Debbie Rosas described her own passions when she said, Nia inspires me to continue on a personal journey of self-discovery, self actualization and healing. For me, learning is one of the most exciting journeys, and being in a body is one of the most poetic and romantic experiences. I thrive on educating, motivating and inspiring people to fall in love with themselves and their bodies. To me, life is my art and my body is the canvas.
With a life-long dedication to self-healing and self-mastery, Debbie Rosas has been a pioneer and leader in the body-mind fitness industry since 1976. She is co-founder of Nia Technique, Inc., which brings concepts and forms from Eastern and Western practices into mainstream fitness classes. It’s also been instrumental in the evolution of the fitness industry, opening doors to more esoteric disciplines such as yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates.
Debbie and Nia have been featured in over 850 publications and numerous television shows worldwide. Debbie served on the Mind-Body Committee for the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, and has presented to numerous organizations, including Whole Life Expo, The Fireman’s Fund and Lucas Films.
DEBBIE ROSAS: Thank you very much, Chris, for having me. I look forward to sharing what I love. As I said, I look at every day of my life as my canvas. It’s an opportunity to be here now and make a difference in the world, in my life and in the lives of those who I come in contact with.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: You certainly have made a great difference. As you know, the title of this series is the Passions of Real Life Legends. Will you share with us more about how your passions-life as art and your body as a canvas-have led you to create Nia and all that has come from it?
DEBBIE ROSAS: My passions were rooted as a child in learning. I grew up as a child who was plagued with all kinds of physical illness, from ear infections that were so bad that I would spend weeks at a time without hearing, to eye infections where I would spend weeks without being able to open my eyes, and skin eczema infections on my body where I was unable to be touched, or even to go to school.
I withdrew into my body. The passion was driven in the beginning out of a painful experience of being in a body, and the passion was to figure out how I could live in this body. How could I learn when I had learning disabilities? I couldn’t read. I had a very severe speech impediment. I had to have remedial reading and speech therapy as a young child.
I felt not normal. I always felt that there was something wrong with me. My passion and desire was one of wanting to look like everybody else. I wanted to be like everybody else. I didn’t realize that my experience was really going to chart my journey. It was going to lay a foundation for me to create a body of work that we now know as Nia. The gift to me was that my body was plagued with illness.
The gift was that I didn’t learn like everybody else; therefore, the only place I could go to figure this out was not in my head, not outside to a book, but into my own body, connected to my own experience and connected to sensation, which I now know is the voice of the body. This led me on a journey of becoming a mother and a wife, and eventually creating my own business that we now know as Nia.
In the beginning, my experience of life and the way I connected was very much related to art. I became an artist. Painting and drawing was a way that I expressed myself. It was a way that I got what was inside out. Eventually, after having my first child, I realized that I was slightly depressed. I had never felt such a thing as depression. I went to a gym in those days. Everything was pink and fuzzy.
It was one of those places where you stand and the rollers hit you. Within just a few moments of moving my body, all of a sudden the depression left. I was shocked. All of a sudden, I didn’t care about the extra weight on my body. I noticed I felt different. This stayed in my mind for several days. I went back again, and the same thing happened. I noticed that I emotionally began to feel better.
Within a couple of days after that, a friend of mine invited me to go to an aerobics exercise class. I did so, and the same sensation came back to me. I felt hopeful. I felt alive. I felt myself. I felt my body. That was really the beginning of me listening to my body, and listening to this voice that I now have a very passionate relationship with. That’s the voice of my body, my spirit, and my soul that guides me every single day.
That really has been the driving force of creating the Nia Technique from a very spiritual level. After several years, I created a fitness program that was very traditional. It was in the early 70s. After about five years, I was looking for a way to honor students who had been with me. I called a martial artist, and he decided to invite me to come to the dojo, which I did. At that time I had about 50 instructors who worked with me.
I invited the only man who was in the company. His name was Carlos. I invited him to go with me. We went to the martial arts dojo. We took our shoes off. In a split second we looked at each other and had a connection to our bodies, to our bare feet, and to something that we both believed was a divine intervention that came into our bodies. We recognized that something had changed.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Debbie, if I can interrupt you for just a second. It’s a wonderful story, and I want to hear the rest of it, but I can’t imagine that you hadn’t taken your shoes off before you went into the dojo. What was different this time about having taken your shoes off?
DEBBIE ROSAS: It was different because in those days of doing traditional fitness, everybody wore shoes for protection. The shoes were thicker and heavier. The whole idea was that if you were going to exercise and do something good for your body, you needed to protect yourself. The shoes were the way that we protected ourselves. When we took our shoes off, all of a sudden we felt our bodies in a very profound way.
