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The Joy of Nia 

The dance- and martial art-inspired workout is effective, no-impact and fun

click to enlarge FRONT KICK:Lift the thigh, tucking your heel in toward your buttocks with the knee lifted. Look in the direction you intend to kick. With your hands at heart level, kick your foot out to the front, imagining kicking a balloon. Push down with your supporting foot, and use your hands and arms to maintain vertical alignment and balance. As you kick to the front, your kneecap faces the ceiling and your supportive knee is spring-loaded and relaxed. It is fun to make a sound like "Ho!" when doing kicks.
  • FRONT KICK:
    Lift the thigh, tucking your heel in toward your buttocks with the knee lifted. Look in the direction you intend to kick. With your hands at heart level, kick your foot out to the front, imagining kicking a balloon. Push down with your supporting foot, and use your hands and arms to maintain vertical alignment and balance. As you kick to the front, your kneecap faces the ceiling and your supportive knee is spring-loaded and relaxed. It is fun to make a sound like "Ho!" when doing kicks.

Most of us have heard the phrase "no pain, no gain," so many times we've been conditioned to believe it. But there's another way to reap the benefits of exercise. Nia, a movement practice that draws from martial arts, dance and healing modalities like yoga, is designed to connect the body, mind, spirit and emotions through creative, joyful movement.

  Created more than 25 years ago in Marin County, Calif., by aerobics instructors Debbie and Carlos Rosas, who were tired of being injured while exercising, Nia (non-impact aerobics) is now taught in 45 countries. In New Orleans, both Crescent Lotus (3143 Calhoun St., 382-5199; www.crescentlotus.com) and Transform (8422 Oak St., 985-640-2648; www.transformnola.com) offer Nia classes, which are appropriate for people of all ages and fitness levels.

  "You're moving your body to feel pleasure and nobody's pushing you to do something you don't want to do," says Kate Finlayson, a Nia instructor who teaches the technique at both studios. "It's about finding your own expression. You're tapping into joy, and your body responds to dancing in a pleasurable way. It really is about having fun."

click to enlarge BOW AND ARROW: - Standing in an open stance, step back with your left foot. Rotate your chest to the left as you draw your left shoulder back. Lengthen your right arm forward, as if pulling on a bow. Take aim and release the arrow with a "Shhh" sound.
  • BOW AND ARROW:
    Standing in an open stance, step back with your left foot. Rotate your chest to the left as you draw your left shoulder back. Lengthen your right arm forward, as if pulling on a bow. Take aim and release the arrow with a "Shhh" sound.

  The beauty of Nia lies in its combination of structured and free-form movements. There are 52 basic moves taken from tai chi, tae kwon do, aikido, modern dance, jazz dance, Duncan dance (developed by modern dancer Isadora Duncan), yoga, the work of Moshe Feldenkrais and the Alexander technique. But every class offers a unique combination of those moves — which are performed barefoot to multicultural music — and participants are encouraged to alter each movement to their own needs and abilities. A student may modify a kick, for example, by tapping his foot. "As the instructor, I am simply the guide, inviting you to experience the sensations of your own body," Finlayson says.

  A professional actor who's appeared in feature films and television shows, as well as an environmental educator, Finlayson became aware of Nia's transformative power six years ago and describes it as profound and life-affirming. In addition to providing a full-body cardio workout (as challenging or easy as you make it) that improves strength, flexibility, coordination, breathing and circulation, it also improves mental and emotional well-being and helps participants release inhibitions and become more self-accepting. "It gets people back into their bodies and reconnected to sensation," Finlayson says.

The front kick and bow and arrow are two basic NIA moves. Performed consecutively, they strengthen the quads and hamstrings, and provide a gentle twist for the spine. Repeat the exercises on both the left and right sides until warmth builds up in your body.

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