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The 101 on Nia with Kristy Harvey

Nia was developed by Debbie and Carlos Rosas in 1983 as a workout to optimize a person's physical design. The exercise is a blend of several styles of martial arts, dance styles, as well as the Alexander Techniques and teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais. Training in Nia follows seven belt levels and in the three decades since its inception, Nia is considered a mind-body form of exercise. Kristy Harvey, a Nia teacher in Tucscon, Arizona, explains the numerous benefits she has experienced both as a student and teacher.

Kristy Harvey is a Movement Educator from Charlottesville, VA.  She is the former Administrative Director of the Mindfulness Center at the University of Virginia.  She is a licensed Brown Belt Nia Instructor and a certified yoga instructor.
Kristy Harvey

How do you describe Nia to people who have never heard of it?

Nia is a complete body, mind, emotion, spirit practice. There is truly something for everyone. Some people come to Nia looking for just a workout, and that's great. Nia is fun, energizing, and provides top-notch cardiovascular fitness that is non-impact so everybody can do it. The Nia Technique is a holistic wellness practice that just happens to include a cardiovascular workout. The health benefits that I have received and have witnessed have been a result of much more than the physical workout.

How does Nia benefit the mind as well as the body?

For the mind, Nia offers an opportunity for busy minds to quiet down. Mindfulness is a hot topic right now, and Nia serves it up on a silver platter. Every class has a specific focus, such as awareness of the feet as they touch the ground. The focus is sustained throughout the class as an invitation for the student to pay attention to just one thing at a time. This can provide great relief from thoughts that tend to occupy most people's minds, such as the ever expanding to-do list. Quieting the mind is essential to improving concentration and increasing self-awareness.

How does Nia help someone express emotions?

Nia invites students to play with emotion. It is not always acceptable to express emotion in an outward way in our society. For some people, it is difficult to express any emotions at all, so Nia classes provide playful exploration of a wide range of emotions in a safe environment. This allows students to play with emotions they may never be able to express in daily life, and can provide a healing release of pent up emotion.

Nia is not a religious practice, but it certainly can lift the spirit. Nia invites students to connect to joy as a universal thread that runs through all things. Nia is a pleasure-based movement form that encourages students to listen to the body and make conscious movement choices that bring pleasure and joy to the body. When movement feels good, people tend to feel better from the inside out.

So, how does Nia work?

Nia is guided by a set of principles that encourage moving the body in a pleasurable way to achieve maximum health in the body, mind, emotions, and spirit through 52 moves that are derived from nine different movement forms. While each of these forms are healing in their own right, Nia combines them in such a way that encourages playing with them rather than focusing purely on technique.

There are three dance arts: Jazz Dance, Modern Dance, Duncan Dance. Jazz Dance is the dance of showmanship. It brings the fun and pizzazz to each class. It's also great for providing the opportunity for casting off inhibitions and really letting loose in a dance class, especially for people who are shy or "not a dancer".

Modern Dance is the dance of mood and emotion. It provides an opportunity for playing with shapes in space with no need to be on the beat. It encourages the use of emotions to fuel the movements accordingly.

Duncan Dance is in honor of Isadora Duncan. Nia takes inspiration from Duncan Dance by dancing barefoot and inviting child-like playfulness into each routine. Duncan Dance is the essence of pure, free-spirited movement.

What is the connection between Nia and the martial arts styles that influenced it?

In addition to the dance arts of the Nia Technique, there are three martial arts: Tai Chi, Tae Kwon Do, and Aikido. Tai Chi is the slow dance of Nia. It has long been revered for being a mindfulness practice that focuses on moving with intention and grace.

Tae Kwon Do is the dance of precision in Nia. Many of the 52 moves of the Nia Technique come directly from Tae Kwon Do in the form of kicks, punches, and blocks. These movements, paired with the audible "Ha" and "Ho" sounds can induce feelings of personal empowerment and a sense of strength.

Aikido is defined in Nia as spherical harmonious movement. This movement form is expressed as spiral motions, turns, and grounding the body. Aikido has been called the way of the peaceful warrior. It is the act of transforming energy and stepping into the flow of things rather than resisting. This concept can be translated in many ways from the Nia class into daily life.

The incorporation of the dance and martial arts are enough to provide a sweat-pouring cardiovascular workout, but the real healing of Nia builds on those practices by adding three healing arts to the mix. The healing arts in Nia are Yoga, Alexander Technique, and the teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais.

What is the difference between Nia and Yoga?

Yoga is the conscious alignment of bones and focus on the breath. Yoga is an age old mindfulness practice that brings the mind and body together in the present moment through breath awareness and postural alignment.

How does the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais influence Nia?

