Going Blue

As shared in a previous post, I completed the first level of Nia training, the White Belt Intensive, in March 2017. Nia White Belt teaches the Art of Sensation, which means living and functioning in your body while guided by sensation. It is very much centered on body awareness: learning to listen to your body and moving in a way that feels good and brings pleasure. Nia Blue Belt builds upon that foundation through the Art of Communication, which focuses on relationship and intimacy – being with ourselves and others. Successful relationships and teaching come from learning to communicate intimately, mastering both speaking and listening skills.

Finding my voice

I had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to attend Blue Belt once I learned that the focus was on communication. This may come as a surprise, but communication is something I have struggled with most of my life – despite all of my education, training and professional experience in that arena. On the surface, I think I do a decent job with both written and verbal communication, especially in my professional roles. But when it comes down to speaking the truth – my truth – I often stumble.

More than once I have sought out “assertiveness training” to help find that balance between passivity and aggression. The first time I attended such a program I was really excited…until the instructor indicated that learning to be assertive meant being okay with some people not liking you. That didn’t sit well – after all, I was a recent college grad and “fitting in” was still an important part of my social experience. In the years since then, I have experienced several situations in which I did not speak up for myself out of fear of hurting someone else’s feelings…only to find that I was the one who wound up hurt due to my silence. My growth in this area is still very much a work in progress, which is why I was excited to jump into Blue Belt.

On the first day, we were asked to write down what we hoped to receive from participating in Blue Belt training. Here is what I wrote:

I want to be comfortable using my voice on and off the dance floor. I want to be heard without stepping on others and without being stepped on either.

I felt both anxiety and anticipation when I wrote those words. I longed for them to be true, but I also know myself and the lingering doubt and fear I face when it comes to speaking up. Thus, I entered the week with a sense of realistic optimism, hoping it would be the start of a journey to finding my voice. Now, after six days of immersion into the 13 Blue Belt principles, I can say with confidence that it is.

It feels near impossible to convey the power and full picture of what I experienced last week, but I hope the following highlights give you just a taste of what it meant to “go Blue”:

  • I had the great fortune to spend the week with 12 beautiful and courageous Blue Belt sisters, as well as our amazing Nia trainer, Winalee Zeeb, and fearless producer/trainer, Kate Finlayson. Although we came from four different states and diverse backgrounds, we bonded instantly, I think in part due to our maturity (we are all 40+) and the willingness to share openly and honestly from the moment we met.

 

  • I gained a valuable tool around body-centered, mindful communication. We defined communication as a two-way exchange of energy – one person is transmitting (speaking) and the other is receiving (listening). The goal is to communicate with 100% clarity and that often means slowing down, especially when you are the speaker. We have a tool in Nia called RAW – Relaxed (body)-Alert (mind)-Waiting (spirit). In White Belt, we learned how to use this method to listen to the music for each song in a routine. In Blue Belt, we expanded its use to everyday communication, whether in our personal or professional relationships. Taking a moment to pause before we speak – simple, yet so effective.

 

  • One of the simplest yet profound concepts we explored is the power of three in relationships. In any given relationship, there is the self, the other and the relationship itself. The self and other both bring things to the relationship and also have needs to be met. The idea is to establish peaceful and healthy relationships by creating clear agreements based on the needs of the relationship. In many ways, this is the art of compromise, but for me this principle provided a clear road map to help reach such compromise. And once again, it can easily apply to both personal and professional relationships.

 

  • The final takeaway that I want to share is that of applying the 7 cycles of a Nia class to your everyday life. I created this chart to show how the cycles are applied in class and how you could apply them to your day as well:

 

Cycle

Nia class Your day
Cycle 1: Set Your Focus + Intent Where you place your attention during class and the desired outcome you want to achieve Where you place your attention for the day and the desired outcome (set it before you get out of bed in the morning)
Cycle 2: Step In A way to leave behind distractions as you start the class (usually a physical gesture) A way to help remove distractions before you start your day (e.g., meditation, journaling or other grounding practice)
Cycle 3: Warm Up Gentle movement to get energy flowing in the 13 joints Some gentle movement or mental exercise to help get energy flowing (e.g., walking, stretching, or reviewing your schedule for the day)
Cycle 4: Get Moving Dynamically moving in the space, varying movement and intensity to condition the whole body Moving through your day with awareness of your peak energy times and aligning tasks to them; varying your work tasks to help sustain your energy
Cycle 5: Cool Down Decreasing exertion to lower heart rate and prepare to move to the floor Winding down your day in a way that allows you to prepare for a restful night’s sleep
Cycle 6: FloorPlay Energy of “play” guides structured and unstructured movement on the floor Moving to the floor for some gentle movement (e.g., stretching) or play (your choice!)
Cycle 7: Step Out Physical gesture to consciously quiet down, center, self-reflect and prepare for next activity Intentional gesture to quiet down as you close out your day (e.g., meditation, journaling, listening to soft music, reading for pleasure)

Some people may think Nia is just an exercise class, but it is so much deeper than that. It truly is a lifestyle and a practice that promotes physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing. I left Blue Belt inspired to find more ways to integrate Nia with my health coaching. Stay tuned to see what unfolds!

