An exercise that improves your mood as well as giving you a full-body work ou? Nia is a form of dance-meets-aerobics that allows you to let yourself go. By Nadia Marks

It was at the end of my weekly Pilates class when the teacher announced that a new kind of fitness programme was about to start very soon in the same studio and, if we wanted to, we could stay and try it out. She said it was called Nia, which sounded weird and none of us had ever heard of it before. She also said that it was really cool, something brand new which involved movement to music, a sort of free-form dance class with a difference and a lot fun. Even though I was in a rush to get back to work, the idea of free-form dancing intrigued me enough to linger for a few moments longer to observe the start of the class.

I don’t know about you, but I love to dance and I yearn for those long-forgotten times when going to a party meant dancing all night till we dropped and then some more. These days I usually dance on my own around the house when I’m hoovering or in the kitchen cooking, and once in a while, if I’m lucky,  a friend might throw a party that doesn’t just involve eating but dancing too.

I was standing by the door so I could make a discreet exit when the class began; no sooner did the music start to vibrate around the studio than a rhythmic drum beat had me kicking off my shoes and leaping back into the room to join in. By the end of the class I was hooked. I danced effortless for a whole solid hour and when we finished, drenched in sweat I became aware I’d done a total body workout without even noticing it. This was like no other fitness programme I’ve ever taken. It was pure exhilarating pleasure!

Nia, short for Neuromuscular Integrative Action, or sometimes also know as Non Impact Aerobics, professes to be the ultimate ‘east meets west’ method to tone your body – fitness for body, mind and spirit, and the promotion of health and well being. Its philosophy is: Through Movement We Find Health.

Founded 1983 in Los Angeles by fitness gurus Carlos and Debbie Rosas the programme has borrowed a blend of basic principles from the dance arts, martial arts and healing arts and seems to be revolutionizing the face of fitness. The couple owned a chain of successful fitness gyms in California and lived by the ‘no pain no gain’ philosophy of the times, which were the heady days of the Jane Fonda work-outs, and the height of the impact aerobics craze when hard, strenuous work was required to maintain a perfect body. “Fitness was serious but not much fun,” Dorit Noble, the Nia instructor who brought the technique to London five years ago, explains. “It was also a dangerous business. Carlos and Debbie discovered that a high percentage of their instructors were being injured through teaching aerobics and were unable to continue with their work, and many people seemed to be irreversibly damaging themselves through their fitness programme.” The Rosas started questioning the aggressive style of keeping fit they had been using up till then and begun looking for gentler, kinder, ways to exercise. They found it by turning towards the east and the martial arts, engaging not only the body but the mind too.

“Nia is a cardiovascular programme which is based on nine different traditional movement forms,” explains Dorit. “From the healing arts it has borrowed principals from yoga, the Alexander technique, and Moshe Feldenkrais who’s method called Awareness Through Movement is often used for rehabilitation purposes on multiple sclerosis and stroke patients. From the martial arts it has taken from tai chi, aikido, tae kwon do, and from the dance arts it uses principals from jazz dance, modern dance, and Duncan dance, which follows the teachings of Isadora Duncan, considered by many as the creator of modern dance.” Students are encouraged to take the class barefoot enabling them to consciously move in a gentler way, and at their own individual level of intensity. “It’s all about the body building up to a point, step by step, to naturally discover in your own time the ability to move and exercise,” continues Dorit.

Music also plays an intrinsic part in the programme, stimulating different sensations in the body. Whereas in aerobics music accompanies the moves to create pace, in Nia moves are developed specifically alongside the music which is upbeat, diverse and sourced from all around the world. Although Nia is not a strictly choreographed programme it does have some basic steps and through them you’re free to improvise. “Coming from a classical ballet background which is very disciplined and structured, I was always very inhibited to let myself go when dancing,” explains Eleni, a Nia student. “I love dancing dearly and I wanted to be able to improvise but I couldn’t do it. I understood choreography and I was comfortable and secure following it’s disciplines but couldn’t let them go. Nia’s hidden structure gave me the safety net which allowed me to eventually relax.” According to Dorit Noble, it’s your body which guides you into the move, not your head. “If you let go there is no right and wrong. Every Nia movement honours the design function of the body and allows the nervous system to be calmer.”

After my own initial try I continued the classes every week and sometimes twice a week, looking forward to an hour of dancing, listening to some good music and letting go. What I loved about it was the discovery that no two Nia classes were ever the same, which I found interesting and challenging. “Diversity maximises the effect by keeping the students interested which utilises the whole body,” says Dorit.

Jillian Edelstein, photographer and Nia enthusiast, remembers her first Nia class. “I walked into a room packed with about forty men and women. I felt clumsy in my body as I tried to follow the choreography, but I also recall the joy, the smiles and the fluidity in my fellow dancer’s bodies and faces. Moving to the music I felt joy, and I was aware how little like exercise it felt. Time passed without noticing it. I’m not sure why I was surprised, as I love music and dancing, but what really surprised me was how I felt at the end of the class. I burst into tears! The Nia line Through Movement We Find Health, felt absolutely apposite.”

The therapeutic properties for both mind and body seem to come up time and time again when speaking to students. One lady who had been suffering from severe, debilitating osteoarthritis and had been recommended exercise and prescribed pain killers but with no lasting results, explains how Nia worked for her. “When I started the programme my hips and pelvic area felt frozen from years of sitting in front of a computer. I love to dance and walk for exercise but Nia gave the structure to explore movements I was not familiar with and now I no longer experience any arthritic pain in my hips.”

The mood changing qualities of Nia are also something students talk about a lot . “I was in a stage of my life that I was feeling very depressed and sad,” explains Eleni. “I would go into a class feeling down and by the end of it my entire mood would shift. I started having two lessons a week for a year and by the end of it, the sadness was completely out of my body. I felt healed.”

It seems to me that the choice between lying on couch for an hour, twice a week, for a year, or dancing to the beat, in absolute joyous abandonment and keeping fit to boot, wins hands down every time!

©Nadia Marks