ANACORTES — Having left their shoes at the door, a group of barefoot women sidestepped across the hardwood floor last week at the Center for Happiness, housed in a light-filled room several flights of stairs above downtown Anacortes.

“Yes,” they shout, led by teacher Debbie DuPey, punching toward the mirror in time with the music.

“No,” they chime.

“Maybe,” DuPey exclaims, everyone laughing.

The women exhaled deep yogic breaths at the beginning, threw in some punches and kicks with the music and moved their hips and bodies in dance, alternately goofy and beautiful. And they laughed, burning calories the whole time.

In a nutshell this is Nia, and though it does quicken the heart rate, it’s deeper than just an exercise routine for practitioners and teachers.

It’s about healing through movement, relieving stress and exercising in a way that feels good and is joyful, the center’s Nia instructors said. As some say, participants leave their shoes and their inhibitions at the door.

“In a way, it’s sort of play therapy for adults,” DuPey said over a preclass cup of tea in “The Ballroom,” the airy space in the upper reaches of an old building on Commercial Avenue.

A goofy approach

Across the room is a bubble machine, which they sometimes turn on during Nia class, sending iridescent globes of soap out over the street below.

Fellow teacher Heather Hovis once taught in a red sequined cowboy hat. There was talk of another instructor in another Nia class who led students against the backbeat of contemporary rock music.

That may be something that happens at the center, though in general Nia does invite creativity and play, said Laura Lavigne, the center’s founder who joined in with the classes.

With or without a sequined cowboy hat or rock music, Nia — short for “Neuromuscular Integrative Action” — is comprised of a groundwork of 52 moves, including pieces from yoga, dance and martial arts techniques like tai chi and other disciplines.

Nia is “… very free, but very grounded,” Hovis said. Classes can be creative in their own ways, while all having commonalities because of that foundation of routines.

It’s low-impact, the instructors said, and can be adapted to limitations and tailored to different levels. That’s why there aren’t beginner or intermediate classes, Lavigne said.

As Hovis put it, each of us has “such a small box” that we move in during our day-to-day lives. The Nia community at the center creates a safe place for both women and men to play and to move freely, perhaps in ways they haven’t before, the instructors said.

“There’s no worry about being goofy, because someone’s going to be goofier than you,” DuPey said.

Effective workout

While sometimes goofy, the class is still working participants’ muscles.

“I feel it so much outside of class,” Lavigne said.

Lavigne and the teachers said they’ve seen people transformed, losing weight and gaining confidence and comfort in their bodies and with themselves.

“You get into a different relationship with your body,” Lavigne said. “I don’t know if it’s a posture or grace, it’s just an awareness of my body that I haven’t had before.”

During a water break between songs last week, Carolyn Barney said she loves the Nia class. She has gone to eight so far, but anticipated getting a monthly pass, which would allow her to go to as many of the hour-long classes as she wanted.

“It’s just very energetic and also inspiring and yet you feel relaxed when you’re done,” Barney said. “It’s not competitive. You go at your own pace.”

Barney, who retired as a medical technologist a year ago, said the Nia class is something she sees herself continuing to do.

“This has been really good to get me into new things,” she said. “It’s nice to get out and meet a lot of new people.”

Beyond the workout and those 52 moves, that’s another aspect of Nia — community, one that plays — and sweats — together.

“It’s a workout,” Barney said. “No matter what level.”

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