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Nia Creates a Dance of Its Own

Fusion workout blends yoga, martial arts and dance


Self-consciousness has no place in a nia class.

It's a lesson newcomers have to learn quickly or they'll never make it in a world where physical fitness goes hand in hand with artistic expression.

"You have to throw away your self-judgment," said nia instructor Jen Pascoe as she prepared for a weekly class at Muse Yoga Studio. "It's true liberation when you can get by that."

More than 20 students felt very liberated, if not a bit crowded, as they packed into the studio for Pascoe's evening lesson. After a brief greeting, Pascoe cranked up the music, and soon everyone was throwing their arms into the air, stomping their feet and, occasionally, meowing like cats.

Participants of all ages, sizes and genders smirked as they meandered around the room, their fingertips flipping like butterfly wings before beginning a series of lunge-based moves that flowed into arm motions with a distinct martial arts feel.

But anything goes in the world of nia, a fusion of yoga, dance, martial arts and healing arts that has made its way to Boise after being created in Portland, Ore., more than 20 years ago.

Pascoe, a petite 28-year-old, is one of only three licensed instructors in the Treasure Valley, although there are more than 2,000 spread around the world. She laughs when asked to explain what nia is. "You have to try it and experience it," she said.

Pascoe discovered nia in 2000 while at the University of Idaho. While she had always been physically active, Pascoe found a freedom in nia that she hadn't found in any other workout.

"There was a freedom of letting go of body image," she said, describing previous hours spend on treadmills in gyms. She earned her certification in 2005 and has taught in Boise for more than a year.

Instead of repetition or high-impact moves, nia uses aspects of jazz, modern and Isadora Duncan dance style, along with tai chi, tae kwon do, aikido and yoga. Those are added to several healing arts practices, including the Alexander technique, a method that helps people learn to carry their bodies properly to alleviate pain and stress and avoid injury.

Nia follows similar principles, centered on the way the body is supposed to move, something practitioners call the "body's way."

"It reconnects you to knowing your body," Pascoe said. "There's an awareness of how our bodies are supposed to move."

That awareness of the individual body is emphasized in nia, challenging students to break bad habits and release the stress and tension that builds up in daily life.

"We're always in our heads," Pascoe said of modern life often spent hunched over a computer keyboard.

Pascoe admits that while fusion workouts are a major trend, they can't offer the in-depth understanding of each influence, but they can draw from the best aspects of each.

Nia routines are set to music and designed by trainers at the nia headquarters in Portland. Teachers spend up to a month learning the routines before presenting them to students. And while they combine aspects of many disciplines, the routines look like a loosely choreographed dance.

It is, however, a dance that can include everything from deep lunges and pushups to the funky chicken.

"I get to be a kid again," said Linda Rawlings, who has been taking nia classes for roughly nine months. "You don't care [about how you look]. It's just that joyous feeling."

Rawlings said there is a spiritual component that comes with nia that is "powerful and strong. It's better than therapy, and cheaper," she said with a laugh.

For other students, the attraction comes from the style of movement, which is inherently artistic.

"It allows you to let go of your inhibitions, but it's an art form," said Farzin Safavi, who has been practicing nia for roughly a year.

Safavi compares it to a guided meditation. "There's something about spending that energy with everyone else," he said.

Frank Billue agrees that the choreographed nature of the class forces a level of mental concentration not always associated with fitness classes. Billue has always enjoyed dancing but was surprised by how much work nia turned out to be.

"I expected more foo foo and dancing," he said. "This is athletic, this is a workout."

As class progressed, Pascoe kept her students moving nearly constantly, but never in an overt way. Instead, the eclectic crew swept and glided around the room, adapting the movements to whatever each one could handle. Pascoe prefers to teach in rooms without mirrors so students can't second-guess their movements.

While it's just beginning in Boise, nia is already popular in other areas, including Sun Valley. For now, though, it's up to Pascoe and the handful of other teachers to create a following. Pascoe also teaches a nia class at Impact Fitness in Eagle, and an additional class is offered at the downtown Boise YMCA.

For first-time students, it's not always easy to stop caring what you look like. "I ask people to come to three classes," Pascoe said, admitting that people do have to get over initial barriers.

But if they do, "there is a magic that happens when you get out of your head," she said.