We all know that exercise makes us feel better. Even the most dedicated couch potato feels the benefit of a brisk walk, or a game of Frisbee. In recent years, yoga has grown in popularity due to its focus not just on physical wellness, but also on relaxation and spiritual or emotional well-being. However, yoga is not the only form of exercise that combines these qualities. If you’re looking for an exercise or movement practice that also encompasses mental and emotional health, you might want to turn to NIA—a practice “dance meets yoga meets tae kwon do,” as one instructor called it—that successfully integrates all that and more; leading to a holistic feeling of health with real results. Lola Manekin and Alba Azola are two local NIA instructors who teach classes at Baltimore Yoga Village. We asked them to fill us in about what NIA really is, and how we can reap its many benefits.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Baltimore Yoga Village always seems to bring in such interesting teachers with really diverse backgrounds. Tell us about yourselves. How did you get involved with NIA and with BYV?
Lola Manekin: I was born and raised in an island in Brazil called Florianopolis. Since very little, when my siblings and I got sick, we were always treated with acupuncture and homeopathy and there were only a few times in our lives we needed to take antibiotics. That inspired me to get my bachelor’s degree in Naturologia where I learned how to treat patients with many different powerful complementary therapies such as massage, reflexology, aromatherapy, hydrotherapy and others. I moved the US in 2004, received my massage license and then a master’s degree in Acupuncture in 2010 from Tai Sophia Institute…One of my initial draws to Nia was to engage more with the larger community in order to get my skills and beliefs out into the world. Yet what I found was so much more. NIA allows one to open up and heal in a cathartic way, in a safe and friendly environment and community. It gracefully combines energetic and physical movement in the body, mind, and spirit. There are movements that support the release of negative emotions, movements that encourage the opening of the heart, movements that support inner and outer strength, movements that build confidence and so much more.
I brought NIA to Baltimore in 2011 and since then, there are only two more teachers (one is Alba) here but a few spread out around Maryland and DC.
Alba Azola: I was born and raised in San Juan Puerto Rico, and began studying classical ballet, gymnastics and jazz at the age of 4. When I was 13 years old I received a full scholarship to study at The Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington D.C. and I completed three years of training. Upon my return to Puerto Rico I became a member of the company Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico from 1995 to 2000. [Later,] I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a physician and obtained my Doctorate in Medicine at Ponce School of Medicine in 2008 and subsequently moved to Baltimore for a residency on Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
During my residency, I lived in a stressful hostile environment where compassion, love of others and joy of life were considered a weakness rather than attributes. By the fourth year of residency, I had lost myself and my purpose in life, I was spiritually bankrupt, and a deep depression ensued. Finding my way out of darkness has not been a simple task but it definitely has been a gratifying one. I started taking care of myself, asking for help and getting to know me. I became a volunteer at the Esperanza Center, which allowed me to reconnect with my Latin culture, strengthening my sense of community, service, and purpose. A friend brought me to my first NIA Class at the Baltimore Yoga Village with Lola; it’s hard to put into words what I felt that day, all I can say is that it felt amazing and I wanted more. Six months after I started taking class, I decided to fly to the NIA HQ in Portland for my white belt so that I could become a teacher and share NIA with others.
BFB: So what is NIA? How would you describe it to those who’ve never heard of it?
Alba: Nia is a 30-year-old sensory-based movement practice that draws from martial arts, dance arts and healing arts. It empowers people of all shapes and sizes by connecting the body, mind, emotions and spirit. Classes are taken barefoot to soul-stirring music and are 55 minutes long. Every NIA class has 7 Cycles beginning with a focus and intent. Every class offers a unique combination of 52 moves that correspond with the main areas of the body: base, core and upper extremities.
Lola: Technically, NIA stands for Neuromuscular Integrative Action and a in a more poetic way, we say that NIA means “Now I Am”. NIA is an expressive movement form and lifestyle practice that blends dance, martial arts and healing arts such as yoga and uses the body’s way to achieve physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual fitness and well-being. It focuses on 13 theoretical and somatic principles and 52 moves that integrate the main areas of the body: the base, the core and the upper extremities, offering each person the power of choice and self-direction towards pleasure and away from pain.
Alba: Some of the philosophical principles behind NIA are “through movement we find health”, “love your body, love your life” and “the Joy of movement.” Getting in Your Body is all about listening to sensation, choosing pleasure, and making choices that help you be more body-aware in each moment. When you’re in your body, you feel better, look better, eat better, have better sex, and make healthier choices all around. To Nia Newbies I would describe it as a movement class that allows you to get in your body (out of our busy heads) creating a sensation of well-being.
BFB: Who is NIA best for? What kinds of results do people get from doing it?
Lola: NIA is really for every-body! I always put on my fliers that it’s for all ages, sizes, shapes and fitness levels! I taught Nia when I was pregnant with my second boy until 42 weeks; I only stopped to give birth! I have a program for Seniors that will be relocating to the BYV in the summer; they have a blast every time! There was just an article on the website neurologynow.com talking about the benefits of NIA for Parkinson’s Disease. Alba is planning on starting a class at a Cancer Center too.
Alba: Medical centers throughout the states have incorporated NIA to the treatment of patients with cancer, fibromyalgia, addictions, depression, and eating disorders. The beauty about NIA is that stiff beginners and highly fit athletes alike can adapt the technique to meet their needs by choosing from three intensity levels and choosing to seek joy in movement. I like to describe My NIA Experience as a honeymoon with my body. The results I have received from getting to know my body through NIA include emotional well-being, improved self-esteem, cardiovascular endurance, and weight loss.
BFB: What is the NIA schedule at BYV like? And how often do most people practice NIA?
Lola: Alba teaches 2 community classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:45am – $6 drop in. I teach a community women only class on Thursdays at 1:30pm, a regular class on Saturdays at 11:30am and starting on May 14than 8 week series called Gentle NIA for seniors.
Alba: People practice NIA 2-4 times per week, I try to do a NIA class everyday.
BFB: Is there anything else we/readers should know about NIA or Baltimore Yoga Village?
Lola: I have a true sense of community at the BYV. Anjali definitely walks the talk! It’s a safe place to let go and dance or do yoga and get a deeper connection with oneself and others.
Alba: Give yourself the opportunity to get in your body!
BFB: Will do.
For more information about Lola and Alba’s NIA classes, or other classes at Baltimore Yoga Village, visit www.baltimoreyogavillage.com.