The story of Nia begins long before Debbie Rosas and Carlos AyaRosas stepped onto a co-creative path in 1982, guided by an idea that fitness could feel better, be fun and cater to the whole person. The back story – the one that makes you really understand the inspiration behind this sensory-based movement practice – starts in Chicago, and is best told by Debbie herself.
What I am about to share with you is meant to shed light on why it was so important for me to design Nia in a fluid, body-centered, sensory-based and creative way. My personal story will help you understand why it is the priority of Nia to leave people feeling good about themselves in terms of their bodies, identities and possibilities for the future. I hope my story, both the good and the painful parts, will motivate and inspire you to step onto your own path of health, wellness and fitness.
I didn't always feel the way I do now. My mind, body, emotions and spirit were not always unified. I guess you could say my first conscious in-body experience happened when I met Carlos at the age of 29 years old. But before we get to that, I'm going to take you back to a time of great struggling and suffering.
It was January of 1950, and my mother tells me there was a blazing snowstorm in Chicago, Illinois at the time of my birth. Maybe that's why I love snow so much. The cold weather always seems to make me feel safe. I don't really remember much about being a young child, but I do vividly recall the weeks that passed without the use of my senses. Depending on the illness, I spent extended amounts of time without the ability to see, hear, touch or taste. This is what gives me such great respect for the body's senses today.
At two months old, I encountered my first physical illness and had to have a tumor removed from the right side of my neck. I am reminded of the surgical invasion by my limited neck movement. If you look closely at me from the front, you'll notice that the placement of my head sits about an inch and a half too far to the right. However, my neck mobility is greatly improved thanks to Nia – and the once reversed curve in my neck is almost completely healed.
From the ages of two to seven, I had almost every ear, nose and throat infection known to man. I often wonder if growing up behind a farm that periodically sprayed had something to do with this. I would wake up with my eyes swollen and crusted shut. My nose was completely congested, making it extremely difficult to breath. Strep throat and swollen tonsils suppressed my desire to eat because swallowing was so uncomfortable. Eventually, I had my adenoids and tonsils removed. Styes and ugly protrusions grew on the surface of my eyelids. Painful pus mounds plagued my face and made me ashamed of my looks.
These illnesses were the catalyst for my so-called "learning disabilities" that doctors and teachers diagnosed me with. I withdrew from the world, hindering my ability to progress and learn. People thought I was slow and stupid. They would say things like, "she's a day-dreamer," or "she doesn't pay attention," or "she isn't very smart." These comments had a profound effect on me, damaging my self-esteem and sense of self-worth. They stole my dreams and limited my perceived potential. Now healed, I recognize that my pain – both physical and emotional – motivated me to make Nia body-centered and sensory-guided.
At eight, I began a relationship with my intuitive, creative and imaginative self. This would prove to be one of my most rewarding relationships. I escaped into a realm with no boundaries – away from the reality of my days. But traditional schools in those times placed little value on artistic ability. I was dubbed void of "intelligence." Comments like, "well at least she can draw" left me feeling inadequate – like my artistic talent was not nearly as important as reading or math skills.
In the same year, I suffered from psoriasis and eczema. From my armpits down to my hands, I was crusted with thick, scaly skin, leaving me unable to bend my arms. It was impossible to dress, wipe or feed myself. Schools would send me home in fear that I was contagious after seeing my blazing red skin, scabs and oozing pus. Once home, my mother would wrap my arms, grab the doctor's letter, and take me right back to class. Humiliated and embarrassed, I felt deeply ashamed of my appearance. This fueled a silent, internal dialogue that repeated for years: "I wish I could disappear." The eczema lasted into my teen years, leaving me in a place where I didn't like to touch or see my body. The thought of having it touched or seen by anyone else was unthinkable. This had a dramatic impact on my ability to pay attention and learn.
This body – that should have been climbing trees, running, and jumping through puddles – was becoming more afraid, shut down and energetically rigid. Ear and eye infections left me unable to read like other kids. I developed a lisp, creating the need for remedial speech therapy. Every day at 10:40am, the angel of darkness (a name I coined for my speech therapist) would come to the door and blurt out, "Deborah Bender." I hated hearing my name. The voice singled me out as the dumb one who needed special help in front of all the other kids. I began to associate my name with shame, and quickly learned how to fade away in class so as not to be called upon.
To me, my body and mind had failed. Feeling abused and abandoned by my own being, I became angry and silent. No one could understand that I didn't learn like everyone else. If I would read a math problem asking me to figure out how many apples were in a basket, I'd find my mind creatively running off and out of control. I would envision green polka-dot apples, apples with angel's wings, apples that talked, apples with long legs and striped stockings; they all danced in my mind. Figuring out how many apples were in the basket was the least of my problems.
I retreated even further into my world of creativity where I felt safe and protected. But there seemed to be nowhere in my mind I could go to read, calculate, comprehend or remember what they wanted me to. Words and letters would uncontrollably fly across the page and turn upside-down. B’s became D’s, T's became F's. There were days where I wouldn't feel myself breathe until 3:00pm, the moment the school bell rang. That was the instant I was free from the institution that demanded "rightness" out of my "wrongness."
The Turning Point
Burying my long-time dream of becoming a doctor, I went to art school and ended up working as a medical illustrator at the Missouri Institute of Psychiatry in the Drug Research Department. At the age of twenty, I married – doing what all good girls did to be taken care of. Then in 1975, while experiencing depression just after the birth of my second child, everything changed. I went to an all-female exercise studio. Yes, the old-fashioned kind with pink carpet and gold columns. I remember lying on the ground with my left leg in a pulley. As I moved it up and down in hopes of toning and tightening, my emotional state surprisingly shifted. The depression I felt lifted. I finished and went home, but couldn't stop thinking about it.
