'Free-spirited honest movement'Nia technique blends aerobics with Eastern and Western exercise.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 7:47 PM
"What is the Nia technique?One definition is Non-impact aerobics.Another is Neuromuscular Integrative Action.In Swahili, it means with purpose.And for the nearly 50 people who turned out last Sunday at the Sequoia Center for a session with Nia co-founders Debbie and Carlos Rosas during their annual Bainbridge visit from their Portland home, it is a playshop, a blend of the active and the contemplative. Nia technique began to take form in the early 1980s when Carlos Rosas, then a tennis pro, began working with Debbie Bender, who ran an aerobic exercise company in California. They soon became dissatisfied with traditional aerobics and made a fundamental change: taking their shoes off. That eliminated the continual up and down jarring impact movements associated with aerobics. And they continually looked into other forms of fitness - both Eastern and Western - while at the same time staying mindful of integrating what they were learning with other aspects of personality: spirit, mind and emotions.But lest this become too serious, they also emphasize that everything they do is congruent with the Pleasure Principle: If it feels good, keep going. If it hurts, stop. Vince Lombardi and other proponents of the No Pain, No Gain philosophy need not apply.Virtually everyone in attendance has had experience in Nia technique and already knows all this; I am one of only two who are totally new to the program.The group, most female with about half a dozen men, ranges in age from Gen-Xers to post-60s and includes a wide variety of body types. Bare feet are about all we have in common.Let's take our shoes off so we can feel-feel our body, feel the music, feel our connection to the earth, Carlos says.The session begins with everyone standing in a large circle. One at a time, we take a step forward, sing our name - music is an essential element of Nia - and accompany it with a movement of some sort. Carlos draws appreciative laughter as he mimics a baseball player digging in at the plate and his name melodically soars beyond the left-field fence. He's clearly a guy who enjoys what he's doing and his attitude is contagious. We begin gently, with free-form - very free-form - dance movements set to New Age-type music. As someone whose dancing ability makes Seinfeld's Elaine look like a prima ballerina, I appreciate the non-judgmental atmosphere and quickly relax. After some 10-15 minutes, we pair off, sit back-to-back, and listen to music with respect and attention. Then another movement session, with a deeper awareness of the music. We follow that with a set of movements from Tae Kwan Do - Nia technique borrows liberally from Eastern martial arts. I glance at the clock and am astonished that an hour has already passed. That is followed by a Duncan Dance session (as in Isadora Duncan, most famous for the means of her death - her trademark long scarf got caught in the spokes of an automobile she was riding in).The emphasis is on lightness, so we do skipping, polkas, one-two-three waltz steps. Free-spirited honest movement, says Carlos.Then comes Global Unity, the element most often experienced in typical hour-long island sessions.It's an autonomous experience within a community experience, Carlos says.Electric, warmAt one point, Carlos asks us to describe the experience. Many words come forth spontaneously: Electric. Warm. Joyous. Connected. Centered. Relaxed. Awake. Strong. Pulsating.Debbie adds that it took us 18 years to articulate our experience and feel confident enough to stand behind the message that dynamic ease is what is most effective, rather than effort and struggle.Unity and wholeness begin with each of us, to heal the planet and dance along the way.To this point, the various forms of activity have been interspersed with brief respites for explanations. But now a session worthy of any aerobics class begins, with constant movement, arms raised skyward, legs kicking out, chanting. But as promised, no jumping, no jarring. Nevertheless, exposed backs begin to glisten, T-shirts show patches of perspiration. After well over half an hour, a gradual diminution of energy. Breathing returns to normal. And then something remarkable: for several minutes, we interweave around the room, gently tapping hands as we pass each other. When that ends and we stand in loose rows, I feel a glow around my hands and look down, almost expecting to see a halo. But they appear normal. Several more minutes of silent guided contemplation follow, and a very swift two and a half hours have ended.At a reception afterward, Colette DeWitt, who introduced Nia technique to the island, cites some of its precepts. Fitness. Body/mind/spiritual/emotional integration. Non-competition and mutual support.And like many Eastern disciplines, four levels, or belts: white (the lowest), blue, brown and black. DeWitt has had her black belt for more than two years.She became involved during a vacation in Mexico in 1994, when she accidentally stumbled into a Nia class taught by the Rosas. It struck an immediate responsive chord.And I was the lucky student who happened to live in Portland, 10 minutes away from their studio, she laughs.A year and a half later she decided to move to Bainbridge, and by then Nia had become very important to her. It allowed me to process life issues, and get clear about myself, she says. So I asked them, 'Which teacher in Washington would you recommend?'The response: no one, because there were no Nia teachers in the entire state.So not long afterward, armed with her white belt and a willingness to work hard, DeWitt introduced Nia technique to Bainbridge Island. She introduced Nia to the other three women who current teach here - Dorit Goodwin, Sharon Winn and Teri Copley. And to many others.* Jennifer Stephenson, 30, of Indianola has been doing Nia for three years.Once I experienced it, I knew it was home, she says. I can do it forever and ever. I teach a creative dance class, and I intend to become certified to teach Nia. It's my primary means of fitness, that and walking my dog on the beach.* Peter Ways rode his bike from Seattle to participate. It's pretty New Agey stuff, he says, like 'the music is the wind and you're the sail,' but it's a powerful new way of experiencing things, a very expansive way to explore. I'm not a dancer, so I appreciate that there's no sense that I'm not doing the movements right.* Catherine from Bellevue, a woman in her 40s, is my co-rookie in experiencing Nia for the first time today. A recent graduate in massage, she says that I intend to get certified in Nia-it impressed that much. I can see how it helps people slow down and heal. I'm excited about it. I like the energy and how you feel after class. It's not like aerobics.* And islander Irene Clark, 61, has been coming two or three times weekly for four years. I loved it from the first moment. It takes me out of my mind and provides great all-over exercise and camaraderie. "