You could say I’m gym-phobic. I’ve never felt comfortable going to one, never knew what I was doing, felt intimidated by spandex-clad shark-grinned instructors, was certain everyone was silently mocking me while I struggled with the treadmill.
But last year, I made a New Year’s resolution that I would start taking a fitness class. I figured a class was a surefire way to get myself moving at least an hour a week (and that when I know I’ve paid to be somewhere, I show up even when I don’t wanna).
Through luck and Google Maps’ navigational skills, I ended up at a Nia class, and it was the best thing I did all January. And I’ve gone just about every Saturday since.
I had no idea what Nia was before I tried it, and I struggle to explain it now. It’s a dance class, but it has martial arts, too, and yoga and imagination, and it changes every week and it’s pretty much nothing like Zumba. It’s a barefoot exhilarating, strengthening, enlivening class.
My class is overwhelmingly female, and while I don’t think Nia is a “lady class,” I think women take to it particularly well because it’s a little subversive.
One of the main lessons I’ve picked up in my classes has nothing to do with how high I can kick or my ability to do a cha-cha step. Nia has taught me to use my voice.
I think it’s a byproduct of my gym-phobia, but there’s a hefty dose of my personality (hello, mousy writer stereotype!) and cultural teachings. See, my gym classes in middle school and high school were like this: girls, go play badminton. Boys, we’re going to play football. Boys, today we learn how to use the weight machines safely; girls, Jazzersize time!
(I never did learn how to use the weight machines, which would have been really freaking useful come college, thankyouverymuch.)
All my attempts at exercise were quiet. I was so terrified of being noticed, of being watched, that I made no sound at all. I never talked to helpful-looking strangers or panted aloud while clambering awkwardly on the stair-stepper. I was head-down, intensely concentrating, focused on getting out of there as soon as I humanly could.
But that doesn’t work in Nia. Nor, I found, did I want it to.
Our instructor, Jule, cheerfully encourages us to vocalize, leading by example. Most of the time, it’s martial arts-style “ha!”s. But sometimes, she does something radical:
Ok guys, say “NO!” when you perform that block. Let me hear you: “No! No! NO!”
This was revolutionary to me. It was like we were visualizing obstacles in our lives and literally beating them down. Woah.
Other times, we may hiss or meow in cat pose, or say “YES!” or “one!” In one class, we ran through a litany of “you!” “me!” “we!”
After 10 months, I’ve noticed a theme. Overwhelmingly, these vocalizations — which turned out to be fun to do — are about defining our personal space. “NO!” comes up in fighting off imaginary attackers, or fending away an overloaded schedule of tasks. “YES” invites us to try new things, to be clear in what we want and do something about it. “ONE” reminds us that we are only one person, and we are there exercising just for us. (Even when we’re pretending to be cats, we’re taking ownership of our personal space– you don’t want to pick up a hissing cat, amiright?)
That’s what is so subversive about it. Drawing boundaries around yourself, speaking up for what you want — these are things we are often told, as women, aren’t for us. We are expected to accommodate others, to be flexible, to give up our needs in exchange for being someone else’s caretaker.
It’s taken me a few months, but now I am loud and present in my class every week, shouting with the others in our group. Finally, I can own, and voice, my participation — saying YES every day.
Note: Other exercise routines might do this for you, but Nia is what works for me. If you’re gym-phobic, keep trying. There’s something out there for you.