Nia: Fitness for Every Body

Nia teachers show how much fun it is to get your groove on—and get a good workout! From left: Cheryl Fusco Johnson, Renee Erickson, Coralee Dey, Peggy Polakow, Rolf Erickson, and Stephaney Johnson. (PHOTO: Copyright 2007 Mark Paul Petrick)

What’s your take on your body these days? Are you feeling fresh, fit, and fabulous, or do you haul yourself around like a bruised bag of yams? Depending on my workload or how many frozen pesto pizzas I’ve consumed the night before, I can go either way. But whether I’m feeling coltish or creaky, there’s one form of exercise I can always count on to give me just what my body needs. And that’s Nia.

An artful, innovative form of fitness and healing that’s been around since the 80s, Nia (Neuro-Intramuscular Action) combines movements from martial arts, dance, yoga, and more to deliver a fluid workout that tones the body, challenges the mind, and uplifts the spirit.

“You don’t usually get women grinning about sweating, and that is overwhelmingly the response to a Nia class,” says Marie Sage, an Iowa City Nia instructor and dance teacher. “People look happy afterward and they get a good workout, too.”

The Nia technique was created in the early ’80s by former aerobics instructors Debbie and Carlos Rosas in response to the era’s reigning “no pain, no gain” fitness paradigm. Using mindfulness, comfort, passion, and pleasure as underlying principles, the Rosases molded a unique exercise from from nine different schools of movement: jazz, modern, and Duncan Dance; T’ai Chi, Taie Kwon Do, and Aikido; yoga, the Alexander Technique, and the Teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais.

“In Nia, the body moves every possible way the body can move,” says Rolf Erickson, a Fairfield-based Nia instructor. “It’s very fluid, dynamic, and creative.”

It’s also a great way to get your groove on. Done barefoot to all kinds of music—from world and hip hop to technofunk, jazz, and rock—Nia is, well, extremely fun.

“I love it!” says Fairfielder Janet Thomas, who’s been taking classes for almost two years. “I really find it the most exciting form of exercise. It’s absolutely not boring because there are such a variety of moves.”

In any given Nia session, a trained teacher will expertly guide the class through 52 basic movements, presented in a creatively choreographed routine. Each move can be performed at one of three different levels of intensity, and students are encouraged to choose the level of intensity based on what feels good to them in the moment.

“If something’s saying ‘ouch!’ instead of ‘ahh,” you need to tweak that movement and adjust, so the experience is always one of ‘ahh,’ of enjoyment,” says Fairfield-based Nia instructor Peggy Polakow. “We always remind students to take that reflection inward and listen to body’s sensations and honor those. With Nia it’s always the body’s way, your body’s way.”

“The Body’s Way” is one of the core concepts behind the Nia practice, and in layman’s terms, it essentially means doing what feels good. It means forging a new relationship with your body and its movements based on pleasure and enjoyment, rather than pain and strain.

“It’s all pleasure based,” says Rolf’s wife Renee, also a Nia instructor. “It’s about being in your body and going from there.” Indeed, one of the 13 delicious principles behind Nia is that of the Pleasure Principle: “If it feels good, it must be Nia. If it feels good, keep doing it.”

All fine and well for an hour of fun, but long-term, what can Nia do for you? Potentially amazing things.

Weight loss, improved posture, enhanced muscle tone, greater flexibility, better balance, increased joy, and stronger mind-body co-ordination are just a few of the health benefits any Nia teacher will rattle off when asked. And as copious testimonials on the official Nia website ( attest, the practice has proven a powerful self-healing tool for a wide array of health complaints, ranging from depression and anxiety to osteoarthritis.

“I’ve seen one woman drop two dress sizes and another woman experience increased shoulder mobility,” says Marie Sage, who herself lost 12 pounds through just a few months practicing Nia. “I’ve seen knees getting stronger and people moving in a younger fashion.”

Fairfielders are feeling the benefits, too.

“I am a formerly sedentary writer,” says Cheryl Fusco Johnson, of Fairfield, who once suffered from chronic, non-diagnosable muscular pain around her knees. “I used Nia as an adjunct to physical therapy and never anticipated that I would not only be able to climb stairs without pain, but also begin teaching Nia fitness classes five days a week myself!”

According to its proponents, the widespread healing power of Nia stems from its ability to integrate one’s neurology (including the mind, emotions, and spirit), with one’s outer body, or musculature. The result is a kind of whole-being integration.

“It’s a wonderful technique for self-healing,” says Rolf. “Nia takes you beyond mere fitness into the integration of the body, the mind and the emotions. It’s an experience that stirs joy and emotion. It’s like coming into yourself.”

And because the technique uses movements that are easy, intuitive, and comfortable, just about anybody can do Nia.

“It really is for every body,” says Stephaney Johnson, a Nia teacher originally from Des Moines. “I’ve seen all ages, all fitness levels, all body sizes doing Nia—from Olympic athletes to people who are in wheelchairs.”

So whether you’re looking for gentle, rehabilitative movement or an hour’s worth of ecstatic money-maker shaking, it might just be worth your while to try Nia. There are plenty of opportunities in Iowa—you’ll find certified teachers holding classes in Des Moines, Dubuque, Iowa City, Sioux City, and Fairfield. Who knows? You just might develop an entirely new spin on your body—and life.

Rolf recounts the following story with a smile, “One of my students came up to me after class recently and said, ‘You know, something really wonderful is happening to me during Nia class and it’s carrying over into my life.’ I said, what’s that? And she said, ‘I don’t have to do everything perfectly anymore.’ ”