Recently, I took my first Nia class. Nia is an exhilarating, body/mind practice based with the philosophy that exercise should feel good, and movement can optimize health and promote well-being. The fun, cardio fitness class incorporates dance (jazz, Duncan and modern), martial arts (tae kwon do, aikido and tai chi) and the healing arts (yoga, Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique). More than an exercise class, Nia empowers people of all shapes, ages and sizes to connect with body, mind, emotions & spirit.
I became interested in Nia because several of my coaching clients were Nia fans and raved about the technique. I noticed they were getting lighter both physically and mentally and rapidly healing years of negative body image. Unlike other clients who struggled to meet fitness goals and dragged their bodies to the gym, the Nia fans hit or exceeded their exercise goals every single week. I was intrigued and needed to find out why Nia inspired, motivated and engaged my clients.
The day of my first Nia class I was excited. Not knowing quite what to expect, I was a bit nervous. By the time I arrived for the 8:30 am Sunday class, the dance studio was already filled with women of all ages—college students, ladies at midlife and even a grandmother or two—barefoot and ready to move. The teacher, Rebecca Boedges, a body-based psychotherapist who’s been teaching Nia for a decade, was in the front of the room adjusting the audio gear.
Before starting the music, Rebecca set the focus of the class: “Take Up Space.” Rebecca explained that society encourages women to stay small through practices like dieting. Women and girls are bombarded with media images of emaciated models and urged to obsess over thigh gaps and toned abs. This emphasis triggers negative body image, eating disorders and an antagonistic rather than a joyful relationship with our bodies. In contrast, Nia helps women love and connect with their bodies through mindful fitness without judgment but instead, compassionate attention to physical and emotional sensations that arise during class.
Rebecca empowered us to step outside our comfort zone, dance around the room and use big movements, taking up as much space as possible. To support her focus she had put together an energetic playlist of Michael Jackson songs plus Pharrell’s “Happy” to inspire us to dance largely.
For the next hour, I left distractions behind, which is one of the seven cycles in a Nia class called “Stepping In.” I warmed up (another cycle) and experienced the heart of class, a cycle called, “Get Moving.” And yes I moved and moved, my muscles loosening and relaxing. While the choreography was fairly simple, I hadn't taken a dance class in years and kept making mistakes, but I didn’t care, I was having way too much fun to worry about getting the steps right. Goodbye perfection, hello presence!
The cue given in class was to pay attention to the sensations in my body. This freed my mind from judgment and allowed me to focus on what I was experiencing physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Physically, my body was sweating and my heart was pounding from the steady dose of aerobics. My mind was blissfully peaceful because I was focused on my body and the present moment. I wasn’t thinking about my to-do list, what to make for dinner or worrying about the week ahead. I was just dancing; I was the dance.
As Rebecca later explained, the cues given in class direct students to pay attention to physical sensations. Since the mind cannot think and feel sensation in the body at the same time, focusing on physical sensation stops thinking. This allows students to be aware of their bodies without judgment and pay attention to the warm, loving, joyful sensations that arise in class. This is how the magic and healing happen. As Caroline Myss puts it, “The soul always knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind.”
During the 60-minute class, I experienced a kaleidoscope of emotions. When the music started I choked up as waves of feelings triggered by my love of dance hit. Along with joy, I felt beautiful, empowered and confident. I also felt a bit silly in a good way, like a child running through a sprinkler as I karate chopped and screamed, “Kiai!” to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, or when I acted like a bug on its back during a cycle called “FloorPlay.” The yells were cathartic, allowing me to connect with my spirit.
The yells coupled with the sense of community and connection I felt with the other women in the room fostered self-assurance and uncoupled self-consciousness.
I left feeling nourished and nurtured and understood why my clients raved about Nia and attended regularly. You get a workout while experiencing joy! What’s not to love?
Love is the most powerful motivator. However, whether we want to lose weight, get in shape or tone up, we often believe self-criticism is the best way to motivate ourselves. Many women think that hating their bodies will enable them stick to their diets, get to the gym and hit their dream dress size.
The truth is self-criticism is a poor motivator and does more harm than good. Research shows self-critics are more likely to be anxious and depressed than motivated. They’re less resilient and confident and more afraid of failure, which can completely shut you down. Plus self-criticism wears us out and generates the stress hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and weight gain especially around the middle.
As Nia demonstrated, self-compassion (treating yourself like a good friend) is a much more effective motivator than self-criticism. When we approach ourselves with care and compassion and embrace ourselves, we experience joy. Feeling good, along with having fun and connecting with ourselves and others, is the best motivator and way to reach our potential!
Ellen Albertson, PhD, RDN, CD, is a Psychologist, Certified Wellcoach®, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Reiki Master and Founder of SmashYourScale.com. She has over 20 years of experience in the wellness industry working in a wide-variety of settings. A Mindful Self-compassion teacher, Dr. Ellen is in the forefront of practitioners researching and using groundbreaking techniques to help women make peace with food, lose weight and transform their bodies and lives. She is the author of 4 books and has written for numerous publications including Self, Good Housekeeping and Better Homes & Gardens. Connect with her at DrEllenAlbertson.com or on Twitter @eralbertson.