Finding My Body’s Way with Nia Dance

Nia Technique class

Photograph of Nia class provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com)

It’s a Saturday afternoon in East Dulwich. Outside it’s pouring with rain, but inside Push Studios, I’m with a group of women moving to music. I’m barefoot and sweating and feeling utterly free in my body. Most importantly, I’m having fun!

My quest to be Fit by Fifty had brought me to a two hour introductory Nia workshop led by Mary Ann Mhina.

What is Nia?

If you’re anything like me, you might not know what Nia is. Nia stands for Neuromuscular Integrative Action. It’s described as a ‘sensory-based movement practice’ and it draws on Tai Chi, Yoga, Tae Kwan Do and Dance. Basically, it’s a dance-fusion form of exercise designed for the mind, body and soul.

It also provides a low-impact cardio workout and because it’s so easy on the body it’s a great way to get fit and lose weight without injuring yourself.

There are numerous other benefits to doing Nia including improved muscle strength and tone, stress relief, improved posture and strengthened immunity.

Classes are taken barefoot. It doesn’t matter what age, shape or size you are, anybody can do Nia. Because Nia teaches you to move in your body’s own way, all the movements can be adapted to suit your own body and physical capabilities.

The overriding Nia principle is pleasure and you’re encouraged to do what feels good and to avoid anything that hurts or is exhausting. Sounds good to me!

Nia 5 Stages

We begin the ‘Playshop’ by exploring the Nia 5 Stages. It’s a series of movements based on the five stages of human development: Embryonic, Creeping, Crawling, Standing and Walking.

Using guided imagery, Mary Ann encourages us to roll on the floor in a foetal position and then to creep belly down across it in a lizard-like movement. Next we’re crawling like a bear, then squatting and lunging and finally walking.

Mary Ann has a very gentle style and throughout the class she reminds us to do only what our bodies are capable of doing.

The aim of the Nia 5 Stages is to allow the body to naturally realign itself and to self-heal. In fact, Mary Ann credits doing the Nia 5 Stages every morning with healing her back pain.

I loved the playfulness I experienced while rolling on the floor and the rotation of my hips and shoulders as I crawled. In spite of some discomfort in my knees while creeping and crawling I was quite surprised just how relaxed my body felt afterwards and how much looser everything felt.

Free Dance and Self-Expression

Mary Ann Mhina teaching a Nia class

Mary Ann Mhina

The next part of the workshop was free movement; improvising movement to music.

The trick is not to think about the movements consciously, but to listen to your body. It’s intuitive, you’re doing what your body wants, going where your body takes you.

I’m the kind of person who’s always in my head, so it’s quite a challenge to switch off and just let my body take over and guide me, no planning, no forethought, just intuitive movement.

Mary Ann describes Nia as being “all about remembering how to enjoy moving your body” and I soon understood why. Amazingly, I don’t feel self-conscious, in fact I’m revelling in the freedom of moving my body in an instinctive way to the music, spinning and twirling, arms outstretched, swaying, and expressing myself physically. No words, just my body moving freely through space.

Nia Dance

In the second half of the workshop Mary Ann guides us through several dance and movement sequences. As someone who still doesn’t know her left from her right and used to attend co-ordination classes (I kid you not!) I was afraid that I might not be able to keep up but I needn’t have worried.

The sequences are easy to follow and the music is brilliant. It’s an eclectic mix of world music and new age dance beats. Before long my hips are swaying and I’m sashaying and jumping, kicking and twirling along with the rest of the class. One minute we’re striking and punching the air, shouting, “Yes”, the next we’re growling like a tiger. I’m sweating but I’m not out of breath. My body’s working hard, but it’s easy to keep up. I can do this!

Mary Ann is passionate about the way that Nia can help us to start to get back in touch with our own bodies. “To understand and listen inside instead of getting all our messages about how we look and feel from without. Nia is fun,” she says. “It can help you re-learn to enjoy and celebrate your body no matter what it has been through, no matter how you have punished and criticised it over the years. Nia will meet your body just the way it is and move with it.”

At the end of the workshop my body has that heavy relaxed feeling I get after a swim or a full body deep tissue massage. I’m in a mild state of euphoria. Every muscle in my body feels as if it’s been worked, stretched and released and I’m rewarded with a feeling of deep relaxation. But at the same time I’m feeling alert and energised – revitalised.

I also have a new-found respect for my body. It coped. I was able to move freely. So often, my body is a source of pain and illness. But on that rainy Saturday afternoon, thanks to Nia, my body was all about physical pleasure and joy.

Where can you find a Nia class near you?

Mary Ann will be teaching Nia in East London throughout June & July on Monday nights at 8 pm at St. Barnabas Church, Grove Rd, London E3 5TG.  Find out more at: http://maryannmhina.co.uk/dance-with-me/

You can search the Nianow website for details of a Nia class near you. http://www.nianow.com/

About Mary Ann Mhina

Mary Ann Mhina is a certified Nia teacher (White Belt & 5 Stages) and teaches in East London.  You can find out more about her at: http://www.nianow.com/maryannmhina  and  http://maryannmhina.co.uk/dance-with-me/.

Photograph of Nia class provided by Nia Technique (www.nianow.com)

Photograph of Mary Ann Mhina from http://maryannmhina.co.uk/dance-with-me/

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2 Responses to Finding My Body’s Way with Nia Dance

  1. Susan Rees November 21, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Dear Angie – I am aready 50 and like stay fit – but have never been super slim and never been able to go running or anything like that — too boring. Always loved dancing but been useless at it — but I quite agree with you about Nia — its absolutely brilliant – even if you are uncoordinated the moves are so simple yet satisfying and somehow somewhere in the class you start to feel you are dancing…..the music is so much better than most exercise classes — and its in the ‘join’ between the music and the movement that ‘magic’ occurs. Its got something for everyone — all fitness levels, but its hard to explain. They say ‘Nia is like chocolate – you can’t describe it – you just have to try it’, and its true — would highly recommend to anyone 30,40,50 or any age! Classes are growing, and training is happening gradually in this country with two centres for training in London and near Edinburgh – and the fantastic nia now site – allows you to find classes near you so easily – very useful. There are also national and regional sites. Highly recommended.

    • Angie Macdonald November 21, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

      Hi Susan. What a wonderful recommendation for Nia! Thank you so much for sharing your enthusiasm – Nia is a wonderful way to dance, have fun and get fit at the same time. And brilliant for anyone who wants an alternative to the gym or running.

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