Soul Aerobics

Nia twists, turns, and packs yoga with a punch

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On a quiet Sunday morning, at a dance studio in Minneapolis, 15 barefoot women are enthusiastically twisting their hips to a three-count beat. A casual observer might surmise that a wild tango class is in full swing, but not for long. Over the next hour, instructor Jill Goux will lead her blissed-out charges through sharp tae kwon do punches, stoic yoga poses, and make-up-your-own modern dance moves -- a routine that's as varied as the playlist in the background.

Light-years away from the 'go for the burn' era of aerobics, these women are practicing Nia, a mind-body discipline that has garnered a cultlike following since it was introduced in 1983. Pursuing an alternative to the hard-driving, high-impact fitness that characterized the '80s, founders Debbie Rosas and Carlos Rosas looked to nine classic disciplines for inspiration. Their creation, Nia, which stands for Neuromuscular Integrative Action, is a fusion of martial arts (tai chi, tae kwon do, and aikido), dance arts (jazz, Duncan, and modern), and healing arts (yoga, Feldenkrais, and the Alexander technique) set to music.

One central idea in Nia is that your 'body's way,' the design and function of each person's unique makeup, guides the practice. 'Connecting with physical sensation is how you begin to live a conscious life, to learn about yourself and work out in a way that's respectful to the body,' explains Debbie Rosas. Rather than indoctrinating a strict set of rules, Nia is about adapting movement to your own personal rhythm and comfort level: One person might choose to jump while another softly sways.

It is this adaptability, and accessibility, that gives Nia a democratic niche in the fitness market -- and a passionate following. Rachael Resch was disabled with severe asthma until she found Nia. 'It helped heal my lungs,' she says. Traditional exercise didn't work for Jennifer Alexander, who uses a wheelchair due to Friedreich's ataxia, a neuromuscular disorder -- but Nia does. 'I can't do the leg movements, so I adapt them with my arms,' she says. Bill Stewart was overweight and fed up with boring cardio machines when Nia entered his life and he dropped 80 pounds. 'It was the one thing I enjoyed doing,' he says.

Once Nia-phytes, Resch and Stewart are now among the more than 1,500 certified Nia instructors worldwide. The Rosases have developed routines and music choices for teachers to use, but instructors are encouraged to experiment.

'Diversity is the best thing about Nia because it keeps people interested, and it utilizes the whole body,' says James Garrick, director of the Center for Sports Medicine at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. Unlike strength training on machines, for instance, 'it uses muscles the way they're supposed to be used, in combination.' Maureen Small, a physician at the University of New Mexico Hospital, who teaches Nia to seniors over 70, is amazed by their increased mobility, balance, strength, and agility. 'It works so many aspects of the nervous system,' she says, 'considering all the elements that most exercise physiologists say you need in a workout.'

Nia is not for everyone. There is a giggle factor in some of the unrestrained movements a newcomer might witness, like shimmying your upper body or shouting 'yes!' as you thrust your hands in the air. In other words, you have to be willing to throw inhibition to the wind. Nia is a good option for 'someone open to that kind of activity who won't be intimidated by it,' says Richard Cotton, a California physiologist and a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. While it's not quite as aerobically stimulating as some forms of exercise, he believes that a mind-body activity like Nia is valuable because it combines emotional, mental, and physical benefits.

Many Nia enthusiasts say the practice has changed their lives, sometimes profoundly. It helped Ann Christiansen deal with her divorce, Beth O'Neall reconcile with her father, and Jan Jarboe Russell get through her writer's block. And if nothing else, people say it's taught them the 'joy of movement,' the first defining principle of Nia.

Back in that studio in Minneapolis, there's certainly joy in the air. The women are now dancing with scarves. Gauzy strips of color swish behind arching backs, over bobbing heads. When the music changes, the women set down their scarves -- except for one with salt-and-pepper hair and an infectious smile. Without batting an eye, she wraps her yellow scarf around her waist in a sassy bow and continues to dance.

To find Nia near you, go to nia-nia.com, which will direct you to classes worldwide. Classes typically cost around $15 and last for an hour.