In Nia, we focus our movements on the 13 major joints and 20 digits. Understanding the form and function of the joints can help us make skillful choices in regards to how we use them! (Adapted from the Nia White Belt Manual)
Your feet carry the weight of your entire body. For your body weight to be supported and balanced, your ankles must move freely, fluidly, and have complete range of motion. Maintaining proper strength and flexibility in your ankle joints provides support. Any chronic shortening of a tendon or muscle in the feet and around your ankles will decrease your feet and leg power and thus decrease your ability to move and dance freely. If your ankles are stiff, your grace, mobility, balance, and fluid movement will be diminished.
Like hinges of a door, your knees function best when they move in a single plane. Ideally, the knee and ankle joints are aligned, and stacked over each other, both facing the same direction. When the foot rotates to the side, your knee should also rotate. When the foot is directed forward, the knee should also point forward.
When the knees function correctly, you sense stability, not tension or wobbling, pulling or dragging to one side. The direction of your feet dramatically affects the functioning of your knees and legs. If the inseam of the foot isn’t firmly grounded or you collapse on the arch, your knee and pelvic basin rotates, stressing both knee and hip joints.
Mechanically, muscles, ligaments, tendons, connective tissue and bones weave together to support the structure of your knee. Like elbows, knees are not designed to support extreme weight but to transfer energy from one set of bones to another. Sturdy, strong legs require flexible, pliable knees to maintain leg strength. Locking the knees compresses the cartilaginous elements and cuts off the energy flow that supports your legs. When you lock your knees, or press them back, you use the bones rather than the muscles for support. You stand on your bones. This creates a weakening in the legs that results in muscle and energy atrophy and a loss of strength.
When executing cross over motions, be conscious of placing your feet and knees in the same direction. Avoid putting lateral strain on the knees by sensing for comfort from the ground up, comfort in all your joints – the feet, ankles, knees, and hips. Over time, as your ankles, knees, and hips become more flexible, your leg agility and strength will improve. You’ll be able to step out further, sink deeper, and move laterally more quickly. Every movement will feel effortless when the knee is correctly aligned.
The pelvis is the bottom of the three body weights and a base for the other two weights, chest and head. The pelvis is said to be “the seat of the soul.” It is literally what your torso and head sit in. When the pelvis is tight and constricted, your “seat” is an uncomfortable chair. When the pelvis is free and fluid, your “seat” is royally comfortable.
Denying full movement to the pelvis will result in the loss of physical strength and support from your low back, feet, and legs. It will also diminish your ability to maintain proper breathing and limit your overall endurance.
Your pelvis is a support structure that provides the body with a foundation for bearing and balancing weight. The sacro-lumbar junction, the joint that joins the sacrum and the lumbar vertebrae, creates a base to support upright, bipedal posture. This powerful, secure, yet movable junction is located at the back of your pelvis. For additional support, at the end of your sacrum is the coccyx. Here the attachment of individual muscles provides a strong pelvic floor.
Your body may send you painful and uncomfortable signals that indicate your pelvis is out of alignment. Pain in the hip sockets, sacrum, or low back, weakness in the legs, and the inability to comfortable draw your thighs up toward your chest are signs that your pelvis lacks fluidity or alignment. When properly aligned, it is free to move in all directions. When bone alignment is healthy, it reflects balanced muscles, both intrinsic and extrinsic. When the pelvis can move freely in all directions, your back will become strong and healthy.
To function properly, the pelvis must have the ability to move in all directions. If you can move your pelvis while stabilizing your legs and move your thighbone while stabilizing your pelvis, this is a good sign that your hip socket is open and healthy. What keeps the pelvis and the hip joint healthy is movement, particularly movement it is designed to do. A wide variety of movements and ranges of motions keep the hip flexors and the hip joint healthy.
The spine, consisting of 26 vertebrae (7 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, and the sacral coccygeal) is a long strand of bones that creates a column, a “long, blue body of light.” The spine is a carefully contoured and designed masterpiece that moves and provides a structural support system. These 26 bones, vertebrae, vary in size and are individually formed like cylinders to bear different amounts of body weight. These cylinders provide a protected passage for nerves and the spinal cord to pass through. Its magnificent design makes it possible for you to stand, sit, walk, turn, bend, run, jump and leap!
