In a lot of exercise classes participants look grim and determined, serious and somber. Not in Nia. In Nia classes, especially those taught by Shar Bliss, a very youthful 55, there are grins all around, as well as whoops and giggles.
Shar and I go way back as exercise friends. In the early aughts we did water aerobics together. We are both water people, she having grown up in Waimanalo and me on the North Shore. We liked aqua classes okay, but we didn’t always feel we got the workout we needed and it wasn’t always fun. (I was doing it because I was recuperating from shoulder surgery and couldn’t swim.) Then, in 2003, Kiwi Heilman (who has since moved to the mainland) taught her first Nia class at The Honolulu Club. I was intrigued; Shar was hooked.
Nia is a sensory-based form of movement that helps connect the body, mind, emotions and spirit. I have found it can bring out the best in me on a bad day, even starting a giggle fest. It can also have a cathartic effect, reducing me to tears. Nia is a bit hard to describe. It’s more like a dance class than anything else, but does not have the rigidity or structure of most forms of dance. It combines aspects of dance, martial arts and healing arts such as tai chi and qi gong.
WHY NIA FOR SHAR?
Shar has always been an active person. She grew up in Waimanalo, wind surfing, swimming and riding horses. She later took up paddling with the Waikiki Beach Boys for about ten years but had to stop when she couldn’t maintain the schedule with the demands of her job as manager of corporate policies and procedures for Bank of Hawaii, a job she still holds.
What took her on the Nia path? At first, it was the music that attracted her. It’s an entertaining mix of world music, jazz, electronic, pop and Latin. Then she discovered how much she enjoyed the freedom of movement, not having to watch and match the teacher all the time. She also liked that each student could go at his or her own pace, moving her body in a way that felt right for her.
Shar said Nia made a logical leap from water exercise: “I kind of went from the free flowing water activities to Nia, which is like a free flowing activity on land,” she explained. “Nia is sensory based and I can attach and move in ways like I can do in water. In Nia, we activate and create systemic movement through all of the senses,” as well as cardio. “It’s functional movement.”
Although many forms of dance can be rigid and determinedly choreographed, Nia is anything but rigid. It’s not about following the teacher; it’s about getting in touch with your own body and using this awareness to “Move in ways that are comfortable and easy as well as stimulating,” Shar said. “In Nia we don’t subscribe to the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy. We’re of the pleasure principle. If it feels good, you’ll want to do more of it.”
If you’re someone who prefers a highly structured class where you follow the teacher’s every move, Nia probably isn’t for you. There’s a lot of free dance in Nia, during which you keep moving in any way you choose as long as it flows and is continuous. I remember feeling self-conscious during my first few classes because club members could see through the glass doors and we all looked kinda weird, dancing, spinning, twirling at will. We all got over that. Nia may not be the best choice for someone with a lot of inhibitions.
The kinds of comments you might hear after one of Shar’s Nia classes is: “I feel so relaxed, I had fun, I loved engaging with others without any judgement.”
AN UNINTENTIONAL TEACHER
Interestingly, Shar didn’t set out to become a Nia teacher. She went to her first few Nia training sessions on the mainland just for personal growth. “But while I was at the training sessions, I said to myself, ‘I think I can do this and I’d like to share this with other people.”
Shar is now a Nia black belt, the highest level of achievement. Unlike some other forms of exercise or classes, Nia requires years of training. It’s recommended that a teacher spend at least a year with each belt (white, green, blue, brown and black). Shar has been teaching for about seven years now.
Shar has a devoted group of men and women in her classes. (Yes, Nia appeals to men too.) They threw a big party for her when she returned from Portland with her Nia black belt. They celebrate all the holidays and dress up appropriately, with snowflake garlands at Christmas and costumes at Halloween. There’s clearly a camaraderie among Shar’s class members. Their devotion is largely due to her unbridled enthusiasm and positive approach to life.
ON TO AERIAL
Nia seemed to create a natural pathway to aerial dancing for Shar. “There are so many ways of enjoying dancing and aerial is dancing in the air,” she explained. “Nia is the dance for me and aerial takes my dance to another form.”
Last week one of our regular class members returned to Nia the day after she finished her third round of chemo. By the end of class she looked – and felt – so much better after moving in her own way to the music.
Nia is taught in several places around Oahu in addition to the Honolulu Club:
- Nuuanu YMCA
- Kailua Movement Studio (now located inside the Arthur Murray Studio)
- Still & Moving Center
On another note: Debbie Rosas, co-founder of Nia, will be in Honolulu in March to train Nia instructors at the Still and Moving Center, www.stillandmovingcenter.com. Go to www.nianow.com for more information.
- Paula Rath