Nia Yoga


What is Nia?

article by Marilyn Mitchell

Nia, Neuromuscular Integrative Action, is a fantastic aerobic workout, or as some have called it – “a fabulous spiritual sweat” – that blends movements, concepts and theories from diverse sources. Nia (pronounced nee-ya) uses the concentration and flow of tai chi, the dynamic poses and mindfulness of yoga, the power and focus of martial arts, the grace and spontaneity of modern and ethnic dance, and the freedom and authenticity of creative movement. These disciplines are integrated to create an exhilarating workout that is expressive, inspiring and fun.

Nia was developed in 1983 by Debbie and Carlos Rosas. The main Nia studio is currently in Portland, OR but Nia is practiced internationally. Its introduction to the fitness industry revolutionized the body-mind-spirit approach to workouts. A one hour class includes a blend of simple choreography and free movement done to an eclectic mix of music. Nia energizes as well as leaving one feeling centered, limber and strong.

I’d like to share Nia with as many people as possible since it has been such an important factor in my health. I meet far too many people that have never heard of Nia and are missing out on one of the best ways to balance everything in one’s life.

The creators of Nia recommend people stop exercising and start moving with pleasure. The cliché of “no pain, no gain” is the diametric opposite philosophy of Nia. Nia encourages participants to listen to their bodies, notice their emotions and sense their breathing and movements. By fully engaging the body and learning to sense one’s whole self, students walk out of class feeling connected and in tune with their physical selves. By moving with pleasure, students learn to accept their own abilities at whatever level of fitness they are at in the present moment.

When people are not used to being physically aware, it is very easy to neglect the body and to do harm, either through poor eating habits or from extended periods of inactivity. It becomes easy to live in the world in an intellectual sense but to be unaware of normal physical sensations, such as hunger or thirst. Nia slowly brings people back into awareness with their physical sensations and helps people of all fitness levels to learn to love their bodies. Imagine loving your body!

Since I am very petite and I am dyslexic, I was always the last person picked for any team when I was a child. I grew up thinking my body was inferior since I was honestly quite bad at sports. Being left handed in the 1960’s meant that I used a mitt for catching on my left hand and I had to learn to throw with my right hand. Needless to say, I never did get very good at catching or throwing. Luckily, I discovered gymnastics while I was in junior high so I did learn to love that form of activity. Gymnastics improved my sense of balance while it also taught me to be brave. Throwing one’s body through space, either on the trampoline or on a mat requires courage. Unfortunately, I traumatically dislocated my right shoulder while doing a backward roll on the balance beam, so I quit gymnastics at age 20.

As a way to remain active, I learned to swim at that point and began swimming several times a week. Swimming is wonderful, because it, too, is safe and aerobic, like Nia. Swimming also improves one’s mental attitude. No matter how bad I was feeling when I entered the pool, I always felt great as I emerged. My only beef with swimming is that I am not fond of the chlorine in public pools.

In my mid-thirties I began doing Jazzercise, which is fun but doesn’t have the spiritual or creative aspects of Nia. It did help me to understand moving to music so that when I found Nia, I already had learned some basic movement steps.

Allow me to fill you in to what I had been doing professionally up until that point. Since the age of five, I wanted to be an artist. I went to art school but switched my major to nursing when I encountered several professors that told us to do our own thing but then didn’t like my work. I decided I could do my own thing and help others if I became a nurse. Nursing afforded me a steady income and since I love people, provided a social outlet beyond my time in the studio.

I was 42 when I first discovered Nia. We had moved to the Boston area and I joined a local health club. They did not happen to have Jazzercise at that club but they did have Nia. It was described as a combination of dance, martial arts and tai chi. Intrigued, I took my first class and was immediately impressed. The music was high quality jazz and African music, which was so much nicer to move to than the typical Top 40 type music used by other forms of aerobics. The instructor didn’t yell at us; she engaged us by setting an example but encouraging us to do our own moves.

After almost a year of being a student, I decided to become a Nia instructor. I was already a busy person since I worked part-time as a nurse, made and exhibited my art and had two teenage children, plus a busy husband. I had to question whether it made sense to add a third profession to my already very full schedule. Eventually I realized that I wanted to do Nia as often as I could, anyway – so why not earn some income at it while I could. I became a Certified White Belt Nia Instructor in 2000.

The training for Nia is based on a martial arts system since there are differing belt levels which indicate differing levels of knowledge. There are thirteen principles to each belt level. The first level is white belt and it focuses on the joy of movement.

The next level is green belt and it focuses on teaching. The third level is blue belt and it focuses on relationships. The fourth level is brown belt and it focuses on energy. The top level is black belt and it focuses on mastery and creativity.

Nia is an experiential work out. Each routine is based on a conceptual idea. For example there is one that uses ‘extension’ as the basis for the hour workout. During the hour you will be guided to extend your limbs and also to extend your imagination. Every routine has room for improvisation and experimentation. Through Nia you will learn to move your body in the best way for your fitness goals.

There are many benefits that can be gained from doing Nia. Nia increases the pleasure of simply living in your body. It creates weight loss and proper weight maintenance. Nia improves circulation and heart health because it is aerobic. It strengthens muscles and improves muscle tone. It relieves stress. Doing Nia regularly can help improve sleep since the body is physically tired and the mind is relaxed. It improves endurance. It increases grace & flexibility. It helps with coordination, especially if you are dyslexic. It improves posture and balance. As we age, it is important to work on balance since it is a skill that requires practice. Nia improves concentration and cognitive function. It helps to alleviate some emotional problems such as depression or anxiety. It also can contribute to increased creativity.

There are a few fundamental principles of Nia that I would like to share with you. The primary one is that the experience of joy from movement is the secret of fitness. Fitness is the end result of moving with joy. Fitness must address the whole person, not just the physical body. If you think running on a treadmill and watching television is engaging mind, body and spirit, you are not aware of how disconnected that kind of activity is from integrating one’s whole self in terms of fitness. In fact, the treadmill/television watchers are further disconnecting their minds from their bodies. Nia works to integrate the mind, the emotions and the spirit with movement intentionally.

Another fundamental principle of Nia is that movement should be conscious, not habitual. By bring awareness to movement, Nia assists people to learn how to move with purpose. Nia students move with bare feet so they can learn to ground themselves through the sensations of the feet. By using our bodies the way they were designed to be moved, Nia is remarkably safe. I have met many people injured from many fitness disciplines, including yoga, but Nia encourages students to listen to their body so they are much less likely to engage in movements that cause injury.

At this point, I recently completed a master’s degree and I work for Kaiser Permanente part-time as a nurse, I create and exhibit my art and I am a Certified Brown Belt Nia Instructor. I believe that doing Nia has given me the tools to accomplish more in my life since I am energetic and focused.

Nia is good for all bodies and no previous experience is necessary. The class is usually done in bare feet wearing loose fitting clothing. Shoes may be worn by those with structural foot problems.

Check out the official Nia website at where you will find more information, videos, class listings and teacher info and Nia products.

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