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Fitness Bound

It's Touchy-Feely With a Purpose

April 01, 2002|HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Move like Nia dancers," our teacher, Sarah Lampro, exhorted us, and we did--even though some of us had no idea what that meant.

I had come to the weekday morning class not knowing what to expect. A colleague who had tried a sample Nia session in Pasadena had told me that it was weird and fun.

The Web site had described the practice in vague, nebulous language: "The Nia technique combines the intelligence and creativity from the East and West, Yin and Yang, Mind, Body Spirit and Soul."

It had sounded so deliciously hokey--so totally California--I had to try it.

The class I chose, at Pacific Athletic Club, was held in a room full of mirrors. The music ranged from pop to world music, and the moves alternated between expressive bouts of "free dance" and segments of instructor-led calisthenics.

Nia, I learned, borrows from a variety of disciplines, including yoga, aerobics, martial arts, kick-boxing and dance.

Like striving Merce Cunningham wannabes, neophyte ninjas or tentative tribal dancers, we felt the rhythm of the tabla through our bare feet, and swayed our bodies to the twang of the sitar.

Created nearly 20 years ago by Debbie and Carlos Rosas as a response to the high-impact aerobics boom, Nia was designed to be more "mindful" and gentler on the body.

In their quest to find an exercise that would cause fewer injuries, the Rosases studied aerobics, martial arts, yoga and dance.

They skimmed and refined what they judged to be the best of each; they took out bounce and added flow. The result was Nia. "Nia" means "purpose" in Swahili. It was also originally an acronym for "non-impact aerobics"; today it stands for "neuromuscular integrative action," a term the Rosases coined to describe the link between mind and body.

As in martial arts, instructors earn belts ranging from white (lowest) to black (highest). Students progress from one belt to the next by completing successive training courses. Manuals define skills required for each belt level.

There are nearly 1,000 Nia instructors worldwide and nearly 600 in the United States, according to Kevin Bradley, marketing director at Nia headquarters in Portland, Ore. Bradley estimates that 15,000 people practice Nia daily.

Most Nia classes can be found in health clubs, but there are entire studios devoted completely to the practice in cities such as Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. The largest Nia communities are in New York, Portland, Boulder, Colo., and Austin, Bradley said.

But Nia is barely a blip on the exercise scene here in Los Angeles. Bradley said he is in the midst of a campaign to promote Nia in the Southland.

"It is kind of crazy that L.A. hasn't caught on," said Lampro, who has taught Nia in Palos Verdes, Pacific Palisades, Manhattan Beach and San Diego.

It is crazy. With its touchy-feely new-age lingo, verbal patter of self-acceptance, elements of watered-down yoga and corporatist flower-child flavor, Nia seems a perfect fit for Southern California.

On this morning, about a dozen homemakers, retirees and free spirits--ranging in age from late 20s to 60s--gathered to dance. We stood obediently in lines, waiting for class to begin.

Lampro, our teacher, had bright, lively eyes, a playful personality, a perfectly toned body and a red bandana tied around her head.

"There are no rules," Lampro told us as the music began. "There is no right or wrong. This is a dance party!"

The day's theme, she told us, was "Girls' Night Out." I learned later that the Rosases have choreographed nearly 40 set routines, each drawing on different forms of exercise. Some routines are predominantly based on tai chi, others on aikido, still others on tribal dancing.

We began with free dancing to warm up. Some of us were awkward at first, but soon we were skipping, grooving and giggling.

"Dance like a snake flows through your spine," Lampro told us, as she undulated like a belly dancer. She threw her arms out like a surfacing mermaid. "Splash emotion," she said. "Splash sound."

Nia felt like a hodgepodge of every exercise class I had ever taken. It was like a rave without Ecstasy. Yoga without postures. Aikido without the philosophy. Spirituality without God.

We did step routines like those in aerobics, and kicks like those in Tae-Bo or kick-boxing. We did breathing exercises as in Kundalini yoga and dancing that seemed derived from the dance theories of new-age guru Gabrielle Roth.

What was distinctive about the class was the language. Whether we were doing hard-core leg lifts or gentle shoulder circles, Lampro's instructions sounded like a Zen koan--or a bad knockoff of a Rumi poem.

Lampro used words and phrases I had never heard in an exercise class. "Melt" described one move. "Open your heart" described another. "Happy bodies. Happy bodies," was the call for a familiar bit of aerobics choreography, with some flowing arm movements thrown in.

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