My journey of remembering that I am a sensation scientist began in the spring of 1995, when, by chance, I walked into my first Nia class in a fitness club in Portland, Oregon, and my life changed forever.
At the time, I was totally disabled by asthma. I was a physical therapist but unable to work. I was a dancer, but unable to cross the room to answer the phone. With the highest doses of medications, including prednisone, I could barely breathe.
But after two years of Nia, my breathing improved 50%. After seven years, I was off all asthma medications. Today my respiratory function is 130% of normal.
Nia gave me the medicine I needed — the medicine of awareness, allowing me to discover my body’s way to heal. But asthma is the sensation of suffocation, the last sensation I wanted to be aware of.
I needed more than awareness. I needed the incentive to become aware and stay aware. Nia provided that, too, through the medicine of the joy of movement. Even when I was wheezing, the joy of movement and all around me during a Nia class was my reward, giving me an immediate return on the awareness I was investing in my breath and in my body.
Over a two-year period I conducted rigorous, trial and error experiments as a sensation scientist in the sacred laboratory of my body.
My principle finding was this: There is a specific sensation in the lungs just prior to an asthma attack. Like an aura before a seizure or migraine, but extremely subtle, this faint sensory precursor can be used as a signal to immediately stop or reduce movement intensity and thus avoid an asthma attack. This reduces the inflammation in the lungs and generates the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise. In this way I was able to sustain and gradually increase my tolerance to exercise and strengthen my lungs.
Secondly, I determined micro-movement was the best way for me to exercise. I could maintain easy, comfortable breathing without aggravating my asthma. Micro-movement also reduced sensory input to my nervous system, so I could put more awareness on the subtle sensations of my breath.
Finally, my breath also benefited from Nia’s emotional expressiveness. Intuitively, I knew inflammation in my lungs was unexpressed anger and unexpressed tears. Pleura, the membranes around the lungs, means “to weep.” But ironically, I couldn’t weep or yell without provoking asthma. The dance and martial arts that comprise Nia provided a safe, gradual way to move my emotional body.
Every two seconds, the breath is a teacher and an indicator of the health and wellness of the body, the mind, the emotions and the spirit. In Chinese medicine, the lungs are associated with both grief and with joy. I believe the joy of movement, the foundation of Nia, is essential medicine for everybody to experience the full vitality of the breath.
Here are my tips for becoming body literate by reading the voice of the body as breath:
(1) First, simply notice your breath. Notice your inhale. Notice your exhale. Notice if your belly is expanding when you breathe in, and relaxing when you breathe out. After a while, notice the pause at the end of your exhale, before your inhale happens. Just notice. In this pause, the homeostasis of the whole body resets itself.
(2) Understand that the rate, length and quality of your breath varies from moment to moment, and has a unique optimal pattern for every situation. What is your breath telling you about the moment? Are you energized, anxious, excited, tired, inspired, relaxed, hurried, grounded, timid or confident?
(3) Respond. Often, we can exhale longer. We can sigh. Often, the belly can gently expand more when we inhale. In our high-speed world, we need the relaxation to the central nervous system provided by a softly breathing belly, a longer exhale and a pause before the next breath.