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."
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.