Click here to learn more about Nia!

Mindful Parenting

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a program on Mindful Parenting. I thought it might help to share some of the highlights, for those of you looking for a calmer, less reactive approach to raising your children.

The need for Mindful Parenting

How many of you have experienced any of the following:

  • You’re trying to make dinner, surf Facebook and answer your kid’s questions about homework all at the same time?

 

  • You’re reading your child a bedtime story while in your mind you are making a list of things to do after she goes to bed?

 

  • After arguing with your teen to come out of his room, get off his phone and engage with the family, five minutes later he calls you out for responding to a work email on your phone?

As author Kristen Race shares in her book “Mindful Parenting,” modern life is different than a generation ago. Many parents are struggling to juggle multiple roles. There are multiple electronic devices to distract us 24/7. Parents and their kids have demanding schedules, with little “down time.” For many of us, there are lingering financial worries as we continue to recover from the most recent recession. It’s no wonder she coins us “Generation Stress.”  And unfortunately, that stress is contagious – studies have shown that our children pick up on our stress even if we think we’re doing a good job concealing it.

Disengaging auto-pilot

Due to the many demands that we face in our day-to-day lives, many of us move through life on “auto-pilot.” Think about your daily commute to work – have there been times when you left home and arrived at work only to think “How did I get here?”  You know the route so well that you don’t have to consciously think through every turn along the way. You can tune out and run through that never-ending “to do” list in your mind. This automatic, mindless mode is not always a bad thing – it can be very helpful in establishing healthy habits like brushing your teeth or completing simple tasks like tying your shoes. It would be burdensome if we had to think through the steps every time we performed those tasks. But when autopilot takes over in more important areas of our lives, like how we engage with our children, it can lead to frustration and disappointment – for us and our children.

So how do we learn to disengage the auto-pilot and live more consciously? In one word: mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” It’s about awareness and intention. The folk singer Jewel (who has practiced mindfulness from a young age) describes it as “the gap between perceiving a thought and acting upon a thought, so that you can choose your action rather than have a reaction.” It is a way to create space so that we are less reactive to whatever life throws our way.

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, but they are typically broken down into two categories: formal and informal practice. Formal practice consists of dedicated time that you set aside to focus on awareness. Examples may include sitting meditation, breath awareness exercises, yoga, mindful walking and mindful eating. Informal practice refers to times when you are completely engaged in moment-to-moment awareness in a less structured way. Examples may include watching a sunrise, drinking a cup of tea, brushing your teeth, or washing dishes. Using an exercise analogy, think of formal practice as going to the gym or working out for a designated amount of time, whereas informal practice is like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away at work. It helps to include both in your mindfulness practice and you may find that the more you engage in formal practices, the more you find yourself being mindful in your daily activities.

Mindful Parenting

It’s probably no surprise that mindful parenting begins with you, the parent, committing to a mindfulness practice. In doing so, you will model positive behaviors for your children and you will approach your interactions with them in a different way. To modify a popular quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the person you want your children to become.”  If you’re feeling skeptical, there are studies that have demonstrated positive outcomes from this approach. Most notably, in a study conducted at UCLA, parents who practiced mindfulness for one year reported being dramatically more satisfied with their parenting skills and interactions with their children even though they had learned no new parenting practices. In addition, over the course of the year, their kids’ behavior also changed for the better. They got along better with siblings, were less aggressive and their social skills improved.

In preparing for my presentation, I relied on two main sources of information – the book by Kristen Race I referenced above as well as a book by Carla Naumburg, PhD, called “Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family.” Both books have helpful tips about how to build your own mindfulness practice as well as numerous examples of ways to engage your children in a mindful fashion. Below are two of my favorites – one for younger children and one for older children.

For younger children, consider trying “Stop, Drop, and Breathe.” This is an easy, quick and fun way to disrupt a difficult situation and breathe your way back into the present. Whenever you find yourself or your child spinning out of control, lost in thoughts or overwhelmed by emotions, remember to stop, drop and breathe: stop, drop whatever you are doing, and breathe deeply and intentionally. You can literally drop to the floor, which may get your children laughing, regardless of how grumpy anyone feels.

