Avara Yaron does a free dance.

The Body's Way

The loose footwork of jazz dance stiffens into the sharp kicks of aikido, and cheerful chants of "cha, cha, cha" become forceful shouts of "Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!"

If the exercise class seems to suffer an identity crisis, the students are unfazed, relying on the cleverly mixed music to ease their transition. Instructor Rachael Resch never misses a beat, twitching her body like a wet noodle, whipping a fist above her head and curling her fingers into claws. Raking the air, she crouches like a cat, expelling her breath in a long hiss that ends in a playful "meow."

"The hissing sound is a strong integration sound for the central nervous system," Resch tells her 14 students.

Coordinating physical movements and vocal expressions is a common practice in the holistic fitness approach known as Nia. The trademarked technique was developed in California's Marin County in 1983, the height of the "no-pain-no-gain" mentality of exercise. Questioning traditional forms of exercise, fitness instructors Carlos and Debbie Rosas combined elements of dance, martial arts and healing arts to create Nia, now headquartered in Portland.

"We've got a functional, fusion fitness," says Resch, who holds a Nia "black belt."

Fusing Eastern and Western philosophies, Nia classes incorporate modern dance, jazz dance, the dance of Isadora Duncan, t'ai chi, tae kwon do, aikido, yoga, the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method. Yet most students, Resch says, liken Nia to shimmying in the privacy of their own homes, particularly during the classes' "free dance" segments.

"Let's pretend you're in your own living room," Resch says. "Listen to the music and dance.

"Dance with each other."

Although she was a professional dancer throughout her 20s, Resch was debilitated by asthma when she stumbled across a Nia class 13 years ago in Portland. Avoiding strenuous activity, Resch intended to join a stretching class but was intrigued by just the few minutes of Nia she observed.

"The vibe in the room was so great."

One Nia asset is the simultaneous demonstration of three intensity levels, but Resch still worried that the least vigorous of them would touch off an asthma attack.

"I thought, 'I'm never going to be able to do it,' " Resch recalls.

Determined to make the technique work for her, Resch didn't aim for Nia's lowest level but instead maintained a pace some participants wouldn't even call exercise. Making each movement as minute as she possibly could, Resch moved a fist inches off her hip as the rest of the class jabbed toward the sky.

"I like to joke that I was doing level .3," she says. "I gradually healed my body by doing Nia my body's way."

Three years later, Resch was well enough to work part time again as a physical therapist and moved from Portland to Ashland. Because her new town didn't have Nia classes, she became certified as an instructor, has taught in Ashland for the past decade and hasn't needed asthma medication in seven years. Resch, 49, still encourages her students to adapt Nia to their bodies.

"That's the uniqueness of Nia," says 57-year-old Steve Weiner of Ashland.

Unique among Resch's students, Weiner can be seen sitting in a folding chair when barely moving is still too much to bear. Diagnosed with fibromyalgia, diabetes and chronic, obstructive pulmonary disorder, Weiner is daily bombarded with pain and breathes from an oxygen tank. Unlike Resch, whose asthma improved after years of doing Nia, Weiner has diminished lung capacity after three years of twice-weekly Nia classes.

"I'm just plain fat; I'm obese," Weiner says. "I have a big belly which impinges on my lungs."

In the face of such significant health issues, there's only so much exercise alone can do, Resch says. Nia, Weiner says, has likely slowed his inevitable decline. On some days, he's in no condition to attend a class. On other days, he resolves to come even if he spends most of the hour and 15 minutes sitting down.

"The pain builds up, and I fall behind," Weiner says. "But I don't care."

While Resch and 13 students sink into a deep squat and dangle their heads between their legs, Weiner stays seated and rolls his head, eyes closed against the music's soothing tempo.

"I get into the rhythm, and the music and the movements," he says. "I have fun at Nia."

The "fun factor" is the main reason that Heidi Merker, 55, specifically sought Nia classes in Ashland after moving this year from Germany and hearing about it from friends in her native country, one of 38 worldwide with licensed Nia instructors. Getting a round workout that leaves her feeling energized, Merker says Nia doesn't feel like fulfilling a "duty" to one's health.

"It just kind of invites us to take care of ourselves more," says Sarah Marshank, a 46-year-old Nia brown-belt instructor.

Long a yoga practitioner and teacher, Marshank was most excited about Nia's dance component when she started taking Resch's classes in 2002. Now a Nia instructor at the Ashland YMCA, Marshank says classes leave her feeling like she's worked out, meditated and had fun all at the same time.

When students ask whether they'll look like her — petite, toned and animated — if they stick with Nia, Marshank replies, "You'll look like you."

"You find your body's natural health and vitality through it," Marshank says. "I feel sexier in my body."

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