DUNEDIN — One recent morning about a dozen casually clad women stood barefoot on a wood floor in the Dunedin Community Center. Soft, meditative music floated from a CD player on a table. The women, facing a wall of mirrors, took their lead from Pat King, the petite, limber instructor who softly called directions.
"Undulate your spine," said King, shifting from shoulder to shoulder. "Wake up your body."
What happened subsequently might baffle an onlooker. The gentle, slow movements resembling tai chi soon morphed into a mambo, than a jazz routine and finally into a free-form dance. The women moved about the room at their own pace, seemingly freed of inhibitions and the toils of daily life.
Welcome to the world of Nia, a complex art form that combines the martial arts, healing arts and dance routines.
Nia, developed in California in 1983 by Debbie and Carlos Rosas, is now taught in 29 countries and throughout the United States. This fast-paced exercise program is credited by teachers and practitioners with strengthening muscle tone, increasing flexibility and improving heart, lung and cognitive function.
It is what King calls "a fusion fitness program" providing a workout for the body, mind and spirit.
"There are many different Nia routines," she said, "so there is no typical class."
Ro del Bene, a recently retired teacher of tai chi, travels from Trinity in Pasco County to take the class.
"I feel like 16 and I'm in my 70s," she said. "I love music and I love movement, and this is just right."
King, 62, first experienced the unusual exercise form five years ago while visiting a cousin in Boston.
The two women attended a Nia class with 50 women. By the time the session was over, King was hooked.
"To me it's been life altering in every way," she said of her new passion.
After the Boston trip, the new Nia devotee took classes near her home in upstate New York. After moving to Pinellas County in 2006, she decided to spread the word about her discovery, something she could do best by teaching.
King headed to the Nia training center, headquartered in Portland, Ore., where she received intensive training followed by her certification. In February 2007, she began a class at the Dunedin Community Center. Her students, whose ages range from the 30s through the 70s, testify to the benefits of this multilayered exercise program.
Low impact, no boredom
Anna Mikhaleff, 58, entered the class last spring. "I came because I was curious," she said, "but I saw how much energy it gave you and how much fun it was."
Mikhaleff immediately became a Nia aficionado.
With osteopenia, the bone loss that often accompanies aging, she wanted a low-impact sport she could handle. "Jogging and running can hurt your knees," she noted.
The routines may be low impact, but they are complex. Throughout the hour, the women's bodies were constantly in motion — arms reaching, legs kicking, heads twisting, shoulders rolling.
"It took me a month standing in front of a DVD to learn my first routine," King said.
Marge Brown, 64, was one of King's first students.
"I have high blood pressure that was uncontrolled until Nia," Brown said. "This is the only exercise I've tried that I like."
She attributes much of her pleasure to the variety. "It always feels fresh and different," she said.
Local artist Carol Sackman, also in her 60s, began taking the class two years ago. "I love the dance routines the best," she said, "and the sisterhood of the women."
Sackman takes ballroom and tango classes in addition to Nia, all in hopes of having fun and staying flexible. "You've got to use it or lose it," she said.
The apparent ease with which King executes each routine belies the strenuous training that instructors endure. Instructors must earn belts, as martial arts instructors do. The basic level, white, is required for all. Each of the five belt levels, culminating in black, encompasses a new level of competency and methodology. Teachers must be certified yearly.
Most of the women spoke warmly of the philosophical side of the class as well, represented by the final activity of the morning. The women stretched out on mats. They gently rolled their limbs. Soft music again emanated through the room.
"Just calm your mind and slow the agitation," King said.
When the stretching and relaxing were over, the women formed a circle and took deep breaths.
"We are a very cohesive group," King said. "We love each other and we love Nia."
Elaine Markowitz is a freelance writer in Palm Harbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.