Friday, March 22, 2013
WALLA WALLA — “Today,” Marika Tompkins announces, “we’re starting with ‘focus.’ Focus begins with balance, in part, using the high and low parts of our body.”
With that, the instructor turns on the music, sending sound into the Carnegie Center as a handful of women begin rising like stalks of the tropical orchid — straight stems and tranquil faces.
As the mid-morning sun reaches through the old building’s tall, multipaned windows, its light is spread like a glaze, diffused and softened by wood floors beat to a satin sheen from decades of use.
This, then, begins another session of Nia, offered by Walla Walla Parks and Recreation. Classes are taught by Tompkins and Sarah Sisk several days a week for an hour at a time.
What is Nia?
Nia was birthed in 1983 and the three letters stand for Non Impact Aerobics, according to the national organization based in Portland, Ore. The practice is sensory-based movement (think upright yoga, but more feisty) that leads to health, wellness and fitness, devotees say.
The method that marries music, movement and mind draws from martial arts, dance and healing and is formulated to appeal to people at any level of physical health.
“At the bottom line, it is fitness,” Tompkins said. “But by learning to use your body, Nia increases alignment, strength, mobility and flexibility. You stretch the tiniest of muscles to the biggest of muscles.”
Nia practitioners can become centered, she added, describing that as being more likely to sense the position of the spine, to be aware of breath, thoughts and feelings.
Classes are taken barefoot to soul-stirring music all over the world. In Walla Walla, on this Friday, students range from Genevieve Sisemore at 70 years old to Sarah Allen at 27. This particular class period also has a tiny cheerleader. Anna Laville, 5, has tagged along with her mom, Madeliene Laville, and wanders the perimeter of the room, snapping photos with a phone camera.
Sisk and Tompkins start the women off with synchronized breathing and gradual movement, underscored by soothing notes of sound. The dancers first flick only their wrists. In moments, arms and feet are moving, followed by deep bending at the waist. The turquoise, green and purple of women clad in workout gear turn the studio into a moving garden as they shimmy in place, sway and pivot in unison.
While it shares a similar holistic feel as yoga, Nia incorporates mobility, agility and movement, Tompkins said.
Regular application of the practice can filter into everything, she explained. “I was attracted to Nia because I wanted to learn to listen to my body and at that time I didn’t feel I had the patience for yoga. What I found was this incredible 55-minute class that was a unique experience each time I went. After attending class I noticed that I was more joyful, more outgoing and assertive … learning to love my body and its potential.”
Her confidence increases post-workout whether she is teacher or student, Tompkins added.
By the third music set or so, the exercise has grown increasingly more physical as Sisk cheerleads from the front of the room. Foreheads are damp with effort and some of the smiles have straightened as concentration sets in. Here the women engage in a free-for-all scramble in the big space. There they return to arm and hand movements, incorporating swooping body bends.
A few songs later and hair has escaped from buns while some students have discarded a top layer of sleeves, seeking coolness offered by a tank top underneath.
Eventually most women are clapping and leaping as the lesson nears its climax, providing percussion to music that has evolved into the sort that works its way through one’s bones.
Clearly coordination is not essential, and students and instructors occasionally bump into each other, laughing on gentle impact.
Before the hour draws nigh, everyone returns to her own section of floor and begins to slow and cool. Soon, like bright ladybugs tipped over, the women put spine to floor, arms and legs waving in the air before tumbling over and over on the floor, falling into a position of rest at last.
That is the end of the seventh cycle in the Nia routine, a time when the body’s nervous system has been nourished by movement, Sisk explained. She has seen it over and over, in herself and her students — “Everybody steps out together at the end and you recognize you step out onto your own path.”
The energy created during the hour offers a sense of wholeness and allows a way to touch base with emotion as well as the physical self, she added. “You don’t have to have a 10 minute conversation with your friend on the phone and break down in tears. You already took care of that in class.”
At the end of the class, students and instructors alike are ready to go forth and tackle life, Sisk said.