” Break a habit and you’ll feel the squirm of discomfort.


Oddly enough (or maybe not), I spent my 4-month sabbatical in 2012 dancing to Carlos’ last routine, Humanity. In a way, I felt like he was still around since he was right there in my living room. So I pushed aside my feelings about him leaving, danced the Crazy Bird and the Criss-Cross Kick and pretended nothing had happened.

At the end of my sabbatical, I created two routines back-to-back and my practice felt full of energy. But sitting there on the edge of my desk, staring at me, was Carlos’ last routine. I was reluctant to teach it. First, I didn’t think it was his best work. There were strokes of brilliance but his heart didn’t seem entirely in it. Besides, to teach his last routine would stir up my feelings about his retirement and I didn’t want that.

So I avoided it. I eyed the file on the edge of my desk and let it sit there.


Feelings are messy, irrational, and replete with tears and runny noses. Sadness, anger, grief – we do our best to avoid them. We pretend they aren’t happening or dull them with our drug of choice. And it’s not just difficult emotions, but joyful ones that we resist feeling fully. I often deflect compliments instead of taking them in, or rush to the next thing instead of celebrating what I’ve accomplished. We prefer, somehow, to hang out in the unmessy middle – not feeling much of anything.


As much as I resisted and ignored them, as soon as I picked up Humanity again, my feelings about Carlos’ retirement floated fast to the surface. First, I was angry. I counted on him to deliver the work and teach me in his impeccable, sometimes confounding way. How could he leave and abandon us? Abandon me?

And I was afraid. What did his departure mean for the practice, my business, for me? Did I still want to teach Nia without him leading? What would happen to this practice into which I was so deeply invested?

And behind the fear was the biggest one: I was sad. I was so sad he was gone.


Moving toward and leaning into sensation – whether it is physical, mental or emotional – is like strengthening a muscle. The more I allow myself to feel — without resisting or running, grasping or holding on — the stronger my system becomes. I’m able to stay connected even when I’m in the swirl of sensation. Staying with sensation allows me to be present rather than panic. Staying with sensation allows me to respond rather than react. Staying with sensation allows me to be at peace with whatever is occurring.


As a way to honor Carlos and honor myself and all my messy feelings, I created a routine called Unity (because Unity is within hUmaNITY!). The routine blends his music and choreography with mine into an integrated piece. [You can read my original post about it here. ] The process of creating the routine gave me a chance to process the feelings and to let them move.

Comfortable is cool. I’m all for pillow tops and heated seats. But moving into, staying in sensation is how we transform and grow – physically, mentally, emotionally.

What are we here for anyway — in these bodies, in this life, in this world — but to feel it all?

When my husband, Frank, and I moved into a smaller house this summer, we designed the living space to optimize efficiency and ease. And when I say “we,” I mean Frank.

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A wide hallway had enough space for recycling and laundry and a kombucha-making station. One small, efficiently organized bathroom is provides both storage and a double shower. Frank’s office is actually elegantly built into a closet.

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In my office, instead of the oversized desk that I had, Frank built a small built-in one with cubbies for storage. He also made a little “standing desk shelf” so my computer can be easily shifted when I want to stand and work. And when I want to sit, I do it on an inflated physioball instead of a chair.

I love my ball-chair (except for that one time the cat miscalculated her jump into my lap and punctured it). I love the movement and comfort and awareness of sitting on a ball. And holy obliques, my core loves it, too. By sitting on an unstable ball, my core muscles are constantly firing to keep me from rolling off. Sometimes when I’m watching (yet another) TED Talk*, I’ll pick up my feet and let my core have an all-out stabilization party.

I’ve noticed the same sensation of core awakening as I learn Pulse, a new routine created by Kelle Rae Oien, one of the Nia Faculty Trainers. Kelle’s focus for the routine is the movement variety through the three “Arts” – Martial, Dance and Healing – but what *I* noticed immediately was that when I do this routine, my core wakes up and gets busy.

Pulse provides movements of balance and control, undulation and extension, explosiveness and (duh) pulsing to engage and stimulate the layers of muscle and connective tissue through the center of the body.

The core is the body’s source of power and grace and it requires more than crunches to function at its potential. Interested in waking up your core body? Find a variety of ways of moving to stimulate stabilization and mobility: contracting and crunching movements are great but also play with extending and reaching away from center, breathing deep and making sound, moving with precision and agility, fluidity and flow. Nia is a great way to do all these things, but so is yoga and dancing and, yep, sitting on a physioball with a cat in your lap.

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* Here are some of my current TED Talk favorites

Kathryn Schulz, On Being Wrong
Maragret Heffernan, Dare to Disagree
Bejamin Zander, Music and Passion
Elizabeth Gilbert, On Genius

And those don’t even include the ones from TEDx Charlottesville 2015:

Dr. Neal Kassell, Curing with Sound
Elliott Woods, Ever After: Finding Fulfillment in the Aftermath of War
Leslie Blackhall, Living, Dying and The Problem with Hope
Geoff Luck, Beyond Human

Like this post? You might also enjoy Explore from Core and Core Galore from the Focus Pocus archives.

 

 

 

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