Body movin’

Being a veteran classical ballet dancer of nine years and an avid 25-mile-a-week runner, I was immediately intrigued when I heard some women describe a free-form aerobic dance class they had taken, having mistaken it initially as Yoga.Their voices were animated and full laughter over the enjoyment and release this class provided. I am always looking for new ways to get a good workout and continue my love of dance, so this was something I had to try.

I sat there thinking, naively, how simple a dance class sounded, confident my youthful 22 years and background in ballet would make this easy for me.

I was painfully wrong — literally.

After taking just one class of this free-form, playful dance, I could barely get out of bed the next morning. Everything from my back down to the pads of my feet hurt. I immediately had to take a hot shower just to warm up my muscles enough to move without limping.

But I was determined not to let this get the best of me. I had to go back for a second round.

The class was called Nia – Neuromuscular Integrative Action, a worldwide mind-body-spirit fitness program created in 1983 by Carlos and Debbie Rosas.

A combination of Eastern and Western concepts, philosophies and movements are brought together to create fusion fitness, or a combination of two or more classic movement forms.

Nia is a creative blend of nine “energies” from the martial, healing and dance arts.

In plain language: Picture a hint of Yoga, jazz, modern dance, Tae Kwon Do and a few others all mixed together to form an exercise class designed to allow participants to simply do what feels good for them.

In my case, that first Nia class provided me with an hour of fun and liberation, an excellent cardiovascular workout and extreme muscle soreness for days.

My overconfident attitude kept me from listening to my out-of-shape dancing muscles telling me to take it down a notch and not hurl myself into the most advanced movements.

Each person is his or her own teacher, and the idea behind Nia is to do what feels right and what you are able to do comfortably. There are three different levels of intensity in Nia, and anyone from a first-timer to an avid Nia enthusiast can partake in a class.

“Everyone is encouraged to move in their own way,” said Lynda Hackney, a Nia instructor with whom I took my second class. “Emotions get stuck in the body. When we move, we loosen that.”

On a deeper level, Nia combines the mental, physical and spiritual health to incorporate the entire self.

“You get to explore what your inner world is on that day,” said Margaret Crawford, 55, of Fort Worth, who has been taking Nia twice a week for three years. “It allows everyone’s artistic side to come out.”

Crawford said with each class, she tries only to think in the “now”‘ concentrating on what her body needs at that very moment.

Upon taking my first class, I had not yet read anything about Nia, and I was going off only what I had heard.

I walked into a large open room with hardwood floors, the only lighting coming through the large windows on one side of the studio and a thin string of white holiday lights around the ceiling.

The energy of the room had already begun to flow. The “regulars” were greeting one another, smiling, laughing and already full of vigor, as the instructor was getting the music ready.

Listening to the strangely upbeat, instrumental music that sounded like the type played in an aromatherapy store or acupuncture clinic, I realized this class was much more than just playful dance.

Nia uses seven cycles of movement, which each workout incorporates, and there are 52 moves, such as stepping with the heel first as opposed to the toes.

I found this particular move to be difficult, as it is the exact opposite of ballet, where you always lead with the toes.

1. FOCUS AND INTENT – “What You Place Your Attention On”

The instructor, Katy Hobbs, a graduate from Texas Christian University with a master’s degree in special education, described how we would be focusing on the three main body weights – the pelvis, chest and head – or the core.

2. Step In – “Create the Space to Workout”

Everyone spread out to find his or her own space and we began with simple movements working on bending and folding from our centers followed by turning, twisting, reaching and elongating our spines up through our fingertips and down through our toes.

The pads of my feet were on fire from turning and twisting around barefoot on a hardwood floor, as Nia is intended to be done, but I was having too much fun dancing around like a small child at play to stop. I was swept away with the energy of the room.

3. Warm Up – “Prepare Your Heart, Lungs, and 13 Joints”

I was suddenly surrounded not by other students in a class, but by bodies in motion, people undulating, swaying, turning in different ways and interpreting the instructor’s guidance to fit their own needs.

Everyone was exhaling and breathing deeply, focusing on releasing the negative energy of the week. Breath is a vital part of Nia – and not simply exhaling, but feeling the energy and breath from within your center to exude that negativity.

4. Get Moving – “Energize the Moves to Reach a Peak”

The movements were quick and rhythmic and my heart was pounding.

Halfway into the class, I was sweating and nearly panting.

I could not help but think, ‘Get it together; you run at least 20 miles a week.’

I was determined, and most of all, I was loving this class.

I am typically very structured, from the way I act to my physical stance. Nia broke all of that down.

For the first time, I completely let loose. Admittedly, for the first 10 or 15 minutes of the class, I thought, ‘This is so embarrassing.’ But after looking around the room, I realized that not only was I the youngest by a stretch, but also everyone else was dancing around without a care in the world.

So I let go.

5. Cool Down – “Calm, Harmonize, and Re-center”

After moving my body through each area of the room, the movements slowed, and each participant once again found his or her own private space to travel through.

The music slowed, and the movements became easier – softer.

6. FloorPlay – “Fitness on the Floor”

The instructor gradually guided us to the floor, where I was able to close my eyes. take a deep breath and relax into my bones.

After spending several moments in stillness, feeling the soft melodic tones of the music, the class was guided into awakening.

7. Step Out – “Transition Into Your Next Activity”

Energy and movement slowly began to enter each part of my body. I carefully made my way to standing by crawling and easing my spine straight, curling up through my tailbone to my neck.

The instructor quietly welcomed the class back to life, and we transitioned to the rest of our day by stepping into it.

I walked out of that first class feeling better than I had in months, realizing I had just found the greatest stress reliever in years. I was full of energy and every part of my body was loose and relaxed.

However, after that first class and talking with several women who regularly take Nia, I realized I was missing the heart of it.

I was unable to connect my inner and outer self.

I had spent the entire class concentrating on the steps, doing them perfectly and keeping the pace. I missed the spiritual side Nia embodies.

So I returned for a second week, with a different instructor, different music and different movements.

I was also prepared. I had done my research and my focus was entirely different.

Where initially I had waltzed into that studio confident I would master this free-form movement because I had been a dancer, I forgot my ego the second time around, and I allowed myself to listen to what my body was telling me felt good.

I closed my eyes and opened my imagination. I joined in when everyone else was exhaling and releasing, something I had forgotten to do the first time around.

I did not push myself to the point of overexertion, thinking it was just a simple dance class, as I had done the first time. I felt the movements not just from my outer self but also from within.

My heart rate was still accelerated, and I still broke a sweat, only this time I was able to move the next day. I grasped that Nia is not about pushing yourself to the point of hurting, but rather liberating the negative energy within and accepting and wanting to do what feels good.

Nia is based on the principle that if something does not feel good to the body, then it should be stopped.

Crawford said she once suffered from an irritated sciatic nerve, and going to Nia and having faith that it would help her heal, enabled her to overcome her fear of the pain returning.

She also stressed the importance of finding an instructor with whom you can connect spiritually. Crawford said her ability to relate with her instructor, who herself sought healing in Nia for her chronic depression, aided Crawford in her recovery.

Though I only attended two classes, the first with Hobbs energized me in a different way – a way in which I want to explore further.

Both instructors approached their classes with enthusiasm, but they were entirely different.

Hobbs’ passion was fiery and vivacious due, in part, to her youth and exuberance, where Hackney’s is rooted in wisdom – something attained through a lifetime of experience.

I enjoyed both classes in different ways. The first gave me the greatest workout I have experienced in a long time. The second made me realize the underlying importance and spirituality in Nia.