Some people do yoga to improve flexibility; others prefer zumba or jazzercise for the cardio, yet others opt for martial arts to better their balance and sensory awareness. Narrow-muscular Integrated Action (NIA – pronounced nee-ah) combines all these and more.

In one hour, participants experience nine arts integrated into one: three types of dances, martial arts and healing arts.

Dance techniques include jazz, Duncan and modern dance.

Salem NIA instructor Sherry Coburn says, “Jazz is animated, modern dance is making shapes with your body, and Duncan dance is about really expressing your feelings, expressing every note in the music with your body.”

NIA’s martial arts are Chinese tai chi, Japanese Aikido and Korean Taekwondo. They focus on the “hara,” the center of gravity, or the core. All NIA instructors must have extensive martial arts training (Coburn is a blue belt).

The three healing arts are yoga, Alexander technique and the Feldenkrais method, which is about self-awareness through movement, aiming to reduce pain and stiffness. Alexander was a Shakespearean orator who began to lose his voice. After noticing that voice and breathing problems are commonly caused by tensing the muscles of the upper torso, especially the neck, he developed this technique to displace that tension and continue acting.

In her sessions, Coburn encourages students to vocalize and act out different emotions, making the NIA experience very cathartic. She might direct an angry “No!” yell or a happy “Yes!” to accompany the punches, or tell people to remember the most in love they’ve been as they freely dance around.

“It’s like therapy! You feel anger, happiness, and work out some of those emotions,” says participant Wendy Stalfire, who has seen physical balance increase despite a medical condition. “I think it’s because of the crossing motions, making new connections in the nervous system,” she says.

Although there’s a choreography to follow, people are encouraged freedom of expression and movement.

Carmen, a NIA participant for two years, says at first she used to only follow the form, but soon began to open up.

“I have done a lot of different kinds of aerobics and NIA is a total workout. It helps keep the brain active, improve balance and elasticity and it’s great for any age,” she says, recommending NIA to anyone 40 and up to maintain healthy joints with NIA’s gentle dance rotations.

“It’s a party!” says Coburn. “It’s phenomenal. I’ve had depressed students come and leave happy and laughing. Some people never thought they could dance and they discover their senses, their body.”

The diverse world music ranges from techno to reggae, ambient and much more. Thievery Corporation would be a good example of something played during a NIA workout.

“They’re very vibrant sounds we don’t always hear,” says Coburn, who recently created a NIA choreography to Sting’s “Englishman in New York.”

NIA has been around for 25 years and is very popular in Europe, Asia and Africa. Its basic principle is called “The Body’s Way”: the body naturally chooses pleasure over pain, and NIA uses that pleasure in movement to achieve fitness.

In one of Coburn’s classes, she instructed students to act as a flying bird, stalking a prey down below. The movement was graceful, fun and full of emotion and no one would have noticed they were actually doing squats the whole time.

There could be a taekwondo kick followed by a slow dance while walking backwards and a full-body shake similar to the belly dancing “shimmy,” a great technique to stimulate the nervous system. The stretching part at the end, known as “floor play,” is not static stretching, but free-moving.

“The autonomic nervous system is not normally stimulated. Our bodies need sudden change, shock. We tell the brain to venture another direction,” says Coburn, adding that NIA, a brain-to-toes workout, also works to improve mental clarity and memory.

The sense of joy her students have fallen in love with is evident in their faces after each session.

Janet Brice, a class participant since last year, says the workout has, “trimmed and toned me, given me a greater flexibility than I ever experienced, tremendously reduced shoulder joint issues from carrying a laptop and heavy purses for many years and provided a total acceptance atmosphere where each person is valued at their ability level.”

“There are no words to express what a gift NIA is. It’s like eating chocolate… you can’t explain it. You want it and you love it,” adds Coburn. “You have to experience it. You can’t die until you have NIA.”

For more information about NIA, visit Sherry Coburn can be reached at 503-269-3148 or at


Middle Earth Dance Studio, 155 Liberty St NE (downtown)

Mondays 5:30-6:30 p.m. and Wednesdays 10:45-11:45 a.m.


Tuesdays and Thursdays 4:30-5:20 p.m. (Family class)

Senior 50+ community center, 2615 Portland Rd.

Mondays 8:45-9:40 a.m. and Thursdays 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Prices vary depending on the number of classes attended in a 4-week period (4 classes are $20).