Natural Healing: Workout with Nia

Neuromuscular Integrative Action, or Nia, melds tai chi, yoga, martial arts and ethnic dance to give you a great workout.


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You may have seen it included on the schedule at your local health club, and because Nia could stand for just about anything—Notoriously Impacting Aerobics, or Nonstop Idiotic Activity—you’ve opted to steer clear and head for the treadmill. Heck, for all you know, Nia could be a torturous fitness craze requiring you to alternate between one-armed push-ups and wide-gripped chin-ups. Who can blame you for not wanting to give it a try?

Fortunately, Nia is none of these things. It qualifies as a fitness class; however, the physical workout ends up being a mere fringe benefit. Barefoot and still grouchy after a long day in front of the computer, I ventured into my first Nia class just recently. In minutes, I understood why the room—lights turned down low, sheetlike canopies draped across the ceiling, candles burning—was filled to capacity. I had been an aerobics instructor for many years and figured Nia would resemble, at least to some degree, something familiar. I was wrong.

A personal experience with Nia

The music began. By the second song (our instructor had chosen a Celtic theme for the evening’s class), a smile had somehow found its way to my face. I was dancing. And it didn’t matter that I was not very good at it (although in my head I was worthy of sharing the stage with Michael Flatley himself). No one cared. Not the woman next to me that I bumped into over and over again, nor the instructor who offered easier variations for those of us who were new to this. Unlike the military-style aerobics classes that most of us have grown accustomed to, in Nia class it didn’t matter what foot we were on. We were encouraged to do what felt good for our bodies. Our simple instructions were to find our space and express what was inside.

The facts about Nia

Nia, Neuromuscular Integrative Action, was developed by Debbie and Carlos Rosas in 1983 as a way to bridge the gap between fitness and wellness. These former dancers combined the concentration of tai chi with the dynamic poses of yoga, then melded the power of martial arts with the grace and imagination of ethnic dance. They ended up with lightly choreographed dance routines interspersed with sections of free movement allowing participants creative expression for themselves. So while your body gains tone and flexibility on the outside, your soul is being soothed and pampered, thanks to this mind-body connection.

“Whatever is happening in my mind translates to my nerves, which then translates to my muscles, which then translates to my movement,” says Kathy Wolstenholme, a certified black belt instructor and owner of Alchemy of Movement in Boulder, Colorado. If your mind is stressed, your movements become tense, too, she explains. “It also works in reverse. If I can make my body more fluid, it affects my muscles, which then affects my nerves, which then affects my mind. People who come to Nia become stronger and more balanced and more fluid, but those are just the physical changes we can witness. All of those things filter into every aspect of our lives—the mental, spiritual, and emotional realms,” says Wolstenholme.

Choosing a class

Nia instructors, about 500 worldwide, attend weeklong intensive training sessions in order to become certified. The process resembles the hierarchy in martial arts in that a newly certified instructor receives a white belt and then progresses through additional training to the ultimate black rank.

Any Nia class is suitable for any level participant—whether you’re just getting started with a fitness regimen or you’re a seasoned veteran. Within each class, the instructor offers varying steps for level one (beginners), level two (intermediates), and level three (experts). Level-one movement, for example, concentrates mainly on the footwork, whereas the level three choreography incorporates entire body movement—from your eyes to your toes. Each Nia class is different depending on the instructor, as well as the genre of music chosen. And within the same class, each participant’s experience varies depending on moods and expectations. For example, the energetic tempo of the Celtic beat coupled with a stress-filled day at the office resulted in my personal experience being more of a tension release rather than a spiritual event.

Nia’s true meaning

In 1992, almost a decade after Nia was first developed, a student from Africa was participating in a class and mentioned that in Swahili, nia means “with purpose.” The Rosas feel that this translation best describes Nia, because it unites mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional aspects. The following year, the Rosas were asked by the International Dance Exercise Association, a continuing education resource for fitness professionals, to define the concept of mind, body, and spirit for the entire fitness industry. They replied, “So how do we define Nia? We say it’s a lot like chocolate—you have to taste it. It’s a mind-body-spirit movement program with purpose. It’s awakening the soul. It’s mindful action. It’s fitness and health. It’s meditation in motion. It’s medicine for the soul. It’s nirvana in action. It’s nurturing internal awareness. It’s all of these things and more.”

For more information about Nia, or to find a certified instructor in your area, call (800) 762-5762, or log on to