The Nia Technique: Through Movement We Find Health by Lori Lynn Meader
August 18, 2009
Twelve years ago, I walked into my first Nia class. Filled with women of all ages, shapes and sizes, the room was soon vibrating, bodies twirling, wiggling, clapping and laughing. I knew immediately this class was like no other I had ever experienced. Something about this movement was very healing. I felt such freedom and joy in my body, moving in ways that were simple, yet profound. What I discovered in that first class, and in intensive trainings throughout the years, is that Nia truly integrates mind, body and emotions in a beautiful, harmonious way.
Nia ("Neuromuscular Integrative Action”) developed by Debbie and Carlos Rosas, (pronounced "NEE-uh" and in Swahili means "with purpose") is a kinesthetic experience that incorporates movement styles from the martial arts, healing arts and dance arts (Rosas, 2004). Nia movement is a powerful way of facilitating the connection between mind and body, a mindful-moving-meditation, or somatic therapy.
As therapists specializing in the treatment and prevention of eating disorders, we support our clients who grapple with symptoms, uncover pain and trauma, try on alternative behaviors, and we work with them to forge healthy relationships – all of this going on behind closed doors in the psychotherapy office. Over the years, I have incorporated body-centered modalities such as Focusing Techniques, Pesso-Boyden System Psychomotor (PBSP), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing, and various other mindful meditation practices. The proverbial “closed door” can swing wide open when these body-mind techniques are combined with our verbal psychotherapies.
The Body’s Way
In order for movement to play a healing role, the energy and intention behind it must come from pleasure. Grounded in science, craft and art, The Body’s Way (Rosas, 2004) asks that we find the ‘path of least resistance.’ Dynamic ease, the ability to perform movements with maximum efficiency and minimal effort, is experienced as a distinct physical sensation. ‘Neuro’ relates to nerve impulses that trigger and activate the mind, both the thinking (left) and imaginative (right) sides of the brain. ‘Muscular’ relates to the body, and to physical actions that result in flexibility, mobility, strength, agility and balance. ‘Integrative’ relates to the whole-body interplay that develops through the ‘action’ of Nia movement and its unique sensory-based teaching/learning style. Neuromuscular efficiency feels like grounded energy, effortless power, elegance and grace. Nia also galvanizes the blend of masculine (power and precision) and feminine (emotional and fluid) energy. Our culture tends to diminish creativity and intuition as it overvalues rationality and achievement. Creativity can be best appreciated through the medium of the body, which offers its information via subtle sensations (Heckler, 1993). The blending of these yin and yang forces, results in strength, ease and expressiveness.
Nia blends beautifully with eating disorder treatments. In attending emotions, thoughts and the body, Nia embodies an appreciation of the whole person. In Nia, we practice conscious moving through heightened awareness. In psychodynamic psychotherapy, the unconscious becomes conscious, allowing clients the opportunity to change behaviors, form stronger relationships, and make more satisfying choices. Psychodynamic work fuses with Nia philosophies in the exploration of and trust in relationships, between therapist and client, and between the client and her body. Nia concepts offer a new way for clients to trust in how their bodies function, how to listen to bodily cues, and how to experience pleasure instead of criticism while moving. For example, Jane, a client who has lost a significant amount of weight, continues feeling “heavy.” In session, I encourage her to show me how “heavy” moves. We both slouch, heads down, gravity pulling us towards earth. I ask what this movement evokes, “This is how I walk through the world. Never making eye contact, kind of ashamed.” I invite her to feel her spine lengthen and to allow her imaginary cape to brush the floor. We make eye contact as we move about the room. Tearful yet relieved, Jane realizes her “heaviness” has more to do with shame and ambivalence about being seen rather than weight. She wonders how it might feel to walk this way out in the world.
Nia boosts self-esteem and mood more than does exercise alone. Furthermore, a 1997 study published in the Journal of Women’s Health Issues found that Nia relieved anxiety and depression more effectively than aerobics. Moving lifts the spirit, causing the brain to release mood-lifting neurotransmitters, as well as endorphins, brain chemicals that promote satisfaction, even euphoria. Proteins are produced within brain cells that spur the growth of new neurons and new cell connections, literally making minds more supple (Svoboda, 2007). In a study at the University of London, researchers assigned patients with anxiety disorders to spend time in one of four therapeutic settings: a dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety. Moreover, moving to music activates the brain's pleasure circuits. "On a physiological and psychological level, humans like order and form, and the rhythm of dancing to music provides that satisfying patterning," says Miriam Berger (2007), a dance professor and dance therapist at New York University. There is restorative power in all types of music, and Nia’s intoxicating triad of Music-Movement-Magic suggests that sound precedes a feeling of being seduced to move. This blend creates the magic that is difficult to explain detached from the actual experience.
I am in no way suggesting that eating disorders can be danced away. We all know the seriousness of working with those with life-threatening illnesses. Many of our body-obsessed clients have horrific trauma histories, making living in the body a dangerous place. The tendency to bodily and emotionally compartmentalize leaves our clients feeling fragmented. Rejected parts can be learned from and integrated (Reeves, 1999), and body wisdom increases as systemic movement is embodied. Introducing Nia has enlivened the work my clients are doing by adding slow-paced, well-attuned, whole-being movement to their repertoire. Moving the Nia way, emotions are located, identified, expressed and, most importantly, tolerated. Tolerance of feelings makes them more accessible for work in the therapy room. Moving the body in loving and respectful ways opens the door into unacknowledged wants and needs, something our eating disordered clients find uncomfortable and often intolerable. Nia invites a sense of curiosity, play and acceptance.
