My mother is a relic of the Jane Fonda era. Her closet doubles as the North American Museum of Leg Warmers, and I'm pretty sure she's in an amateur workout video "feeling the burn" to Devo. So when she stood before me wearing rainbow spandex bell-bottoms singing the praises of something called "NIA," I was blunt.
"You know I'll never find rainbow pants in my size," I said, hoping she'd buy it. See, I'm a traditionalist when it comes to exercise. If I'm not sweaty and scarred and breathless, then it's not worth my time. But Mom kept dropping the N-bomb, and I got to scheming: attend one session of NIA (Now I Am) and make it clear that re-enacting my own birth to trance music is not something I want to do three times a week. That's not what NIA is about, but being closeminded requires a surprising amount of imagination.
Mom had described the instructor, Michele Beucler, and I spotted her immediately. Her body was strong and supple, and she smiled from somewhere deep. She gathered us in front of a mirrored wall and explained Mandala, a workout designed to use the powerful muscles in the back of the body to alleviate pressure on the thighs and knees.
Watching her in the mirror, I could see Beucler's focus, balance, playfulness and grace. She moved deliberately, punctuating directional shifts with what can only be described as creature-speak from a Jim Henson movie. The women around me interpreted the movements, using the basic structure and listening to their bodies about how far to stretch, how high to kick. After five minutes, I was sweating hard and, much to my surprise, having a great time. An hour later, I was shaking my head wondering why I waited so long.
NIA has actually been around since 1983 and is the brainchild of fitness gurus Debbie and Carlos Rosas. Together, they studied the human form from the inside out, taking into consideration the connection of mind, body and spirit and the optimal ways to make bodies balanced and happy rather than thin and hard. What they came up with combines movements, concepts and philosophies from East and West, including the healing arts Yoga and Tai Chi, martial arts like Tae Kwon Do and Aikido and dance arts from ballet to modern. Such a complete design, also known as "the body's way," promotes cardiovascular health, flexibility, core strength, balance, endurance and relaxation-not to mention joy, laughter, confidence and peace.
"NIA is holistic fitness, so if people want to pump up their biceps, it's probably not for them," said Beucler. "Holistic change happens more slowly, but it's the kind that lasts. You see your real self, not some sculpted thing trying to be something it's not. It's you-the core."
Connecting with that core is one of the toughest challenges of NIA. We spend a lot of time in our lives rejecting who we really are, repressing emotional pain and trying to conform to impossible physical standards, and most people don't want to recognize how far they are from hitting that mark. NIA attempts to reverse the damage by getting us to laugh at ourselves and appreciate the lumps and bumps that make us unique, but acknowledging the body goes against certain religious beliefs, social and cultural mores.
"Personally, I've had issues with sexuality-it's the core of who we are, how we express ourselves-and some of the movements in NIA touch that nerve. It can be scary," said Beucler. But she believes in the "joy of movement," or the choice to feel and experience with an open mind and heart-which is why she became a teacher. Just like in the martial arts, NIA expertise is measured in belts, and Beucler has earned both white and blue. She has memorized a handful of the dozens of established NIA routines, each targeting a particular area of the body with music and movements that play off the intended message.
"There's a trendy term out there-'functional fitness'-and NIA fits into that category," said Beucler. "It teaches you how to move the body's way at all times, which illustrates the ultimate outcome of NIA: dancing through life. Every movement is a part of that."
If you had mentioned the word "dancing" to Cindy Robertson three years ago, she would have cringed. With a history in competitive sports and a lifetime love affair with distance running, Robertson's definition of exercise was very rigid. But when an injury stopped her from running, she got curious.
"I tried to find an exercise class that gave me the same kind of satisfaction that running gave me-not just the high, but the sense of freedom and grace and mobility. It was a matter of love for me," said Robertson. "There are times in NIA when I get really close to that same feeling. I come out absolutely dripping, and I realize it doesn't matter what I look like, it's the way I feel. I'm never going to be Baryshnikov; that's not the point. I am comfortable with my body and how it moves."
Going into my third month as a NIA-phyte, I empathize with Robertson. I find myself counting the hours before class, looking forward to the challenge of a new routine and a new way of understanding my strong, young frame. I know that when I walk in the room, smiles will be genuine and the energy will seep into the next hour of lunging, spinning, punching, shimmying, floating, undulating and being reborn-but not in the way I originally assumed. This rebirth is more about how you see yourself, and after an hour of NIA, the reflection looks pretty damn good.
"NIA builds community, a safe environment that allows us to be in our bodies;. Worry goes away," said Beucler. "You discover confidence in an organic sense: You're a person, this is your body, this is who you are. Willingness is all one needs." (And a little rainbow spandex).
For more information on NIA, call NIA Headquarters at 1-800-762-5762 or visit www.nia-nia.com.