Nia (which stands for Neuromuscular Integrative Activity) is a sensory-based, mind-body integrated fitness program which blends Eastern and Western movement forms and concepts into a powerful and inspirational practice that allows a person to feel healthy and fit while exploring his/her human potential and purpose. This blended approach has resulted in it being called a fusion-fitness program. It dates back to the early 1980s and is now an international program.
In the 1970s Debbie Rosas and Carlos AyaRosas were well-known in the aerobics industry
as teachers, but injury and curiousity led them to explore alternatives to traditional approaches in aerobic exercise. In their book, The Nia Technique, Debbie and Carlos recount the story of visiting a martial arts dojo and discovering that “we weren’t as fit as we’d thought. … When the sensei asked us to do some basic martial arts stances, our legs started to quiver in just a few seconds. We realized that we had strength in our large muscle groups, but were weak in the smaller stabilizer muscles that provide power and definition. We also found out that we weren’t as coordinated as we’d thought. Within the confines of traditional exercises we were flexible, but when we had to simply move, we felt clumsy. Our heads told us to move one way, but our bodies went another. Part of the reason for this discomfort was that all our repetitive exercises had programmed us neurologically for rigid, mechanical movements. …. Most noticeable of all, though, was that we’d both lost the joy of moving. As we watched our smiling sensei move with great sensual pleasure, we realized that we’d lost the childlike, playful, pleasant quality in our physical actions. For us – like so many others who struggle to be fit – movement had become work.” (p. 14-15)
This dojo experience was influential in shaping the development of the Nia Technique. Another influence was the rejection of the widely accepted mantra of “no pain, no gain.” The result - breakaway thinking from high impact aerobics, repetitive movement, mind-body separation to new thinking emphasizing sensory awareness, conscious movement, mind-body integration, and joy of movement according to “your Body’s Way” (i.e., using your body as it was designed to function through the path of least resistance in movement). Ultimately the aim of Nia is Dancing Through Life. Dancing Through Life refers to (1) the ability to carry over the healthy movement choices that are practiced in Nia classes into the mundane and sublime of daily life, and turn everyday movement into a dance of life and fitness; (2) the practice of bringing a meditative state into daily life; and (3) the action of finding beauty and inspiration in every part of the world around us.
A Nia class is essentially a predesigned, structured routine set to music, and individuals attending a Nia class are encouraged to think of themselves as dancers, not in a traditional sense but as a dancer of life. A Nia routine lasts about an hour. Each person chooses from one of three levels of intensity for completing the routine. The musical context is a sequence of songs with each song having a different energy. Overall the routine shifts from quiet and slow songs to fast and energetic songs, and eventually returns to quiet and slow songs. Fifty-two movements form the library of moves from which Nia routines are designed. The movements of a routine have been carefully chosen from this library, and are arranged in sequences which change rapidly, allowing one to not get stuck in repetitive movement. Shoes are not worn in Nia, as the barefoot condition provides one with more sensory feedback about one’s relationship with the floor and serves to develop awareness of the Body’s Way.
Some benefits of Nia are internal strength, control and power; mental as well as physical sense of balance and groundedness; physical as well as emotional relaxation even whilst working hard; ability to change the mundane of living into a dance of life; association of fitness with movement not exercise; and idea that fitness is a mind-body concept.
Think of a three-legged stool, with each leg having three feet. This metaphor identifies the nine classic movement forms which form the basis of Nia.
The feet of the martial arts leg are TaeKwonDo (for power, precision, and volatility), Aikido (for circular harmonious movements with awareness of the 360 circle around oneself), and Tai Chi (for soft subtle flow and leading with the heels when stepping). The dance arts leg is the dimension that brings joy and freedom into movement, and its feet are jazz dance (for showmanship), modern dance (for expressive shapes in space), and Isadora Duncan dance (for free-spirited movement). The final and third leg is the healing arts. Its three feet are yoga (for distributing Chi along the body’s meridians through the body), Alexander Technique (for reminding one of effortless movement or the concept of doing things the easy way/the Body’s Way), and the Feldenkrais Method (for teaching one how to retrain one’s neurophysiology to break free of old physical patterns). The stool’s seat represents the synergy of these forms – the fusion of Nia.
How does Nia conceptualize the roles of the mind, emotions, and spirit? On the frequently asked questions page of the Nia website is the description: “Everything in Nia is perceived, experienced and processed through the body. Nia uses the body to develop Sensory IQ wisdom. The mind is used to imagine, witness, focus and direct attention. The emotions are used to personally engage the individual with activity, thereby creating the coupling effect needed to trigger the mind-body connection. Spirit is used to honor the uniqueness of each individual. Nia uses emotion and sound to condition the body and nervous system. Nia’s teaching style emphasizes internally directed guidance, uses visual and sensory language, user-friendly choreography, that can be adapted to fit personal needs, and includes three stages of learning for all levels of ability.” (http://nianow.com/help/faqs#How-does-Nia-differ-from-other-mind-body-programs)