Shortly thereafter, I met a woman named Barbara who invited me to an aerobic exercise class she was teaching. A bit overweight, Barbara struggled with her body and its shape, so exercise was a part of her life. During the class, that feeling of relief came back to me. I turned to her and said, "You know, we can do this exercise thing... and we can do it better." She excitedly expressed her desire to have a business of her own, and such began my life in fitness.
Over the next year, we educated and tested ourselves to develop our program. Monday through Friday from morning to afternoon, we'd read books on exercise, nutrition, anatomy, physiology, exercise science and psychology. It was hard work for me, but I was motivated. I read slowly and re-read paragraphs until I understood. I figured out ways to make sense of the words by drawing pictures, reading out loud, and using my body to bring meaning to the concepts. The business grew rapidly from the two of us to more than fifty teachers offering more than one hundred classes per week throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The Bod Squad, Inc. was the biggest, most successful aerobic company in Marin County, California from 1976 to 1982 – the year I met Carlos AyaRosas and broke away from mainstream fitness to create Nia.
The Birth of Nia
I first met Carlos when he came to my aerobics class, hoping to get fitter to gain an edge in his upcoming tennis tournament. After taking a few classes, he approached me about a job – teaching was what he had always wanted to do. I gave him a tape and a routine to learn. Five days later, he came back ready to throw in the towel on his tennis pro career. The entrepreneur inside of me told me I should hire him – so I did.
During our lunch meeting, Carlos asked me about my life. I colorfully described my work, my marriage and my children. He then posed the one simple question that would change it all: "Are you happy?" Frozen in time for a moment, I remember biting down into my fork and almost breaking my tooth. His words ran straight through me. I was dizzy. Making no eye contact, I quickly responded, "Of course I'm happy." I then hurried to my car in sheer panic. As I slid into the front seat and reached to adjust my rearview mirror, my eyes became fixated on my reflection. The truth was, I wasn't happy. And whoever I was this past morning was gone; there was no getting her back. In what seemed like a fraction of a second, my life as I had lived it ended. In this new reflection, I saw the whole me – my spirit and soul. This was the beginning of my conscious life, the moment of my healing process. At 29, I asked for a divorce after 11 years of marriage to begin anew.
As Bod Squad classes flourished, I began searching for a way to honor students – to recognize their progression. I decided to call a friend of mine who was a martial artist, in the hopes of learning more about the belt system. He invited me to the Dojo where he practiced his craft. Excited and not sure what to expect, I asked Carlos to join me. He agreed, and off we went.
Little did we know our lives were about to change dramatically. When we arrived at the Dojo, the martial artist asked us to take off our shoes. This was a new concept to us. He then told us to move. As we began doing jumping jacks and leg lifts, he shook his head, informing us we had “forgotten how to move.” Was this really possible? We were professional aerobics instructors after all. We left with more questions than we had arrived with.
The next morning, Carlos and I couldn’t stand to put our shoes on for class. It felt so uncomfortable and unnatural. We became increasingly aware of the shortcomings of traditional aerobics. Each day, Carlos was rolling out of bed and grimacing through stretches to work out tendinitis. He was downing coffee and aspirin before each class to rev up for an hour of instruction that was murder on his shin splints. At the same time I was becoming less and less tolerant of the discomfort of jump aerobics. And so, together, we began to question the source of our pain. We knew deep down that there had to be a better way – a more fulfilling way: one that would efficiently sculpt the body while conditioning the heart and enriching the mind and soul.
At that time, the widely accepted health mantra was, “no pain, no gain.” Together, Carlos and I rejected that notion and defined a new approach to wellness – one that broke away from high-impact aerobics, repetitive movement and mind-body separation. We spent the next 13 years working, living and creating Nia together – letting our devotion to each other, to the work, and to the transformation of our souls continue to guide us.
This catalyzed a tremendous shift towards fusion fitness. Rather than obsessing over physical results, Nia tuned into the needs of the body, mind, spirit and emotions. Athletes, dancers, casual exercisers and gym-haters alike began to embrace the movement lifestyle because it felt good. It was exhilarating, not guilt-driven; expressive instead of one-dimensional. Healing, not exhausting. Nia ultimately forged the category known as mind-body fitness today.
Yes, I experienced pain, struggle, joy and fear along the way because, like you, I am a real person. My romantic relationship with Carlos ended in 1995, which sent the Nia community in an uproar. During this time, I would be tested in ways that make me wonder how I survived. But I know I made it because of Nia. Despite all the pain and emotional sorrow brought on by our separation, I never stopped teaching. I used each class as a time to move and heal and breath to come closer to myself. Nia taught me how to love, through all my emotional distress.
Now I am living in what I call my "expanded love phase." I feel truly blessed. My wonderful husband, Jeff Stewart, supports and shapes my work and dreams as the CEO for Nia. Every day I continue to give my students the best of what I have to offer in this moment, based on my past experiences and vision for the future. I am thrilled to be starting a program that will launch the next group of Nia Trainers who will offer Nia White Belt Trainings worldwide and train Nia teachers to adapt the practice to specialty populations. My learning disabilities are a reminder that intelligence is of the body, not the mind. I remain committed to creating in a way so that the magic of the universe can unfold itself to me. Where does it all happen you ask? In my body: a place I now love to be.