Body Literacy for Teens

Teenagers need to move! Many teens love sports and yet the scary truth is, many more do not. Finding exercise programs and healthy lifestyle practices that enable teenagers to build their self-esteem and have fun, while traversing the terrain of middle and high school, is not an easy task. The research is astounding in terms of the rate of obesity and diabetes in teenagers today. According to experts, adolescent obesity affects one out of every three children, resulting in 4-5 million overweight youth in the United States. Obesity is a main factor behind the sobering realization that—for the first time in history–children have a shorter life expectancy than parents! In addition, amongst teenagers, disordered eating is a behavioral issue that can become dangerous and deadly. Many researchers conclude that educational wellness models need to be holistic with a joint mind and body approach. Luckily, through a movement and lifestyle practice called the Nia Technique, we are breaking ground teaching teens how to find alternative ways to get fit, develop body literacy and love their life!

It is because of these statistics that I have devoted the past six years into developing a Holistic Health curriculum for high school students through teaching the Nia Technique, a somatic-based movement program that blends Martial Arts, Dance, and Healing Arts. Initially, my intent was to share Nia with teens by offering two or three classes a week and get them excited to move their bodies in new and creative ways. What I found curious, after working with them and hearing their feedback from experiences in their Health and PE classes, is that a major reform of “how” health and wellness is delivered to teens needs to be implemented. “How” teens learn about their bodies really matters. The role models and teachers that present health and wellness are significant influences, as is their language and delivery. The education has to match how people live their lives. Unfortunately, this fact is often overlooked. This mixed message does not give students reason enough to choose healthy exercise, foods, or social activities.

Holistic education takes in to account one’s body, mind, emotions and spiritual life. It emphasizes prevention, health maintenance, high-level wellness and sustainability of the body. It is internally directed, whereas traditional PE is externally directed. In PE, it counts only “how many” repetitions you do versus “how well” you perform them. In Nia, we emphasize how it “feels to the body”. We believe that we can change the body through pleasure based movement rather than through pain. When relating to students, we consciously create a positive environment for learning and exploration. We guide and share from a place of personal experience vs. “I am the expert do what I say.” This offers students choice. Nia is process oriented and encourages individuality, uniqueness, and allows time for the student to reframe movements to fit their own body, timing and unique life experiences. This empowers students by reinforcing confidence in their own uniqueness and, in turn, builds internal strength.

When I was in high school, I struggled with my body and self-esteem. I danced on the dance team, played Volleyball and Tennis, and although my body could perform well, I had no relationship with my body. I believed health and wellness equaled how many laps I could run around the track, how many sit-ups or pull-ups I could finish in one minute, or if I could climb the rope in PE. Since these were not my strongest skills, performing these activities did not improve my self-confidence, my self-knowing or desire to get fit. I ended up hating my body and felt isolated and misunderstood. Nowhere in my physical education or health class did teachers emphasize listening to my body.

Nia answered many of these questions for me. Nia brings a sense of meaning and belonging into an arena that can be very sensitive: the body. When people are given the choice to be able to move in their own way, it frees their spirit. Something is sparked inside that says, “yes” to life. I can be totally and perfectly “me”. Teens thrive in this place of freedom. They yearn to “not care” what others think of them, and when they can spin and twirl and laugh while dancing through space, they open up and begin to trust themselves. Energy moves through the body and healing happens. When teens drop into their body and let go of the mental chatter, they feel better. When they learn how to listen to the voices of their body, they do better.

What I have learned sharing The Nia Technique with teens is that when they LOVE their bodies, they LOVE their life! Taking the time to teach them how to “get to know themselves” by sensing, feeling and perceiving from the inside out excites them to take responsibility for their body and their life. When this happens, movement and healthy living become a natural, integrated part of their lifestyle.

Radical acceptance for teens means sharing with them how to move from a place of shame or self-hatred to a revolution in consciousness. Loving themselves for who they are, and for the innate capacities of their human heart. As Nia teachers, we allow space for students to shine and amplify their uniqueness. To step into their greatness while stimulating their creativity in body, mind, emotions and spirit. We give them CHOICE! Nia is all about choice – students listen and dance according to their own energy level, they learn how to live in their body with love, and free themselves of self –judgment. There is no competition, only the joyful sweaty experience of moving the body in a loving way.

Of all the skills Nia develops, perhaps the greatest is the skill of body awareness. Nia teaches teens body awareness through its dynamic fusion of martial arts, dance, and healing arts, as well as through the practice’s experiential approach to anatomy. Students are guided to sense their body and make choices for pleasure, comfort, and safety. Thus, they are immersed in a wide range of movement styles in a single 8-10 week program. They learn how their body is put together via bones, joints, connective tissues, liquids and space. Appreciation of the body begins with paying attention to sensation, the language of the body. The essence of the Dance Arts encourages free expression, fluidity, grace, and playful movement. This part of the practice also encourages teens to express and move with feeling while teaching them to not take themselves too seriously. The Martial Arts conditions the body, encourages precision, focus, determination and harmonious interactions. Maintaining focus and learning how to blend is a life skill that builds healthy self-esteem as well as social assurance. The Healing Arts target body alignment, awareness and self-healing. As teens wake up to their body sensations and learn how to respond to the voices of the body they become empowered. In turn, they view their body as sacred and consequently make better choices for their holistic health.

