One day Debbie Rosas and Carlos AyaRosas walked into a dojo, hoping to learn something about the belt system used in martial arts, which they wanted to apply to their own burgeoning fitness practice.
The teacher told them to take off their shoes. Then he told them to move. Seasoned aerobics pros, the two performed their usual exercises: jumping jacks and leg lifts.
"That is not moving," their teacher said. "You have forgotten." He taught them how to move with more softness and intention.
That day in the dojo changed everything. Instead of the high-impact, repetitive aerobic moves the pair had been doing, Debbie realized they could tap into the energy patterns and movement of martial arts and other forms. She and Carlos embraced the idea--still radical even today--that you can get the gain without the pain.
Originally called Non-Impact Aerobics, Nia was born in 1983 in Marin County, Calif., where Debbie owned a studio called the Bod Squad. There's a video with fab footage of Debbie and Carlos' 1986 appearance on the "Sally Jessy Raphael Show" here. Nia has since grown into a lifestyle practice adopted by more than 100,000 students in 45 countries taught by 2,500 licensed teachers.
Nia is often referred to as "sensory-based." The intent is to use music and sound to spark imagination and emotion, triggering action in the muscles and joints. This integrates the body, mind, and spirit for a powerful, holistic practice that can bring about both physical and lifestyle changes.
The health benefits of dance have been well-documented. Dancing burns roughly the same calories as jogging, and it can make your heart stronger and improve coordination and balance. It targets your core, arms, legs, rear, and back, strengthening the muscles in all of these areas. Nia specifically addresses the body's five main sensations: flexibility, strength, mobility, agility, and stability.
Dancing can actually retrain your brain, too. It's noted as a good exercise for older people, as the choreography works to challenge your mind's patterning skills. And there's more. It's long been known that seasoned ballet dancers don't get dizzy when spinning. Originally this was chalked up to a technique called "spotting," in which they turn their heads, fixing their gaze very quickly on one spot. But researchers discovered that the dancers had actually changed the way their cerebellums interpret signals that cause the perception of dizziness. Brain scans comparing them to non-dancing athletes revealed the difference.
Nia incorporates movement from the dance tradition, from martial arts, and from the healing arts as well. In just one class, you might find yourself moving from a jazz step to a t ae kwon do kick to a yoga pose. But these are not arbitrary mashups--the Nia technique has been carefully crafted to take the "energetic personalities" of these movement forms and weave them into a choreography that addresses the science of physical movement; integrates the mind, body, and spirit; and allows students to tap into their body's own wisdom.
While more women than men seem to gravitate toward Nia, remember that its co-creator is a man, and many men have discovered Nia's tremendous benefits.
If you've never tried a Nia class, step on in. It's a total misperception that you need dance experience to do this. Even if you're the type who typically remains seated when the disco ball starts spinning, you'll find your place in Nia.
For those of you who already practice Nia, each time you step into class, know that you get to re-experience that wonderful revelation that Debbie and Carlos had back in the 80s, when they first took off their shoes and learned how to really move.