The next day when we went back to teach our class, neither one of us could put our shoes on. That moment changed the course of our lives, and it changed the entire course of fitness. Back in those days it was ‘harder is better’, and ‘go for the burn’. We said to our students and to the world, We’re going to take off our shoes. We’re not going to jump up and down anymore. We are going to give you a workout that is based in delivering cardiovascular fitness, but we’re not going to jump. People thought we were crazy.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: No more calisthenics?
DEBBIE ROSAS: No more calisthenics. We started integrating martial arts into the traditional workouts. Slowly our movements turned from the linear, repetitive movements to very conscious, circular, fluid and spiral movements; movements that were a blend of Yin energy-a softer energy-and Yang energy-a more powerful energy. We began to feel better in our bodies.
We began to develop the strength that was not just physical, but energetic, mental, emotional and spiritual, as well. We were really beginning to create ourselves as whole human beings. This is what we wanted to do when we thought about taking off our shoes in martial arts. We said we wanted to give people back something much more than just a healthier heart.
There are more parts to being human. We want to give people back what is their inherent birthright. That is to live their life in a body fully passionate and powerful; not only physically strong, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We wanted to give people an opportunity to discover what was meaningful for them, what was unique about them, and how they do what they do while they live in a body.
We wanted to honor the uniqueness of every single individual, rather than to have a cookie-cutter mentality workout. Thus, we created Nia which then became over a period of time a blend of martial arts, where we focused on precision, dance art where one focuses on expression, and even the use of sound. We used the voice. We’d yell out, Yes! and No! and Maybe.
That increases not only the integration of body and breath, but it also creates an interaction of very small, intrinsic gestures that are so important to one expressing who they are and discovering who they are. In the healing arts, we discovered there is a way to provide someone a tool so that they can use the design of the body, which is what we call the ‘body’s way’. They can use that design.
They can follow that design so that they can begin to move functionally and self-heal, which means improving the function and also the sensation one feels in the body. For example, Chris, if you just do this simple thing right now-and your listeners as well, wherever they are-just turn your palms up. This is going to open your shoulder joint. If you inhale and smell the moment you’ll notice there’s a lot more room for your lungs to expand and your diaphragm to move.
If you turn your palms down, you’ll notice that changes. All of a sudden you’re not able to get in more air. One way to energize yourself during the day and to keep yourself calm and relaxed is to merely turn your palms up. This is the way of the body. When we follow the body’s design-and that is looking at the structure, the bones and the joints-and we listen to that design, we call this following the voice of the body.
Then we can begin to reframe how we do what we do. We can break bad habits, and we can create new ones. All of sudden, little aches and pains that we thought were natural and that we should learn to live with, go away. That’s the power that we have when we live consciously in a body. We can learn to live in a healthy way and die in a healthy way.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Debbie, your first book was called Non-Impact Aerobics. I know from reading a bit that you came to view it in a different way. Will you talk about how your perception of what you were doing changed, and your experience that changed over time?
DEBBIE ROSAS: Yes. In the beginning, as I said, when we took off our shoes we were just amazed at what we felt. Our old perception of fitness was that you had to work hard, and that you had to use repetition until your body was a little exhausted. In other words, you had to break your body down in order to build it up. We realized very early on when we started to sense our body rather than think about what to do, when we started to develop a relationship with the feeling and thinking body, and to follow the sensation of pleasure, that the body actually would move more naturally toward becoming stronger, toward creating change, and toward transformation.
If we treated the body with love, if we listened to what we call ‘our body’s way’, what could our body do? How many repetitions did our body want to do of that move? We began to create a process and a program whereby everybody in the same room, whether they were very fit or dealing with short- or long-term illnesses, such as Parkinson’s or arthritis, could follow this new path that we call the ‘pleasure principle’.
That meant listening to the voice of the body sensation. No matter what you’re doing, if pain speaks to you to stop, adapt the movement and adjust it so that it fits your body. We also discovered that the body gets stronger when we give it love and when we speak to it in loving ways. For instance, as one is moving and dealing with pain in the hip, one can say, Now I am healing my hip, versus My hip hurts. My hip hurts.
Making a choice, standing for pleasure, standing for self-love, and really beginning to believe that one can live in a body in a healthy way that feels good and pleasurable, takes education. It takes a while, we discovered, for people to begin to trust pleasure. Most people trust pain more. They know what to expect and almost expect it. However, pleasure is something that people often feel they don’t trust or maybe it’s something selfish. It’s hedonistic.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: It’s irresponsible. Anybody who’s always seeking pleasure must be irresponsible. Of course, that’s tongue-in-cheek here, but I think there is that kind of feeling among many people.
DEBBIE ROSAS: We know that the one thing we want to give to a child or an infant is comfort and pleasure and the feeling of safety. All of a sudden at a certain age, it becomes unacceptable for one to receive pleasure or to even give oneself pleasure. Touching one’s body becomes something that is not okay to do. One of my favorite authors, Alexander Lowen, who is author of Bioenergetics, says the primary orientation in life is toward pleasure and away from pain.
