Fitness regimen blends dance, martial arts and fun

Posted Feb. 20, 2012, at 3:44 p.m.

Nia is like Zumba, but not really. It’s like tai chi, but not really. And it’s like yoga, but only sometimes.

“I’ve heard a million different descriptions,” said Julia Annis, an independent instructor who teaches classes at Olympia, Washington’s Waves Studio and other locations. “That’s one of the things I love about Nia.”

Annis, 42, has been teaching Nia since 1995 and calls the exercise technique her passion.

Nia is the fusion of martial arts (like tai chi and tae kwon do), various dance styles and healing arts (like yoga) into a low-impact activity. Annis says Nia is a great way to build strength, increase flexibility and get a cardio workout without pounding your body into a state of constantly nagging aches and pains.

In fact, it is the pursuit of precisely that — natural and pain-free exercise — that led to the creation of Nia in 1983. Nia is the idea of Californians Debbie and Carlos Rosas and originally stood for Non-Impact Aerobics. It’s still low impact, but the creators now say Nia stands for Neuromuscular Integrative Action.

The classes are designed for all fitness levels. Annis instructs 20-somethings at Waves Studio and has taught seniors at Lacey’s Jubilee retirement community in Tacoma, Wash.

The hour-long Nia classes are held to music from a number of popular artists including Seal and Prince, but “mostly their B-sides,” Annis said.

Generally speaking, she describes Nia music as world music.

“And it should be world music because Nia is practiced in about 45 countries,” Annis said. “Nia is very sensitive to cultural awareness and global unity. The music is amazing.”

Nia instructors can earn belts based on the martial arts system by taking part in intensive seven-day, 10-hours-per-day training that costs $1,600.

Trainers are allowed to work outside the belts system, however, said Annis, who is a white belt, the first level. Griffin is a black belt, the highest level.

So, here’s the part that intimidates some people about Nia: The classes are choreographed.

“That word can be scary for those who do not have dance experience,” Annis said. “But there is a simplicity to it. People learn the moves pretty fast.”

Nia uses 52 moves that Annis said are easy to learn. She politely and subtly prompts people in her classes to help them, but even those who struggle with the choreography still benefit, she said.

Annis recalls a student who she described as “flailing” and she was certain this person was going to leave frustrated. Instead, the student approached Annis afterward with a broad smile to thank her for “an amazing and fun workout.”

“Trying something new can be a little unnerving,” Annis said. “That’s why I encourage people to sample it a couple times.”

Annis said there are also Nia videos so people can work out away from classes. Videos sell for $30 at NiaNow.com.

“The most consistent thing I hear from people who try Nia is that it is fun,” Annis said. “They always say they can’t believe how fast the hour has gone by.”

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