We are born with an innate desire to move, to explore, and to find joy and freedom in our bodies.
We move for pleasure, responding to our body’s call to express and release itself through movement. As children, we climb, dance, skip, jump, twirl, and run. When I was younger, I played soccer and softball and loved jumping rope and roller skating.
Yet as we grow older, we become self-conscious, reserved and restricted, and even disconnected from our bodies. The idea of moving our bodies as freely as we once did when we were kids can trigger feelings of anxiety or fear of embarrassment or shame.
We stop moving in ways we enjoy and turn movement into a means to an end, usually so we can lose weight or tone up, especially for women.
Once I entered college, I opted for movement that would be a good calorie burn and keep me in shape. I took part in group exercise classes like spinning and boot camps, spent hours on treadmills and elliptical machines, and lifted weights. I convinced myself that the endorphin rush I felt at the end of the workout made it worthwhile, even if I didn’t look forward to class and was counting down the minutes until it was over..
About a decade ago, I was introduced to a form of movement that made me feel alive – Zumba, a choreographed, Latin-inspired dance class. The music brought me back to my semester abroad in Southern Spain, and the dance steps made me feel free, sexy and playful. Unfortunately, after a few years, my favorite Zumba instructors left my gym, and I found myself going to class less and less over time.
Then, about three years ago, I discovered Nia.
Nia is a sensory-based movement experience that blends 52 moves with movement forms from dance arts, martial arts and healing arts. Flexibility, agility, mobility, stability and strength are the five sensations at the foundation of Nia. The class empowers people of all shapes and sizes by connecting the body, mind, emotions and spirit.
Lola Manekin, who married into the family of friends of my parents, tried to expose me to Nia at a time when I had no interest or openness to trying it. She’s from Brazil and learned at a young age to trust her body and its wisdom. Nia was a way for her to share that gift. Each time I saw her, she encouraged me to check out one of her Nia classes. I had no idea what Nia was, but when I looked up a class on YouTube to see what it was all about, I was further dissuaded from trying it.
“What are those people doing? They’re moving in all sorts of weird ways. No thanks. Not for me.”
I have a tendency to be tightly wound and a strong desire to be in control, and what I saw in the video challenged both of those inclinations. It almost seemed as though the people in the videos were too free.
Each time I ran into Lola, she would nudge me again to come to one of her classes…and I would politely decline, hoping she would eventually stop asking.
About three years ago, my friend Dori and I decided to try a Nia class. We’d been taking Zumba together for some time and were curious to see what this Nia thing was all about and if it was as great as Lola had said. We nervously entered the room on the first day of class, and were greeted by Alba, who welcomed us with enthusiasm, love and kindness. She assured us that there was no wrong way to do Nia and encouraged us to move our bodies in ways that felt good.
I don’t remember everything that happened in that class, but I do remember how it made me feel in my body and in my soul.
Something in me was awakened.
I was invited to move my body without judging myself or worrying about how I looked.
I was reminded of the joy of movement.
I continued taking classes and eventually found my way to one of Lola’s classes. After all of those years of nudging, I finally responded and realized why she had been so intentional about inviting me for so long.
Over the past three years, Nia has helped me reclaim the joy of movement. I regularly practice Nia at my favorite mind-body studio in Baltimore called Movement Lab.
Nia has given me permission to release, to move freely, and to connect with my body and embrace its desire to dance and play.
Nia is an invitation to shift from confinement to openness, from restriction to freedom, from judgment to joy. It helps me loosen up and not take myself so seriously. It makes me feel like a kid again.
Nia is about reconnecting with and loving my body rather than trying to shame it or fix it. As we find freedom and connection in our bodies, we experience freedom and connection in our minds as well. We open up to whatever it is our body is telling us it needs physically and emotionally in that moment – more flexibility, strength, agility or stability – and we respond.
Nia calls us to balance and embrace both our masculine and feminine energies. The masculine energy leads and gives; it is contracting and tight (think martial arts moves). Feminine energy receives and invites us to soften; it is expansive and fluid (think undulations and twirling).
For me and many others, Nia is the foundation of a community of people who love, support, and encourage each other. We come together in times of celebration and lift each other up in times of struggle.
This past year for my birthday, I invited friends to join me for a Nia class, and Lola was kind enough to put together a custom playlist with some of my favorites 90s hip-hop and pop music. It felt more like a dance party than a workout class. We had so much fun! At the end of class, Lola had everyone form a circle around me and sing Happy Birthday to me. I experienced a profound sense of gratitude and love that day as I joyfully danced my way into my 34th year of life.
What a joy.
What a life-giving gift.
Alba, thank you for creating such an open and inviting initial Nia experience for me, one that helped me overcome my reservations and explore freedom in my body.
Heather and Steph, thank you for the spaces you have created as Nia instructors to invite me to be myself and embrace my femininity.
Lola, thank you for how you lead and love. I’m so grateful to you for bringing Nia to Baltimore and for your vision to create Movement Lab, where we can move our bodies so freely and joyfully and reconnect with ourselves and each other. Thank you for being so intentional and insistent about inviting me to be part of such a special community.
Thank you all for helping me reclaim the joy of movement.
This is Lola’s TED Talk about the joy of movement and her journey with Nia. She shares how she helps women in her community find balance, be authentic and celebrate themselves and one another through Nia.
My friend, Heather Huddleston, also did a TED Talk about her experience with Nia and how transformative and healing it has been for her. She suffered from painfully paralyzing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that overtook her body. After seeking answers and healing from a number of other modalities, she discovered Nia and has since found freedom from years of pain.