If you have older children (tweens and teens), does it drive you crazy how much they use the words “like” or “ya know” when speaking? It can be a challenge for all of us to eliminate filler words from our speech. Try an exercise to help focus on mindful speaking. You can even turn it into a game, in which family members gently remind each other when they mindlessly pepper their speech with filler words.

Getting Started

The key to mindful parenting is establishing a mindfulness practice that works for you. Many people ask how much time they should devote to formal practice. It is based on what works best for you, what you will do consistently. This is a skill to be learned – it will take practice. You can start small, maybe 5 or 10 minutes a day, and build up from there. Feel free to include a combination of formal and informal practices and most of all, remember there is no right or wrong way to do it. Give it a try and see what happens.

Relationships and Communication

Relationships

As the holidays approach, it means many of us will be spending time with family, friends and other loved ones. Depending on your relationship with these individuals, this togetherness may bring feelings of joy and happiness, but it can also bring sadness, disappointment and even pain. Our social relationships have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, for better or for worse.

Research has shown that individuals who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. It is beneficial to periodically assess the quality of your social relationships and how they are impacting your health and wellbeing.

A few questions to consider as you assess the stability and satisfaction with your current relationships include:

  • Does the relationship contribute to a sense of belonging, security, purpose and/or self-worth?
  • Do you have a variety of social outlets, from casual acquaintances to one or two close friends who can provide support when needed?
  • Do you foster those relationships in which you feel supported and energized? And conversely, do you minimize contact in those relationships that are conflicted and/or drain your energy?

You may also want to think about the impact of your relationships based on the other areas of the Wheel of Health. For example, do you have relationships that can support you in meeting your nutrition and exercise goals? Are your spiritual beliefs and experiences supported, or perhaps challenged, by your relationships? What impact do your close relationships have on your personal growth and development?

Communication

One of the most important factors in maintaining healthy relationships is effective communication. Whether you want to sustain your supportive relationships or improve your difficult ones, improving the way you communicate can be key. Below are three components of effective communication skills you may want to assess personally:

Listening. Think about the last time you thought someone really listened to you. How did it feel to have their complete attention? Most likely, that person demonstrated the following behaviors or characteristics:

  • The listener was not in a rush, paid attention to what you were saying and held space for you to share what was on your mind. S/he was present with you, mentally and physically.
  • The listener did not rush to judge or criticize what you were saying, and refrained from injecting his or her own opinions about what you had to say.
  • The listener let you know you were heard by reflecting or paraphrasing what you said and/or by asking clarifying questions.
  • The listener used non-verbal behaviors, such as consistent eye contact and nodding, to indicate that s/he was present and focused on you.

The next time you want to engage in active listening, select one of the above characteristics and consciously practice it. See if it makes a difference in the relationship to the person to whom you are listening.

Inquiry. True inquiry comes from a place of genuine curiosity about another person. It is not just asking questions for the sake of carrying on a conversation. It can be accomplished using open-ended questions, that are not easily answered with just a “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions typically begin with “what” or “how.” For example, rather than asking “Did you have a good day at school?,” you might ask “What was the best part about school today?”

If you want to practice the skill of inquiry, consider the use of “I” statements. This approach allows each person to have his or her own opinions, thoughts, and beliefs. Some examples include:

“You” statement: “You don’t understand me.”

vs.

“I” statement: “I’m not sure I am making myself clear.”

 

“You” statement: “You are no help at all!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel overworked and would appreciate some extra help.”

 

“You” statement: “You are always late!”

vs.

“I” statement: “I feel anxious when you don’t arrive on time.”

If you are not already using “I” statements, you may want to try this approach and see if doing so has a positive impact on communication with your colleagues, friends and family.

Communication styles. Being aware of your communication style can help you choose the one that best fits the specific circumstance and promotes open and effective communication. There are four basic styles of communicating:

  • Aggressive: Getting what you want at another person’s expense. This style typically involves a loud voice, insults, dominating posture and a lack of listening.

 

  • Passive: Allowing another person to have what they want at your expense, often to avoid conflict. This style usually involves a quiet voice and demeanor, a meek posture and little room to express your own feelings or desires.

 

  • Assertive: Balancing what you want with what another person wants. This style generally involves a firm, moderate tone of voice, and communication that includes both listening and the use of “I” statements.

 

  • Passive Aggressive: Attempting to get what you want in an indirect or calculating way. Communication is often not direct but leading and manipulative. Tone of voice and posture vary depending on what you think will get you what you want with the other person or in that particular moment.

Different situations call for different communication styles. There is benefit in being competent in more than one style, and being able to use the style that the situation calls for. Being aware of what style of communication you are using and choosing intentionally can be beneficial in promoting the kinds of relationships you want to have.