Two years ago, at a crossroads in her yoga practice and career, hatha yoga teacher Ginny West stumbled upon a video of Nia online. A dynamic, barefoot practice that melds dance with martial arts and the healing arts of yoga, Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique, Nia is a relatively new dance modality that promotes joy, freedom and self-discovery through flowing movement. It was exactly what she had been looking for.
“At the time, my home practice had become a search and a prayer about how I could move forward, and connect more deeply and authentically with my students,” says West, the founder of Wildlotus, a specialist practitioner-training organisation on Victoria’s south coast. “When I saw Nia, I didn’t hesitate. Its description as a sensory-based practice that brings you home to your body felt like the answer. I booked into a [teacher] training without ever having taken a class.”
It was a similarly powerful experience three years ago for Brisbane-based Nia teacher Mandi Cavallaro. A former personal trainer, she had just finished breastfeeding her son and was ready to return to movement in a class, but wanted something different to what was on offer at the gym.
“I was looking for more than just fitness,” she says. “I was looking for nourishment—physical, mental and emotional nourishment. Working as a trainer, your relationship with your body can be quite harsh; it’s almost like a badge of honour to flog it and feel negative about it.”
By contrast, in Cavallaro’s first Nia class, she was invited to sense rather than use her body, to move in accordance with her own physical design and function. “I was so used to mechanical movement, but this was organic,” she says. “I left the class feeling really alive. It was so exciting!”
Most students report feeling energised and more alive after a one-hour Nia class, says Sophie Marsh, a Black Belt Nia teacher and trainer from Nia Australia. “We talk about Nia being a joyful manifestation of music, movement and magic,” she says. “There’s technique, and there’s freedom to move and express in your own way. It’s very much sensation-based: how the movement feels, not how it looks.”
Created in California in the early 1980s by fitness trainers Debbie Rosas Stewart and Carlos AyaRosas, Nia was their antidote to the high-impact aerobics movement of the time. Suffering injuries and exhaustion, the pair began to look outside the gym to create a practice that could condition and shape the body while still nurturing mind and spirit.
Nia’s 52 signature movements draw from the disciplines of jazz, modern and Duncan dance, Tai Chi, Taekwondo and Aikido, as well as the healing science of yoga, Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique. “The 52 foundation movements are the alphabet of Nia and include moves for everything from the fingers to the bare feet,” says Cavallaro. “The eyes are engaged and the whole body is systemically moving as opposed to mechanical parts moving.”
Nia’s progressive five-belt teacher training system also borrows from the world of martial arts. Trainees are invited to begin at the foundational level of white belt, then move through green, blue and brown belt stages before reaching the highest level: black.
Each belt addresses five core competency areas: movement, music, anatomy, science and philosophy. “There’s so much depth to this practice, to the kaleidoscope that Nia is,” says Marsh, who’s currently the only Nia trainer in Australia.
Nia classes start with the teacher setting a focus and intent for the practice—be it physical or more esoteric—before guiding students through a choreographed routine that builds in energy and aerobic intensity. The class then slows down to finish with yoga-like stretches and breathing. During class, students are encouraged to let their bodies take the lead, vocalise their movements and really make the dance their own.
“I get the same soul nurturing from Nia as I do from yoga. They are both very special disciplines,” says Octavia Chabrier, a regular at West’s Friday morning class. “I suppose with Nia, you get to be a bit crazy with it! You can—and do—go at the pace your body and mind want to go, and you step into another spirit world at times, letting it all hang out.”
The Nia philosophy of “your body, your way” also means the practice is suited to all ages, body types and levels of fitness. “I sometimes have three generations dancing together and my 12-year-old niece with Down syndrome has come to my classes,” says Marsh. “She’s done other dance-based exercise where she was made to feel less-than because she wasn’t in time or couldn’t pick up the steps. She loves that in Nia she has permission to do it her way.” Stacey Elmes, an AcroYoga teacher and another student in Marsh’s class, was also drawn to the sense of freedom within the dance. “I love that I can move my body in a way that is authentic and genuine for me, depending on how I’m feeling on that day—there’s no right and wrong in Nia!” she says.
The release and joy students experience often means they stay after class to chat. “What often strikes people most about Nia is the sense of community,” says Marsh. “After one class people are chatting with each other like old friends.”
After finishing her teacher training, West was also amazed at the level of support and community she felt within Nia. “It was incredibly positive and supportive,” she says. The practice, too, gave her new purpose and reignited her passion for yoga.
“At first I didn’t think I would return to yoga teaching, that I would instead become a Nia dance teacher,” she says. “However, when I came home I felt liberated by the experience and able to approach my yoga in a whole different way. “Nia helped me to realise the battle was in giving myself the permission and courage to be who I am in my yoga teaching. And to find the middle ground of respecting tradition, while opening up to new ways of exploring freedom and the Divine Feminine in my life.”
Catherine McCormack is a freelance writer and Ashtanga yoga practitioner based in Sydney.