Becoming An Emotional Ninja

This evening I was sitting outside a Starbucks at sunset reading my favorite Thich Nhat Hanh book, The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Randomly, I opened the book to a section on the concept of interdependence:

“The suffering of others is our own suffering, and the happiness of others is our own happiness,” he writes.

Just as I read this, I became aware of the resounding cry of toddler outside a nearby restaurant. Actually, ‘cry’ is an understatement – this child was wailing. I looked up to see a little girl sobbing uncontrollably, with her arms crossed steadfastly over her chest. Her mom was standing four or five feet away, and it was clear from the child’s body language that she didn’t want anyone to get near her. For nearly 25 minutes, this whole scenario played out, with the toddler sobbing and saying the word “no” everytime her mother approached her. My heart went out to the mother, who, by the way, had the patience of a saint! But even more so, my compassion went towards the child…

Observing her, I was overwhelmed with compassion for how turbulent the emotional body can be. I sensed my interconnectedness with her, recalling the countless times I’ve felt overwhelmed by tidal waves of emotion. How challenging is it in those distressing moments, I thought, to remember that all emotions are impermanent and ever-changing? One moment there’s fear. The next moment there’s anger. Then anger fades, and there is peace. Peace morphs into compassion, and so on.

What this child has not yet learned and what I am still learning at 28 (after years of psychotherapy, I might add), is the practice of emotional agility.  It’s more than the ability to start or stop an emotion or feeling at will. Emotional agility, as I experience it, also denotes my ability to navigate my emotional realm with consciousness (choice & awareness) verses unconsciousness (habit and/or lack of awareness).

There is a brilliant quote shared in the Nia Blue Belt that comes from the creator of Aikido. When asked by his most dedicated students what skills he possessed that they did not yet possess, he responded, “The only difference between you and I is that I come back to center faster.”

Welcome to emotional agility – the practice of coming back to center faster and faster, and faster again.

I recently had an opportunity to “research” emotional agility when retaking the Nia Brown Belt with Trainer Ann Christiansen and Nia Co-Creator Debbie Rosas. Ann asked us to do a practice that explored three emotions. The practice was one of taking yourself into an emotion, then bringing yourself back out, conditioning your emotional agility.

First, we were asked to activate the overall emotion we feel about our life. Immediately, I received the feeling of peace and interconnectedness. We were asked to sustain this emotion, feel it, then let it go. Second, we were asked to feel the emotion of a situation in our life that was challenging for us, something emotionally “derailing”. I immediately brought such a situation into my awareness, activating the emotions of sadness and fear. Now this is where the magic happened. Guiding us carefully, Ann asked us to feel the derailing emotion, yet not get swept away by it – notice it, feel it, but maintain our center. We call this “activating your witness,” in Nia. Forty-five seconds later, she asked us to return to emotion #1, the overall feeling we experience about our life. Like lightening, I directed my attention back to the feelings of peace and interconnectedness. Within ten seconds, I had returned fully to emotion #1.

“Wow!” I thought, “That was like emotional jumping jacks at level 3!” Astounded by how beneficial this practice was, I knew I’d found a new ally and  tool for becoming a “ninja” of my emotions.

Watching my friends who have children, I see how they have cultivated the skill of becoming emotional ninjas, as the demands of parenting often necessitate the ability to put one’s own emotions aside (and re-address later) in order to tend to their children’s needs first.

Returning to the story of the crying toddler, I watched as the mother at the restaurant put aside her own need to eat dinner to stand by while her little girl “processed”. Finally, after 20 minutes and with a sense of peacefulness, the mother found an opening. She knelt to the ground and took several steps towards her crying daughter. As she opened her arms, I saw the little girl’s posture soften. Slowly, the toddler looked up, took two steps forward, then melted into her mother’s arms, relaxing completely into what looked like the emotions of trust, relief and peace.

What a gift to witness such a raw, beautiful process, and what a fantastic reminder of the impermanence of emotion. Whether we’re 2 years old, 28 years old or beyond, we all have access to this incredible well of energy.

Becoming an emotional ninja, as it turns out, is not about being tae kwon do with our emotional realm. Rather, it’s about bringing self-love, compassion, and trust to this incredibly sentient source of feeling and expression.