Any stiffness, thickening or immobility of the spine results in the spine embedding itself into the soft tissue of your back muscles. This, as well as any extreme or held rotation of the vertebrae, impairs free and efficient movement. Observe how the spine provides stability and freedom. Isolate individual ranges of motion. Notice how the alignment of the spine either diminishes or feeds the body with energy. Pay attention to the placement of the spine in relationship to your foundation and free movement.
• Spinal movement encourages breath and breathing helps the spine move naturally.
• Elimination is improved when the spine is aligned properly, maintaining the spaces between the soft tissue.
• Leg power is doubled when the spine is integrated into all movement.
• All senses are activated by the spine and its nerves that communicate with the external and internal world. Movement increases the rate and amount of information your body can process.
The bones of the shoulder girdle support the movement of your arms and hands. These bones are the clavicles, sternum and scapula. The shoulder is three-dimensional as it includes the shoulder girdle, the front, back and sides of the body. The freer the shoulder girdle, the freer the arms and the more room for expression.
Anatomically, the arm bone actually floats – it is not anchored into a ball and socket joint like the leg bone is to the hip. There is simply a gentle indentation where the head or the arm bone rests. The support comes muscularly from underneath, around, and inside the shoulder. This tells us that the design of the shoulder is intended to support free movement with the shoulders floating.
A flexible shoulder will support fluidity in your upper body and along your spine. If the shoulder is locked, your body will feel and appear stiff and rigid. This rigidity places stress in the neck, head and shoulders. This, in turn, weakens the amount of energy and power you can move through the upper body, arms and hands.
Elbows, like knees, are not designed to support extreme weight, but to transfer energy from one set of bones to another. If you lock the elbows, especially in blocks and punches, it compresses the cartilage, stresses the joint and cuts off the energy flow. When slicing, blocking, punching, and cutting with the arm, practice keeping the elbow soft and letting the movement roll through your arm like a rope. Keep the joint fluid to allow the energy to flow from the core out.
Unlike knees, however, elbows connect to the radius and the ulna, which are the only bones that cross over each other to allow the rolling motion in the forearm (a movement that isn’t possible with the lower leg). Strengthen the elbow joint by actively using the hands.
Wrists have 8 little pebble bones called carpal bones that glide over each other and allow a wide range of movement. Wrists are the gateway to expression of the hands. Power in the wrists is what gives power to the hands. Softness in the wrists is what allows tenderness in the hands. Strengthen the wrist joint by actively using the hands with a variety of movements.
Your fingers, like wands, can each individually direct and move energy along particular channels called meridians. It is possible to consciously direct energy through each finger.
Vary the energy flow through the arm by using all five fingers, either one at a time, or all five together. Moving finger by finger, you wake up the intrinsic muscles inside the hands and arms. Spreading the fingers, you create more space in between them, making the hands more powerful. Opening and closing the webbed spaces between the fingers activates the movement of more energy and increases your ability to feel sensation. By visualizing, you can enhance the way you direct energy through the fingers.
Each finger represents a unique expression:
• Your Index finger is the desire finger. It naturally points to things you desire. Use the extension of this finger to connect with the deeper desires of your life.
• Your Middle finger is your power finger. Because this finger physically represents the center in your hand, you can use it to increase balance, ground, center and develop a stronger connection between your feet and the ground. In many cultures, this is the finger used to express emotional power or anger. In the martial arts, it is specifically used to increase balance.
• Your Ring finger is the commitment finger. Use it to sense a deeper connection to space, or to follow through and extend your energy through it in your arm movements. Commit your energy. As it is located more laterally, it energetically connects you to the outside of your body.
• The Little finger acts like a lateral boundary antenna. Use this finger to balance the movement of your body weight shifting from left to right and to gently stabilize the body in relationship to the ground. It is the earth finger. Like your little toe, it is not meant to bear weight but define boundaries and edges.
• The thumb is your heart finger, the one that gives you direct nourishment and pleasure (like the baby who sucks her thumb). Use it to nurture your movement, to tightly hold onto and grasp that which makes you feel save and loved. Use the thumb like a rudder, to direct the rotation of the spiraling motion of the forearm bones and to navigate movement of the hand and arm.
The toes are the fingers the touch the earth. Wearing shoes may lead to thinking of all toes as one piece but each is constantly adjusting and moving as we move. For example, as we take a step forward, the first 3 toes push off to move us forward and the last 2 toes keep us stable and balanced. Imagine your toes lengthening all the way into the arch of the foot to the 7 “stone bones” of the foot, called tarsals. Practice standing on one foot and notice the constant adjustments that the toes make to keep you balanced – it’s a toe dance!