Practice basics until they’re nothing, for they are everything.” – Sifu Joseph Eager
At the beginning of January I added three new classes to Sellwood Yoga, a studio located right on the outskirts of Portland. Simple, healing, and hip, the studio was my ideal place to add classes, as I sought to find a space that cultivated a spirit of movement as a practice, rather than just a 60-minute fitness class. Nearly every person who has walked through the door has been completely new to Nia. There is a magic to teaching new groups that produces more joy in my cells than I can articulate. New students are so open, receptive, curious, and hungry to somatically understand what Nia is all about, and I love it!
What’s so cool is to witness the transformative power of focusing on the basics. When we empty our “cup” and go to the place of beginners mind, transformation awaits. In beginners mind, curiosity overshadows doubt and neutralizes judgement. Consequently, you can only imagine the fun I’ve had practicing Nia with the Sellwood Yoga students as we return to the bare essential ingredients that form the Nia practice: the basics. We’ve focused on the most elementary movement concepts in Nia from leading with the heel to paying attention to our foot positions, to shifting bodyweight v.s. dropping it, and moving all three sections of the spine, etc. As we dance, I sprinkle them with short explanations of why we do what we do when performing moves like shimmy, sounding, or entering the floorplay cycle. Most significantly, I focus on the physicality of Nia: the 52 moves.
To practice the basics, we do moves in simple combinations and allow repetition to become our anchor. Sustain. Sustain. Sustain. It is one of the best lessons I’ve learned from Tai Chi – to slow down and simplify my movement. I’ll never forget the day I saw Nia’s Co-Creator Debbie Rosas demonstrate a side kick in slow motion, then pausing with her leg fully extended to the side. The simultaneously strength, stability, and flexibility it takes to do this is significant and not without great practice. I have practiced my side kicks in slow motion ever since.
Movement can be such a metaphor for life. Can we really master anything if we’re moving fast? I often share with my White Belt trainees that as a child learning piano I constantly sought to learn jazz standards at topspeed at the expense of practicing my scales. I wanted to be a great pianist, yet I did not understand that part of being a great pianist meant widening my awareness to perceive that it was only by slowing down and practicing my scales that I would one day be able to play fast, syncopated songs. To get to point C, I had to go through A and B first. There were, I discovered, no shortcuts to mastering anything.
When I put myself in the place of beginners mind, remembering what it was like to know nothing, I remember where to begin. Teach me how to direct my body e.g. “Sumo Stance, your widest comfortable stance with parallel feet”, or, “Look right when traveling right, and left when traveling left,” and, “Everybody sense your [body part]”. Any additional cues we as Nia teachers sprinkle on top is icing on the cake. Yet without the cake, there would be no need for icing. For this reason alone, simplifying, sustaining, and going back to the basics just might be one of the most profound things we can choose, for ourselves and our students.
To master something, we must go back to the basics.