Choice, Meaning and Peace

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

– Dr. Viktor Frankl

In Nia, we say that choice is the first gift we give ourselves and our students. It begins with the choice to sense the body and to choose The Joy of Movement, a universal sensation that can be present amidst pleasure and/or pain. The thread of choice is then woven through a principle called Your Body’s Way, which encourages you to move your body in accordance with it’s natural design and function; a method of personalizing your movement to fit your body’s needs. We also offer the choice between Three Planes of Movement (high, middle, low) and Three Intensity Levels (1, 2, 3). Really, the list of choices just goes on and on…

But beyond this list of somatic gifts that ‘choice’ gives us, there is a more personal growth element at play. What basic human right is so closely equated with choice?


We feel free when we feel like we have choice. When choice is taken away, so too goes our sense of freedom. There’s an incredible story about choice in holocaust survivor Dr.Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning. When Dr. Frankl treated fellow prisoners at Auschwitz , he observed a distinct psychological difference between those individuals whose health faded quickest and those who survived the longest. He found that the people who lived the longest were those who found a sense of meaning amidst the unfathomable suffering of the concentration camps. Those who lost hope were the quickest to die. He concludes, “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

For the last two decades of my life, no ally has been so close a friend as choice. Choice has allowed me to find peace and empowerment amidst great pain and difficulty, to sense stability inside when everything outside felt unstable. When I have hovered in the delicate lifespace between “no longer and not yet”, choice has invited me to simply be present with what is, relinquishing my need for things to be other than they are. Investigating choice, I sense how my life purpose and the circumstances in it have as much or as little meaning as I choose to give them. What has given my life the deepest meaning, consequently, is the choice to see every experience as an opportunity to learn something new about myself. Viewing my life this way, viewing my experiences in Nia this way, I know that no matter what happens, I will always grow. When choice is actualized, evolution is guaranteed. 

We say in the Nia Brown Belt that between the emotions of Love and Fear exists Peace – the unconditional sensation of centeredness. When it comes to making decisions, peace is a great sidekick to choice – providing us with a firm foundation from which to respond. If I do not have the personal power to respond from love, can I connect to the omnipresent sensation of peace? The way I see it, the more allies or tools I have to assist me, the better off I am in managing my own emotional energy…

Peace is available at every turn – all we must do is choose it.

Self-Love and the Realm of High Magic

“In the realm of high magic, the highest magic is love and the only technique is choice.” ~Lazarus

No skill has served me more as a Nia teacher than the skill of self-love. In fact, I believe it is the greatest asset and tool a person can choose in any profession and in life. Self-love- the transformative ability to love myself unconditionally and to recognize that I am valuable, worthy, and lovable no matter what. In every situation, I have a choice whether I step in with self-love, or fear.

An individual who embodies and models self-love is a magnet and a light for others to follow. I have had two primary models for self-love in my life. One is a woman who has been my mentor since age thirteen. The other, is German Nia Trainer Ann Christiansen. One of the funny things about this is that I do not know Ann personally at all, yet I don’t have to to perceive that this individual has cultivated a skill within herself that is as good as gold to the spirit. Her radiance speaks for itself.

No tool has transformed my Nia classes like the skill of self-love. Loving myself, I allow my natural radiance to shine through and do the teaching for me. Yes, there are important skills to teaching like cuing, embodying and learning the choreography ahead of time, and preparing the focus- but these are secondary skills. The most important preparation and energy I can model as a Nia teacher is self-love. When I step into class with self-love, I invite my students to step into their greatness with me. This is the place of no self-importance and no self-pity. We may ‘get’ the choreography or we may fumble it up. If we love ourselves, we’ll have fun and feel good no matter what happens. Now that is personal empowerment! As Nia Trainer Winalee Zeeb says when missing a cue, “nobody dies.” 😉

Similarly, self-love allows me to stand before someone like Ann or Winalee, both individuals I esteem highly, and meet them with a sensation of equality. To sense their radiance as an invitation and to be empowered by their self-love rather than intimidated by it- this is a great thing. Radiance is a choice each of us can manifest and it comes from evenly developing our self-love. We are all models and mirrors for each other. After all, we are one…

All choices from love. All actions from a place of self-love. What is it that we need to do to remove ourselves from choosing anything less? To step out of the way of concern and into the energy of self-love is a manifestation of the highest magic of all. I am all that I am and will ever need to be. This is the power of “enough.”

The choice is ours.