The student lifestyle requires a lot of time spent sitting down. We sit in lecture halls and libraries and on the bus to class. And if we’re not sitting, we’re walking (or the more creative and rushed among us are skateboarding, biking or maybe just running) across campus to get somewhere or other. Sometimes we go to the gym or sports practice, where we can move our bodies and get sweaty and gross, but often it’s not for the point of feeling joy in the action — it’s to lose weight or burn calories or change the way we look. It’s all too easy to tune out the way a movement or action makes us feel, especially in a stressful schedule packed with classes, work obligations and extracurriculars.
But that’s the whole point of Nia, a dance-fusion exercise form that’s been around since the early 1980s. Nia stands for both non-impact aerobics (that’s the boring one) and neuromuscular integrative action, and the word itself also means “purpose” in Swahili. It’s something I never know how to describe to people when I try to tell them that I do it. It’s dance and yoga, martial arts and a great workout. It’s challenging and so, so rewarding. It draws on elements of jazz and Feldenkrais and more, while still taking into consideration the way the body is put together, the way joints work and the way muscles move. Nia is the original fusion exercise that combines three martial arts, three dance arts and three healing arts.
"It doesn’t just borrow movements from those, it borrows the principles,” said Megan Sims, a Nia instructor at the Ann Arbor YMCA, A2 Yoga and several other venues around town.
Sims is also the owner of Me-Again Dance Healing & Fitness, a counseling business based in the greater Ann Arbor area that provides therapy through methods such as interpretive dance and is geared toward helping each individual grow and find themselves.
“It’s very structured,” she added. “There’s just freedom within the structure to move at your own level or your own way.”
Nia does this by drawing on 52 unique movements and 13 principles, connecting mind and body in a way that doesn’t happen in most people’s day-to-day walks across the Diag or time spent on a treadmill.
Of her own practice, Sims said, “Nia is my therapist, Nia is my gym … As a Nia teacher, I get to really express my authentic self on a daily basis, and I think that’s a really great opportunity.”
Sims teaches Nia to people in wheelchairs, people with Parkinson’s disease and people who have difficulty moving, as well as to people who are more physically able. She firmly believes that it can be valuable for everyone. No matter who you are or where you’re coming from, Nia can be something that’s meaningful, and it can help each dancer to feel whole.
“The research is finally catching up to what dancers have always known: that you have to move your body every day to feel good,” Sims said.
I find that to be true when I take daily walks around my neighborhood but more so in gym dates and particularly during my weekly hour of Nia, where I’m encouraged to go barefoot, where I can express pent-up stress with sharp punches or let emotions drip out through languid spinal rolls. While doing Nia, I allow myself to forget whatever’s on my mind, whatever’s weighing me down. Instead, I pour myself wholly into the motions, the sensation of that movement, and that’s what I’m focusing on — the act of dancing, not what it looks like so much as how it feels and whether or not it feels good. The whole point of Nia is to find joy in the movement, and honestly, that’s never hard to do.
Yes, dancing can be intimidating. At my first Nia class, I had absolutely no idea what was going on. There were mirrors plastering the classroom walls, and I didn’t know where to put my feet or how to move my arms. But the thing about Nia is that it stays with you.
“Most people who take it take it more than once a week,” Sims said. “Many people take it two to three times a week, if they can.”
Once it gets into your routine, it’s hard to go without it (after all, why bother?). My Nia class is that one hour a week when I allow myself to forget about everything except the present moment. The clarity I get from this weekly routine is invaluable and infinitely more rewarding than a straight-backed walk across the Diag with a backpack in tow.
“You know you got a great workout,” Sims said. “You feel happier than when you walked in, and you feel like your mind has gotten a workout as well in some way.”
But there’s also so much more built into the form itself, and one of these principles is called Awareness of Dancing Through Life.
“Even as you’re driving, you’re putting away dishes, you’re walking to work, you’re shaking hands with someone — all of those movements can be part of your life dance,” Sims continued. “And if you feel awareness in your movement, then you’re connected to yourself, you’re connected to your body, you’re connected to people — you’re connected to the moment. That’s a pretty good way to live.”
If the life-dance of a college student consists of sitting in class or sitting down to study (with some gym time or sports practice thrown into the mix), how much joy can come from those sorts of motions? I’ve dedicated this entire article to Nia, and maybe I don’t have you convinced, but it’s almost impossible to pin down what exactly it is if you aren’t already familiar with it for yourself. Like Sims said, “Nia is like chocolate — you have to try it.”
So go ahead — start dancing through life. Start being aware. Put on some fun tunes and walk to your next class with a bit of a spring in your step. And if you’re feeling too self-conscious to skip through Central Campus on your way to class, try dropping in for a free hour of Nia at A2 Yoga. At least there, you know no one will be watching.
Susan LaMoreaux can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.