Guided By Sensation – A Case Example
Maggie, a therapy client struggling with compulsive eating, is desperate, isolated and lonely as she goes through the painful process of divorce. She wonders if her weight has contributed to the deterioration of her marriage. In session, it is clear she is talking about her feelings, not necessarily feeling them. She is racing, her breathing shallow and forced. I bring her attention to this and she begins to slow down. I offer a gentle invitation into her body. “See if you have a sense, there in the middle of your body, of what wants our attention now…” (Cornell, 1996). After a few deep breaths, she says, “This is uncomfortable because my belly is sticking out when I breathe.” I encourage her to sense her belly from the inside, “Wow, it does feel better when I don’t suck it in.” Looking to me for direction, I invite her to sound, asking what that place in her belly might sound like if she squeezes it very tightly and then releases whatever sound it might want to make (Pesso, 1973). She surprises herself with what sounds like a wail and she begins to cry. With this release, she speaks now from the place in her body that feels sad and alone, and allows feelings of loss and grief of her failed marriage. She describes feeling tied up in knots. “What a powerful image. Let's move that." As she gets up and moves, turning her feelings and images into motion, she senses the knots loosening. “There is a part of me NOT tied up. Part of me feels free of this stale relationship." Being more connected to her body, she differentiates between the knotted sensation and hunger. I introduce Nia, and its expressive aspects that help process feelings that can be difficult to deal with in conscious, verbal terms. Although hesitant, she is intrigued.
In her first Nia class, Maggie looks shy and self-conscious. As the music begins, we step into the space, leaving distraction and criticism behind. “We breathe to energize movements and promote relaxation. Sense any tightness and imagine muscles letting go of bones. Simply breathe and sense your body as a whole.” The focus shifts to the feet, “the hands that touch, connect and are rooted deeply in earth.” Imagery (“stir a giant bowl of soup” or “pick an apple off a tall tree”) helps students become more animated, less mechanical in their movements. It also allows what is bubbling under cognitions to blossom organically (Halprin, 2002). Using simple steps and visualization, moves are internally directed, guided by sensation.
Improvisation or FreeDance, one of Nia’s 13 basic principles, promotes creativity and self-expression. I invite spontaneous, free form movement, as we remember what it was like to let loose and skip around a playground, squealing with delight. Sound gives expression to and vibrates the body. By producing sounds, we express emotion and release tension (Olsen, 2004). The power of “Hey!” or “Yes!” and the tranquility of “Ahh” enables participants to let go of inhibitions. Jan Russell, Nia Black Belt and author of “A Cure For Shame” in MORE Magazine (November, 2008), describes overcoming strong resistance to making noise. “I’d felt foolish shouting while kicking and punching. I recognized I was scared of the sound of my own voice resonating through my body. Now these exclamations feel explosive and powerful. The physical expression of emotion—sadness, elation, anxiety or tranquility—is my way of staying close to my heart.” She goes on to say, “Growing up, I felt my body was inherently flawed. Now I dance Nia for sheer pleasure. My masochistic, shame-filled attitude about my body is transforming through Nia’s invitation of self-discovery.”
After years of attending Nia classes, Maggie describes a new fullness in her body, not the familiar emptiness that pushes her into impulsive eating. Tearfully, she describes being able to move her hips without shyness or shame. Maggie now makes an effort to connect with others. Dancing bonds people, according to Robyn Flaum Cruz, President of the American Dance Therapy Association. MRI scans show that simply watching someone dance activates the same neurons that would fire if you yourself were doing the moves. So when one dancer's movement expresses joy or sadness, others often get to experience it as well, fostering empathy (2007). Nia invites compassion and gratitude, for self and others. “As class ends, we imagine healing energy going out into the world, helping me to remember that it’s not always about me, that I am part of something bigger.” She goes on to say, “I have gone from feeling numb to feeling alive, focusing on how my body wants to move rather than on results.”
Perhaps the most important shift is letting go of perfection. “I now give myself permission to mess up, and it actually feels good. Sometimes I cry while I dance, and I can’t believe I’m ok with that!” Nia, combined with psychotherapy, has helped Maggie learn to integrate thinking with intuition, self-care with creativity, and to develop awareness of and trust in her body, emotions and sensations. Now, when she cannot find words in session, she uses movement and sensation to guide her. “I’ve actually learned how to listen to my body and sense my energy and mood, and move in harmony with that, in session, in class, everywhere. I still struggle with loneliness, but I can dance my grief with the support and in the presence of others. Fat days are few and far between. I’m a curvy woman, and no experience has ever made me feel so good about my body.”
Dancing Through Life
Through expressive movement, Nia as a healing modality for those struggling with eating disorders, self-esteem and body image issues has proven invaluable. As a psychotherapist, Nia philosophies help me to be guided by sensation and stay present, in my body and with my clients. I can no longer imagine working solely through talking. Like other mind/body approaches, this practice deepens over time. Nia awakens the wish to heal, and offers a sense of greater clarity, assertiveness, hope, peace and compassion.