There's a lot to be said for an exercise class with a philosophy of gain without pain, writes Megan Otto.
She is small and grey but she can stamp with the ferocity of the haka and arch like a ballerina. Sally Cook teaches Nia (for Neuromuscular Integrative Action) a combination of the martial arts of tai chi, tae kwon do and aikido, jazz, modern and Duncan dance with a little bit of feldenkrais, Alexander technique and yoga. More simply, Sally says, it is about moving in a way that feels good.
Deceptively low impact, the result is a high-powered cardio work out.
Sally Cook gets us to take off our shoes. We've come dressed in trousers, dresses or leggings. In this exercise class everyday clothes are the norm.
She encourages students to inhale long and deep to experience the difference between the short, sharp breaths many of us get by on. She tells us people take 24,000 breaths a day each one five seconds long. "There are a lot of people out there at the moment breathing like this 'gasp, gasp'," she demonstrates. Just doing the same makes my legs tingle and I feel agitated.
Together we step barefoot into the first sequence. There are seven cycles to a Nia class; the focus and intention, stepping in, warming up, moving, warming down, cooling, stepping out.
Nia was born of a philosophy that there is no need to use pain to change the body. Developed by Californian aerobic teachers Debbie and Carlos Rosas in 1983 it is now one of top three body-mind programmes in the world, taught in 30 countries and has been taught in New Zealand for about 27 years.
"By using the exhilaration of movement (dance) you can become fitter (martial arts) and gain a better understanding of the body (healing arts)", we're told." Toned muscles are just the by-product of a workout where the point is to have fun.
Empowerment of the whole person is perhaps the reason for its growing popularity, but if people want to become more skilled they can train through the belt levels: white, green, blue, brown and black. Many of the principles, such as there's a natural time to everything, can be applied to everyday life. "Don't think. Listen!" reminds Sally. "This is a world long known by tribes, utilising your body as a tool to activate balance.
"OK, make a shape and hold it". When the students unfold we seem to be channelling the ghosts of Polynesia past with lyrical arms. The music becomes rhythmic and legs pad the length of the room like Native Americans with fingers raised. There is a sense of invigoration. One student describes the fusion fitness of dancing in a non-competitive environment as "pure soul. "It is for anyone who feels like they are losing their sense of natural timing due to being in a world where busy is 'in'."
* See Nia demonstrated on 'You Tube'.
* For information about classes in New Zealand see here.
* US black belt Nia trainer Ken Gilbert is teaching workshops around the country in July. See here.