The Alexander Technique is a practice based in awareness from the top down. Careful attention is placed on the placement of the head and neck in relation to the rest of the body. Added to this is awareness of the breath and all the tiny movements that make up the larger movements we take for granted every day. Alexander Technique is very useful in correcting many postural maladies.

The teachings of Moshe Feldenkrais are used in Nia to remind us to make small adjustments in order to find comfort in our movements. This is most noticeable when a Nia teacher reminds students that "small is big" or "less is more". There is a tendency to want to be the best Nia student, when in reality, there is no such thing. Nia teaches us to move the way our body is meant to move in each moment while searching for pleasure and joy in each movement.

Now that we've learned the movement forms that make up the Nia Technique, let's get to the healing.

My healing journey began with Nia in 2006. From the outside, it appeared that I had a great life. A relationship, a great job, a nice place to live, friends, and a supportive family. The only problem was that it was all a lie. I wasn't really happy with any of it. I was too shy to speak up. I didn't want to rock the boat, and it was easier to just go along with whatever made other people happy. I was extremely overweight and depressed.

My long-term relationship had become routine and empty. I had a few close friends, but most of the people around me had their own agenda. My job had lost its shiny appeal, and I was just going through the motions each day. I was so caught up in the cycle to please others that I had forgotten that I had a right to be happy, too. I felt guilty that I wasn't happy given all the great things in my life.

One day, a co-worker invited me to try a Nia class. I had never heard of it, and given my physical state at the time, I wasn't very eager to try it out. After about three weeks of being begged to come to class, I gave in to make my friend happy.

Of course, I felt awkward at first, but there were only a few people in the class and my friend was there to support me. The teacher kept encouraging everyone to "do it your way" and "move with freedom".

What was transformational for you about Nia?

A funny thing happened at that Nia class. I found what had been missing from my life. I began to see glimpses of my former self, the self that had been happy and care-free and fun. I would catch visions of myself in the mirror during a song and think, wow, I can actually do this.

Another thing I noticed was that my body didn't hurt. Every movement was considered a loving choice rather than just another repetition. This was very different from the "Gimme four more!" mentality of other exercise classes I had attended in the past. I wasn't exactly sure what had happened in that class, but something had opened up in me, and I wanted more.

I began to go to class every week. After each class I would return home with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. After about two months of classes, I joined a local gym that offered 15 Nia classes each week. I went to Nia every day. Sometimes I even went twice a day. I was hooked on the joy that I felt for the first time in a long time.

Over the next few months, I started to notice that teachings from Nia began to make their way into my daily life. I began to feel better about myself, and I had lost a few pounds, too. I had found an outlet for my stifled emotions. Saying "Yes" and "No" in class gave me the confidence to speak up. I found myself able to say "No" to people and situations in my daily life, and not worry about my ability to make them happy. It wasn't about them anymore. I began to ask for what I wanted.

After a year of classes, I wanted to know more about this technique that had helped me make so many changes in my life. Clearly it was not just an exercise class. I had never wanted to make changes due to an experience in Step class before. I signed up to take the Nia White Belt Intensive, the first level of Nia Teacher Training.

What made you decide to become a Nia teacher?

I had no intention of teaching. I was still much too shy for that. I was already stepping way out of my comfort zone to take the Intensive. I didn't know anyone there, and I was still overweight and awkward in my body. That seven day training was the catalyst for extreme change in my life. As a result of the personal empowerment and clarity that I received from Nia, I was able to end my dead relationship, find work that is meaningful to me, and release my attachment to people and objects that do not bring me joy.

The White Belt Intensive was the opportunity to look deeply at underlying issues I had been so eager to cover up. I learned so much about myself during that week. At the end of the training, I decided that I would in fact become a teacher. This technique had helped me find myself, and I wanted to help others. I taught my first class the very next week.

Since then, I have earned my Blue Belt and my Brown Belt in the Nia Technique. Each Intensive dives deeper into the technique and expands on the foundations from the previous Belt. I have taught Nia continuously since 2007 to anyone who is willing to have me as their teacher. I have had the privilege to share Nia with troubled teens, corporate work groups, college students, and cancer survivors.

In 2010, I wrote and implemented a clinical trial at the University of Virginia Cancer Center to study the effect of the Nia technique on the quality of life among women treated for breast cancer. The study was warmly received and supported by the Cancer Center and the UVA community. I received a grant to administer and teach the classes. The trial is now in its third year, and is still enrolling patients.

I am so grateful to be able to share Nia with so many people over the years. I am passionate about sharing this work in order to help others find joy in their lives. Nia continues to bring me joy every day.

For more about Kristy Harvey, please visit her website at: www.bodymindjoy.com