Life, our life, your life and your body’s survival depends on the information that comes into it. We as conscious beings have a choice to either put loving, positive information into our bodies, or painful and negative information. Carlos and I thought, If we are helping people to get fit, stay healthy, and create healthy and meaningful lives, then we have to teach them how to choose pleasure, and not pain.
What we put into our bodies, as our experience of pleasure or pain, is what ultimately crafts our beliefs. I think that’s one of the big reasons why people believe that exercising is going to be hard. They believe that exercising is going to be painful. Who wants to do that? Nobody. We have an epidemic of obesity. We have an epidemic of people not moving because of the belief.
We can fine-tune our memory and recreate a new consciousness, which will create a new path not only for ourselves, but for our children and future generations by teaching people how to live and how to workout in healthy, pleasurable ways. Every cell in our bodies is controlled by the awareness of the environment that it’s in. If that’s true, I want all 75 trillion cells in my body to be controlled by the awareness that the environment they live in is loving, pleasurable and comfortable. We’ve learned to adapt to discomfort. Can we learn to adapt to pleasure and joy? I think so.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: Debbie, I think the question that arises for many people is, Can I do that and still be a responsible person? You mentioned that there are some deeply embedded beliefs in our culture. When you think of fitness, the one that comes to my mind is this idea of ‘no pain, no gain’. It was theoretically based upon the idea that the way to get muscles built up is first they have to be broken down.
By breaking them down, then the muscles are rebuilt, and they’re stronger and bigger, and that’s how you build a strong body. In terms of our general lives, of living our lives, most people in the West have grown up with the idea that they have to work hard, and nothing is gained without a lot of effort and difficulty. In many cases, people will say that you just have to do what has to be done, and at some point you’ll be able to live your dreams, and then you can enjoy life.
It’s the whole idea of putting things off. Yet, what it sounds like you’re saying is that Nia incorporates a very different belief system that, of course, you’ve put into practice in terms of the exercises. Can you talk about how people who have grown up with this philosophy and these beliefs can get comfortable with the idea that it may be okay to follow the path of pleasure and comfort and not have to incur so much pain? How do we get comfortable with that idea?
DEBBIE ROSAS: I think we get comfortable by looking around at our world and realizing that what we were doing doesn’t work, and it didn’t work. I think it’s time for us to open up our eyes and ears and take responsibility to make change and create change. I do this by teaching people through the body to first of all connect to sensations. So many of the people who Carlos and I work with are cut off from even feeling or noticing sensation.
The only sensation they do recognize that causes them to stop is pain. Let’s look at that phrase ‘no pain, no gain’. When it comes to following the body’s way, the way the body is designed to be treated, fostered and grow into its wonderful, healthy and beautiful environment for the spirit to live in, what we’re really looking at is stimulation. Let’s replace the word ‘pain’ with ‘stimulation’.
Stimulation is what creates all of the cells in the body to move. A single cell’s awareness of the environment-not our genes-is what sets into motion the mechanics of life. Do we want to set into motion the mechanics of our life out of pain or fear, or out of stimulation, joy and excitation that causes us to do our best work and to be the best person we can be?
There are so many books on the bookshelves that talk about finding your life’s passion or finding a job that you love. If we begin from very early on as an infant and child to follow the path of pleasure, and if we realize we are going to be the strongest, healthiest and best, and if we make choices and decisions in our life every second based on making sure that we are receiving pleasure, then we will end up in a job that’s right for us.
We will end up in a relationship that is loving and perfect. We will become the kind of human being who will not only create an environment for himself, but an environment around him that will be healthy for him and other beings. Hopefully, the first thing an infant will see is a beautiful face smiling down at them when their born. They’ll feel the tenderness of being held and the gentle touch on an infant’s cheek.
We begin to learn about our world through touch. Then we go through five stages. We actually have a program called The Five Stages of Self-Healing, which returns people back-no matter what their age-to moving in an embryonic way; very fluid on the floor, and then creeping, crawling, standing and walking. We return to those stages to reclaim sensation and pleasure.
As an adult, all of a sudden it becomes painful to get up and down from the floor. That’s a huge indication that we need some self-healing, that we need to reclaim mobility, stability, strength, flexibility, and balance. It’s not so that our legs and our biceps look good, but so we can move functionally and feel good. Trust me, if you can get up and down from the floor very easily and briskly and feeling good, your body is going to look good.
CHRIS ATTWOOD: That makes sense. Will you talk more about the Five Stages of Self-Healing? You’ve also talked about using movement as medicine. Will you tie those things together for us? How can movement be medicine?