A New Look at Nia: The evolution of a holistic movement practice for body, mind, and soul
by Bonner Odell
Susanne Liebich of Dancing Wellness (see “GirlPower!”) draws on various movement styles in her work, but there is one practice she integrates into her classes more than any other: Nia. A fusion of dance, martial arts, and healing arts, Nia is a cardio fitness technique performed barefoot to music from around the world. Through a mix of simple choreography and guided improvisation, Nia instructors emphasize sensation and internal experience over outward aesthetics in an effort to cultivate awareness of one’s body, mind, emotions, and life as a whole.
An acronym, Nia originally stood for “Non-impact aerobics,” but its creators later changed the full name to “Neuromuscular integrative action” to reflect the form’s evolution into the holistic approach it is today. Since its inception more than 30 years ago, Nia has grown to include more than 2,500 certified Nia instructors teaching in more than 45 countries.
A quest for body-friendly fitness
Nia was created in 1983 by Debbie Rosas, who owned an exercise business in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Carlos AyaRosas, now retired, who worked there as a fitness trainer. A series of sports-related injuries led the two to begin researching forms of movement that would avoid repetitive stress on joints and muscles. Rosas tells of visiting a martial arts dojo: “The martial artist asked us to take off our shoes. We always wore sneakers, so this was a surprise. When my bare feet hit the mat, everything in my body lit up. He asked us to move. We started doing jumping jacks and leg lifts like we did in our classes. ‘You have forgotten how to move,’ he told us. Driving home we asked ourselves, ‘Is that true?’ And we realized, yes, it was. We had forgotten how to move.”
Its dance component makes Nia a perfect fit for dance studios—an opportunity to engage parents of current students and attract new clientele.
That experience gave rise to the Nia founders’ reverence for the bare foot; the foundational principle that pleasure, not pain, should guide the body to better health; and the method’s basis in movement variety. Nia routines are built around 52 movements selected for their combined ability to work the body’s joints without strain. The movements are drawn from three martial arts (tai chi, tae kwon do, and aikido), three healing arts (Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and yoga), and three dance arts (jazz, modern, and Duncan technique).
Rosas says that she and AyaRosas chose jazz “for its sense of fun, showmanship, expression, and sassiness, and its use of isolations.” From modern, Rosas says, comes Nia’s use of “shapes in space and the emotionality of the movement. We encourage people to really go inside [themselves] to reflect in the choreography whatever emotion they are feeling. We want them to be personally connected to what they are doing.” In keeping with this goal, Nia also uses vocalization exercises, which Rosas says helps participants release pent-up emotions.
As for Duncan technique, Rosas feels a strong kinship with Isadora Duncan, who, like the Nia founders, cast off shoes in pursuit of an unencumbered way of moving. “[Duncan] believed that through dance we could commune with all parts of ourselves,” says Rosas, “and that is what we aim to do in Nia.”
Nia draws on Eastern practices that strengthen the body–mind connection, including meditation, qigong, yoga, and tai chi. Classes are not primarily inward-focused, however, and instructors aim to create a sense of community. Play and intentional silliness are integral, though the instructors’ prompts, rich with imagery, can also be quite profound, practitioners say.
Music is also used to move the emotions; in a single class, dancers may hear a South African choir, Cuban rumba, and violin solo all mixed into one continuous soundscape. In their teacher training, instructors learn some of the science behind how sound vibrates in the brain and through the nervous system, triggering emotional responses.
A vehicle to wellness
Liebich, a Black Belt Nia instructor classically trained in ballet, says that Nia has transformational benefits. “It’s a philosophy about life—about discovering joy and pleasure through movement, and dancing through life,” she says. “After studying Nia, I finally knew what it was to dance with expression. The Nia journey has been very profound for me.”
Caroline Kohles, senior director of health and wellness programming at JCC Manhattan in New York City, designs Nia programs for people with Parkinson’s disease or cancer. Highlighting Nia’s focus on “being in harmony with the body,” Kohles, a former professional dancer, says, “When I was dancing [professionally], I wasn’t thinking about moving in a way that considered the design and function of my body. I was used to pushing my body to perform. Nia is based on moving in a way that is sustainable: pleasurable, not painful. The body isn’t something to be sacrificed for the sake of art.”
Nia practitioners with physical or emotional challenges describe benefits from the practice that go beyond the physical. Testimonials posted to the Nia website include those of a legally blind instructor who says Nia taught him to “tap into all of [his] senses so that [he] still feels alive and happy,” a high school student with PTSD who says Nia classes make her feel “at ease and free like a child in love with the world,” and a survivor of child sexual abuse who says Nia helped her to feel comfortable in her body again.
Class structure: ritual meets variety
A Nia class lasts 60 minutes and usually follows set routines created by the Nia leadership, though teachers have license as to what to include and how to present the material. Every Nia class progresses through seven cycles, or stages. Instructors start by setting a focus or intent, which establishes the day’s theme. Themes direct participants’ focus to a specific part of the body or to a function of the body (such as the out breath). This is followed by a ceremonial “step in,” which invites participants to leave behind the distractions of their daily lives.
Nia’s movements are drawn from three martial arts, three healing arts, and three dance arts.
Next comes a warm-up intended to activate the body’s primary joints, including the ankles, knees, hips, spine, and shoulders. Participants then move out into the space, sometimes in a set direction and sometimes wherever they choose. Instructors use guided choreography and improvisation to increase range of motion and activate the cardiovascular system using high, middle, and low levels of movement.
After a cool-down comes a period of floor play combining free-form and structured movement patterns. Participants can use mats, carpet squares, or kneepads to help them move comfortably. A brief guided meditation may follow. At the end of class, everyone stands for a closing “step out,” intended as a symbolic transition back into life outside the studio.
Nia training mirrors the colored belt system used in martial arts. White Belt training, the minimum required to teach, is offered as a weeklong workshop multiple times a year in locations worldwide. It covers the basics of the approach: sensation and body-centered awareness. Teachers must join Nia Livelihood, the organization’s membership arm, which grants licensure, access to Nia music, teaching tips, peer networking, and four routines a year. (Teachers can purchase additional routines through the Nia website.) Although they are not required to, instructors are strongly encouraged to pursue the Blue, Brown, Black, and Green Belt trainings, each one week long. (Green is not the highest training level but is specifically about teaching skills and can be taken at any belt level.)
For a less formal introduction, the Nia website offers a class locator, information about shorter trainings available to the public (including the 52 moves), DVDs, music, and The Nia Technique: The High-Powered Energizing Workout That Gives You a New Body and a New Life, a book by Rosas and AyaRosas.
In the dance studio
Nia classes are taught in all kinds of venues, from gyms, wellness centers, and yoga studios to community and senior centers. Its dance component makes Nia a perfect fit for dance studios, whether offered as part of the class schedule or through a Nia instructor who rents space. Both options offer an opportunity to engage parents of current students and attract new clientele.
Rosas estimates that at least one-fifth of Nia instructors come from dance backgrounds, as do many Nia students. “I’ll bet I hear at least three times a week, ‘I used to dance, but I had to give it up,’ ” she says. “These are adults who believed they were too old to keep dancing before they found Nia, or the physical demands of the way they were taught to dance became more than their changing bodies could adapt to.”
One student writes in a testimonial that, thanks to Nia, her body can “do more at 57 than it could at 37.” Sentiments like this may help explain why Nia has been embraced by such a wide cross-section of people worldwide.
Bonner Odell has served as editor of In Dance, a lecturer at California State University–East Bay, and a teaching artist for Luna Dance Institute. She holds an MA in dance from Mills College.