The most difficult part of a Nia class is letting yourself go. As in, feeling completely uninhibited to move like a monkey, a butterfly, a sumo wrestler, or some zany combination of all three. You must accept the fact that you will likely look - and perhaps even sound - ridiculous. You will need to assure yourself that there is no right or wrong and no judgment, so long as your body is moving freely.
If you can do all this - and for some people, the "unlearning" curve may be steep - you just might enjoy Nia more than any other type of group fitness class that exists today.
Nia is no new kid on the block. Founders Debbie Rosas Stewart and Carlos Aya Rosas developed the program in 1983 and in the years since, it has gained momentum to the point that approximately 2,200 trainers now share this free-spirited form of fitness with students in 43 countries.
Short for Neuromuscular Integrative Action (as well as non-impact aerobics), Nia does not feel like a workout so much as a danced-based love-in that focuses on natural movement. To that end, it draws from nine well-established forms of mind-body exercise from the three categories of martial, dance and healing arts: tae kwon do, Tai Chi and aikido; jazz, modern and Duncan dance (from Isadora); and Feldenkrais, the Alexander technique and yoga.
Jennifer Hicks is among the 120 members of the Nia Instructors Association of Canada. She is responsible for the organization's marketing, but more importantly, she is passionate about teaching Nia.
She reached out to me because Nia has changed her life. As someone who had always believed that exercise should involve pain, she felt liberated when she discovered this alternative workout. She received her instructor certification four years ago and her personal appeal was persuasive enough to pique my interest.
There are upward of 40 different Nia workouts, all targeting different areas of the body via various themes. Names range from obscure (Infinity, Alpha Omega) to literal (Butterfly) to cheesy (Zen-sation, Sexi) and Ms. Hicks says it can take up to two months before she's gone through the cycle (Nia instructors pay a membership fee and receive four new classes from the founders - licensed music included - each year).
The footwork - often performed sans shoes - is never fancy; at most a cha-cha, grapevine, dance square or four-point turn. Leave the choreography to the contestants on So You Think You Can Dance.
"We don't always want to be doing repetitive movement," says Ms. Hicks who teaches at The Joy of Dance and Flow! Yoga among other locations in Toronto. "The [steps]are chosen so we can have variety in movement to stimulate the body in different ways."
Sometimes, this means using the imagination: We drum the ceiling, mimic pulling taffy to achieve resistance, tickle the air with our fingers and bend like flowers blowing in the wind. It all seems very folkloric and childlike (in one class, we gathered together in a circle and held hands). At least Ms. Hicks positions students away from the mirror; otherwise, a straight face might be the biggest challenge of all.
But the confidence to grunt or make ch-ch-ch noises is still an ability that comes easier to some than others. Ms. Hicks encourages sound effects as they not only help engage the core, they can be a very effective form of release.
Underlying every action in Nia is the goal to improve mobility and stability. One 62-year-old woman, Susan Berger, started coming to classes a few months after knee replacement surgery and has built up the muscle in her quads while reducing scar tissue, all without exerting much impact. Another woman comes to boost her self-esteem. Ms. Hicks says Nia can be associated with sexual benefits because people learn to move their pelvic area with more confidence. "We want people to be actively learning about themselves in a safe way … and be alive in terms of sensation, [versus]a lot of other classes that want you to go for burn," she says.
She insists that unlike conventional aerobics classes, Nia must be tried to be appreciated. "People say it's like the experience of eating chocolate; there's no way to describe chocolate until you eat it."
Anyone watching a class could be forgiven for having doubts, especially because the moves seem so theatrical at times. But comparing Nia to chocolate is no stretch. Toward the end of one class at the Joy of Dance, a window refracted the late-day sun into a rainbow on the floor. A few women paused to marvel at the precious - and perhaps even symbolic - site. Then everyone dispersed, less like butterflies than buzzed-up, happy bees.
The down low of Nia
The post-workout high feels as good as a visit to the shrink
What is it? A low-impact workout that draws from modern dance, martial arts and healing arts. Expect to channel Celtic, African and Latin moves, sometimes all in a single class.
How hard is it? Nia is nowhere near as intense or choreographed as the highly popular Zumba workout although sweating is not uncommon. Surrendering to the body's innate desire to move can be more challenging than three sets of push-ups.
What does it work? The whole body, although areas such as the spine, pelvis and hip flexors seem to get special attention. All steps can be modified to reduce or increase difficulty. Post-workout high feels as good as a visit to the shrink.
What are classes like? Two words: Hippie aerobics. Done barefoot and set to a hodgepodge of spirited world music tracks, the hour-long sessions are designed to release all inhibitions.
Who's taking it? Not men, that's for sure (although there's no reason why they can't). Women in their late 20s through 60s - with varying degrees of fitness and even more varied outfits (spotted: track suits, gingham shirts, flared pants, jewelled belts) - turn up and let loose.
Sign me up! Drop-in classes typically cost $15. For more information visit www.niac.ca for classes across Canada.