Another primary skill Nia develops in teens is the Art of Listening. The Art of Listening is the Nia practice of music appreciation that involves listening to a piece of music and sustaining a relaxed body, alert mind and a “waiting” spirit- sustaining their curiosity and wonderment for what is yet to come. There is not a teen out there that does not LOVE music and who would not benefit from this practice. Most often, the Art of Listening dramatically changes the way the teen hears music in addition to improving their listening skills in social interactions. They can apply this skill to their schoolwork, relationships with friends and family, as well as work situations. A body-centered practice, the Art of Listening teaches teens to slow down, focus their attention and clear their busy minds via paying attention to what they hear. We call this paying attention to both silence and sound.

Practicing Nia regularly decreases stress in the body, mind, emotions and spirit via its systemic cardiovascular conditioning, free expression, sounding, relaxation techniques and by focusing the mind on one thing: sensation. During a school term, teens learn how to build sustainability in their body. This is the only body they will ever have. Sometimes they need to be reminded of that ☺ Nia teaches teens how to create a healthy relationship with their whole body. With this knowledge, they have the tools to make wise life choices. Overtime, we say that they become more body literate. They cultivate an ability to listen, interpret and consciously respond to the information the body sends via sensation.

Lastly, Nia provides teens with three specific lifestyle tools for applying the philosophy and somatic practices of Nia off the dance floor. “Dancing Through Life”, for example, is the Nia practice of experiencing your non-dancing, everyday movements with the same heightened awareness as you use to sense your body when dancing. Sensing every movement as part of your own personal dance makes life more joyful and fun. Life as Art is the practice of altering your perception to sense beauty. Anything can be seen as art if one chooses to look through the lens of beauty. Living Meditation is the Nia practice of using touch to center ourselves in the present moment; it is a practice of ‘being’ verses ‘doing.’ Living Meditation invites us to stop and smell life in the moment. Cumulatively, these three practices assist the student in constructing a lifestyle of healthy perception.

A bit about what Teenagers want…(quotes from students)

  • I want to feel more spatially aware.
  • I want to feel more confident in my body.
  • I want to improve my posture.
  • I want to ‘not care’ what other people think.
  • I wanted to try something new that is not just for my body, but exercise for my mind, emotions and spirit too.
  • I want to keep my body healthy and strong.
  • I want to learn relaxation techniques and be able to focus better.
  • I want to learn about Yoga and how to lengthen and strengthen my muscles.
  • I want to learn how to have fun while exercising!
  • I want to get stronger, more balanced and more centered.
  • I want to be more in tune with my body and learn how to self-heal.
  • I want a new way to get in shape and deal with stress.
  • I want to dig into my feelings and understand sensations in my body.
  • I want to get in shape and become more aware.
  • I want to find inner peace and a pain-free way of exercising.
  • I want to notice different things about my body than I did before.
  • I want to increase my flexibility.

What Teens get from Nia that they don’t get from PE… (quotes from students)

  • I never fear getting picked last.
  • I am more aware of my surroundings and I look closer at the details of life.
  • If I cry in Nia, people don’t make fun of me – they give me hugs.
  • I enjoyed becoming more aware of my body and less self-conscious.
  • I am a passionate person, and Nia has helped me express that with my body and through dance.
  • Since I learned about ‘Silence and Sound’, I am a better listener.
  • I loved learning Nia’s 52 moves and being able to come to a place where I could let go of all my stresses and worries and just focus on myself!
  • Nia is way more beneficial…it was fun, I participated more, AND my whole body got stronger in two terms of Nia compared to a whole year of PE.
  • I enjoyed learning what my body was capable of doing.
  • Yoga was amazing after Nia. I learned how to align my bones and how to relax my nervous system.
  • I could move my own way and it was okay – no competition.
  • Nia allowed me to be emotional – I could work out my emotion with Martial Arts and by making sounds.
  • I learned how to balance my energy working with yin and yang movements.
  • The breathing techniques I learned I can apply directly to my life, i.e. tests, performances, first dates.
  • Nia taught me how to self heal my back pain.

Nia benefits everyone, not just teens. And, if we can bring Nia into more public schools, more kids and teens will grow up with increasing health and body literacy. They will have the skills necessary to carve a healthy lifestyle for themselves and for the families they will create. I feel blessed to be able to share and educate in this arena. Who wants to join me in making the generations to come even healthier?