A dimly lit room, bodies moving to loud beats … and everyone barefoot. The latest Vancouver nightclub? No, this is Nia, a little-known fitness technique gaining momentum in British Columbia. Nia actually has been around for 20 years, and it's already taken off in places like Toronto and New York. The Nia movement includes over 1,000 teachers (more than 100 of them here in Canada) and about 81,000 students worldwide, according to Nia spokesperson Katy Rose. Two years ago, says Leela Francis, a veteran Nia instructor in Vancouver and on the Sunshine Coast , "I would have a few weeks in a row where nobody would show up. And now I have at least 15 people in every class. There's more centres and more locations that want to offer it." Nia, devised by American husband and wife team Debbie and Carlos Rosas, is an acronym for 'neuromuscular integrative action'. It also means 'with purpose' in Swahili. A diverse melting pot of Eastern and Western movements including yoga, martial arts and dance, Nia focuses on creating self-awareness about the body and the movement of its parts. Never mind the mantra of 'no pain, no gain'. Nia is based on the pleasure principle: if it feels good, keep doing it. If it hurts, stop. "We really encourage you to be trying on the moves and on every person they're going to look different," says Francis. "So instead of trying to make yourself look the way anybody else might look, to really just find the way to make that move a part of you and to express it in a way that's really authentic." Mélange of movements Having difficulty imagining what Nia is like? At a Nia jam held at a Fitness Group gym in Vancouver, the movements of participants went from resembling a scene from the musical Cats to a martial arts class to what you might see in any downtown dance club. No two people looked the same, and that's just fine with everyone who does it. Fitness gurus say Nia's newfound acceptance is due in part to the enormous success of other mind/body techniques in Vancouver such as yoga and Pilates. Plus, Nia is creative—providing a fun alternative to those stale, repetitive exercise routines. The Rosas say Nia's 52 basic moves are based on nine different movement practices: tai chi, tae kwon do, aikido, Duncan dance, modern dance, jazz dance, yoga, Feldenkrais and the Alexander technique. The Rosas design routines and give them to Nia instructors, who are encouraged to adapt and play with them. Since every one of the 52 moves can be performed by taking inspiration from any of the nine movement forms, the potential for variety is vast. Nia is done barefoot, which not only makes it a lower impact exercise but allows students to become more connected to the way their bodies are moving, claim instructors. "It brings people inside themselves," says Jasjit Rai, a Nia teacher for three years. "Just being barefoot you become more sensitive to your own energy and your own space." Gruntless exercise Teachers say that once Nia students have opened themselves up to new ways of moving, they are able to free thoughts, emotions and ideas. "The body doesn't operate in isolation from the rest of our being," says Vancouver instructor Judy Cashmore. "All those other things get liberated." If the emotions that bubble up aren't happy, so be it. "There's a place where you can express anger, you can use words, you can express joy. All those things you don't really find in any other fitness program," says Francis. Nia student Carolyn Temes says she found emotional release in her first class. "I felt that something that had been locked up inside myself was coming out," she says. "It was such a beautiful experience." Nia also stimulates the imagination, say its advocates. It's practiced to the driving sounds of African and Indian beats, or even Celine Dion. And Nia instructors are likely to draw word pictures for their participants, urging them to pretend to swirl a silk cape, reach for the sun or lift a cloud. "The visual imagery just delights me," says Trish Grainge, a psychotherapist who recently began taking Nia. If that sounds a bit airy fairy for someone just looking for a solid workout, don't worry, Nia will tucker you out. But don't be surprised if you don't notice. "I've actually had people say, 'I can't believe I'm working out'," Cashmore says. "Their clothes are soaking wet and they don't realize it until they've maybe stopped for some water or at the end of the class." "I love it because it is a great workout for the whole body, but it isn't a grunt workout," Grainge points out. Too much freedom? Kathy Simas is a psychologist who has been taking Nia for five years. She has recurring back pain, which once held her back from exercise. Since discovering Nia, she says it has helped her begin to move again. "I don't think there's been almost any time that my back has been too bad to go to a Nia class," she says. "You can do the movement according to what the body allows." But some people in the fitness world see potential danger in merely adapting a fitness program to suit your own comfort level. Curb Ivanic, a personal trainer with Ultra Fitness who is doing his masters in exercise science, says that while Nia is a positive step in the right direction overall, there are some concerns when a person isn't doing exactly what the instructor is doing. Placing the onus on the individual to decide his or her own movements could open a student up to injury, or not provide them with a tangible benefit. "If it's reinforcing bad motor patterns, they [students] could be doing a disservice to themselves," he says. "It could be doing more harm than good." Jessie Girard, fitness coordinator for the recreation department at SFU, disagrees: "I would assume that an instructor is knowledgeable enough to recognize unsafe movements and know how to teach safe movements," she says. Low impact compliment Barbara Picton, a physiotherapist with Burrard Physiotherapy Associates—who often gets patients who have been injured while doing yoga or Pilates—points out that just because people are doing a harder exercise form such as aerobics, that doesn't necessarily mean that they are doing it properly either. In any exercise performed, she says there is the potential for injury and on the whole Nia sounds relatively safe because it's lower impact, as opposed to a harder form that might give you a worse injury if done incorrectly. Julie Joyal, a personal trainer at the West End and Dunbar community centres, stresses that Nia is a great complement to other programs, but shouldn't necessarily be the sole fitness activity. "I still think you need more," she says. "You still need to get into the gym once and a while." Sondi Bruner is a journalist in Vancouver.