The Nia workout: Don't feel the burn

This exercise routine emphasizes pleasure over pressure

CorrespondentOctober 12, 2010 

  • Nia - also known as Non-Impact Aerobics - is a New Age-ish mix of dance, the martial arts and "the healing arts," the latter reflecting everything from a flowy type of yoga to "positive tension" - what we once called isometrics. It was created in 1982 in response to the "no pain, no gain/feel the burn" ethos of the nation's emerging appetite for aerobics.

    To find Nia classes in the Triangle, go to

It's about indulging yourself. It's about pleasure. It's about listening to your body and doing what it wants to do, not what some hard-body drill instructor wants it to do.

And, strangely, it's exercise.

"In Nia," says Charlotte-based instructor Demetra Yuvanu, putting a spin on an old workout axiom, "We say, more pain, less gain."

Nia (pronounced NEE-yah) is a New Age-ish melange of dance, the martial arts and "the healing arts," the latter reflecting everything from a flowy type of yoga to "positive tension" - what we once called isometrics.

It was created in 1982 by the then husband-and-wife team of Debbie and Carlos Rosas largely in response to the "no pain, no gain/feel the burn" ethos of the nation's emerging appetite for aerobics. It's also been known as "nonimpact aerobics," hence the name Nia.

Nia, which is offered at Y's and other venues across Raleigh and Charlotte, is predicated on just the opposite notion.

"Nia is all about the pleasure principle," as Julie Ihrig tells a class at the Cary Senior Center, one of several classes she teaches in the Triangle.

Nia borrows from the aforementioned disciplines to create 52 sanctioned moves crafted into roughly hourlong routines. Most moves appear rooted in dance, from modern to ballroom to cha-cha. The dance moves are interspersed with occasional martial arts moves - a chop or a block, accompanied by a crisp "Ha!"

The healing arts - the slower, more meditative moves - are generally reserved for the cool-down portion of the class. The classes are done to world music, incorporating everything from drum-driven African music to a soundtrack that might accompany a Chinese spaghetti western to a harp solo.

Movement in Nia classes is continuous; even the occasional transition is given over to a form of free-play dance. It's a structured program, using different combinations of the 52 moves in set routines, but the option of practicing at three levels of intensity offers a degree of freedom within that structure.

"Your first impression watching a class is that people are doing different moves," Yuvanu says, "but really they are doing the same move a different way."

Just at different levels, which is where Nia's pleasure assurance comes in.

Low on energy or have a strained back? Then you might want to stick with Level 1, which involves more graduated movements that don't stray far from the body's core. Level 2 takes it up a notch, permitting the arms to sway a little farther, a little higher, bare feet to cover more studio space. Level 3 is letting everything go.

"We're a culture that really values Level 3," Ihrig tells an advanced class. Then, tying the practice of Nia to its application in day-to-day life, she adds, "If I'm a Level 3 person in my life, I need to learn not to sustain that level. We need all levels in our lives."

Full body and spirit, too

Physically, Nia offers a full-body workout, improving flexibility, offering strength training and improving overall conditioning. Plus, says Gregory Florez, CEO of the Utah-based FitAdvisor Health Coaching Services, it adds a crucial element missing from the majority of our workouts. "Most of what we do in Western culture is very linear," he says. "You have planes of movement. When you run, you use very specific muscles. There are a lot of muscles that don't get worked in our traditional exercises."

Few muscles escape Nia's attention, he says, which helps improve flexibility and balance, builds core muscles and reduces our risk of injury. Darlene Downing, 48, of Raleigh was diligently putting in 7 to 8 miles a day on the treadmill when she discovered Nia nearly two years ago.

"Nia started to wake up all kinds of body parts I wasn't using," says Downing, who has since become a certified instructor. Nia instructors must pass through five levels of training - White, Green, Blue, Brown and Black belts - to become trainers.

Nia adherents appreciate the emotional aspects, the release their practice provides.

"It's a beautiful movement, a spiritual movement, but in a non-hokey way," Jackie Saber, 48, said after a class at Raleigh's Sertoma Arts Center. She also appreciates the dual nature of the class.

"It's a group experience, but you can have a private experience within the group."

Ihrig believes Nia's appeal has to do with its playful, childlike quality.

"We don't have a lot of opportunities to play in life," says the 43-year-old Apex resident. "With Nia, there are endless opportunities to play."

At the end of her class at the Cary Senior Center, as her students are winding down, she reminds them that making their bodies happy is the ultimate reason they're there - not to leave feeling the burn.

"You want to create that sense of your body saying, 'Ah... thank you."

Joe Miller writes about health, fitness and the outdoors in North Carolina. Read his blog at

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