Doing Doonya: Greenfield instructor offers workout inspired by Bollywood

  • Courtney Trosan, center, and Viki Caruso, both of Greenfield, dance March 25, 2017 during Doonya, an aerobic Bollywood dance class, at the YMCA in Greenfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Russell creates her workouts, which are approved by the Doonya company in New York. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Gayatri Guhanarayan of Holyoke, center, dances March 25, 2017 during Doonya, an aerobic Bollywood dance class, at the YMCA in Greenfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Instructor Aisha Russell leads March 25, 2017 during Doonya, an aerobic Bollywood dance class, at the YMCA in Greenfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Courtney Trosan of Greenfield takes part in the Saturday morning class. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Aisha Russell leads a Saturday morning Doonya class at the YMCA in Greenfield. At left is Nyudlia Araeva of Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Gayatri Guhanarayan of Holyoke says she doesn’t mind the 45-minute drive from her home to attend the only Doonya class offered in Massachusetts. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2017 2:51:18 PM

Aisha Russell is a blur of motion, her knees bent in a semi squat, her feet taking tiny, quick steps, as she darts from side to side. Arms raised in front of her, elbows bent, too, she makes circular motions with her hands as if she is washing a window.

A Hindi pop song blasts from the speakers in the exercise room at the YMCA in Greenfield on this Saturday morning where more than a dozen women are following Russell’s lead.

“To the left. ... To the right,” she calls into the microphone attached to her headset.

The group is engaged in a high-intensity aerobic workout called Doonya, a blend of western and Indian dance inspired by movies made by Bollywood — the Mumbai-based film industry.

It is a relatively new exercise routine, which works nearly all the muscles in the body.

Absorbed in the dance

The women in the class have clearly been here before as they move fluidly in unison, puffing out their chests and twirling their wrists above their heads to the drum beat filling the room. Some say the exercise is just a side benefit to the fun that comes from feeling like they are on a movie set in Mumbai, though no one is wearing an embroidered sari; most are dressed in Spandex and T-shirts.

“You are really absorbed in the dance and in the moment,” says Gayatri Guhanarayan, 32, of Holyoke, who comes to the class every Saturday morning. “There is this feeling of lightness. You forget that you are working out.”

The students start marching in place, with a bit of a bounce in their steps, their arms reaching up toward the ceiling.

“Shake it up a little,” Russell says.

She stretches one arm above her head and makes circles as if swinging a lasso. “Kick up the legs,” she instructs, as she moves to the left, still swinging the invisible lasso. Her other arm is positioned just in front of her, hand in a fist, like she is holding a horse’s reins.

“You are focusing on your balance, your core strength, you are really working the whole body,” she says.

The women quickly transition from move to move.

In another moment, they flex their leg muscles, moving in and out of lunges, with their arms again stretched above their heads, forming a half moon.

“The energy here is awesome,” says Abby Farrar, 41, who drives from Chicopee nearly every week to take the class. 

“The hour goes by really quickly.”

The movements are punctuated with symbolic hand gestures called mudras. The deer mudra is one of the most popular of these gestures in the class, in which two fingers are pinched together with the thumb to form a deer snout, while the pinkie and pointer finger stand up like ears. 

“I’m learning about a culture that I didn’t know about and getting a workout,” says another student Jackie Stein, 39, of Lake Pleasant. “It is also so nice to have an enthusiastic person lead the class.”

First in the state

Russell, 30, is the only Doonya instructor teaching in Massachusetts and one of only about 50 throughout the United States. But through ongoing trainings, these numbers are growing all the time, says Rohan Sheth, Bolly Hero/CEO of the Doonya company based in New York City and Washington D.C.

Russell, who lives in Greenfield, started leading classes at the Greenfield YMCA last October, after teaching for two years in New York and New Hampshire. She works remotely for Planned Parenthood in New York, which has allowed her to move to New England for the change of scenery she was seeking.

She says she fell in love with the Pioneer Valley and not long after settling in Greenfield, pitched the class to the YMCA. Now, she teaches two sessions a week. She hopes to do a workshop in Northampton this summer.

The class, she says, is similar to Zumba, which is a choreographed cardio-dance class that pulls from the dance styles of Latin America. 

“It is a little bit different because you are working a lot more on your balance than you would in Zumba,” she says.

Since Guhanarayan grew up in India and always has had a fondness for dance, she was ecstatic to discover Doonya through an online Indian dance meet up group last year.  She says she doesn’t mind making the 45-minute drive from her home every week. Guhanarayan, who is also an exercise science lecturer at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, says she likes Doonya because it is a more varied workout than taking a run or using an elliptical machine at the gym. And, she says, it keeps her arms and thighs toned.

“I get my inner Bollywood actress out. I feel like I get to just be in that moment and be in the dance,” she says.

Carefully choreographed

Each of the dances has been carefully choreographed and screened by the Doonya company, which was created about 10 years ago in Washington D.C. by two American women of Indian decent, Priya Pandya and Kajal Desai.

The class blends a variety of styles, like mixing Bhangra, a lively folk dance from the Punjab region in India, with western moves like hip-hop and jazz dance, says Russell.

“It is very fun and full of attitude. When a lot of instructors teach routines, they go crazy with their facial expressions, they don’t hold back.”

As a college student in Washington D.C, in 2007, Russell took her first Doonya class with one of the founders, Pandya. She liked that it was not competitive, like sports, but fun as well as an intense workout.

“It helped build my body confidence and helped me feel comfortable moving in these ways in front of other people,” she says.

She also started noticing some weight loss and toning throughout her body.

After a few years of enjoying her Doonya workouts, and serving as a studio assistant in New York, Russell decided to train as an instructor. The Doonya company set up an accelerated program for her. 

Sometimes she creates her own dances, which the company must approve, other times she pulls moves from an online database with instructor videos, also approved by Doonya.

“Not only am I sharing this thing that I love, but I created this thing and other people are doing it, too,” she says.

“You can learn so many different songs and create your own playlists.”

She says her students come in all shapes, sizes and fitness levels and she makes a point to create an accessible environment for everyone; each person is encouraged to work at his or her own pace.

“It’s not just a great workout, it’s a great community of people,” says Russell.

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com

Doonya workouts

The class meets on Fridays at 5:35 p.m. and on Saturdays at 11:05 a.m. at the YMCA, 451 Main St., Greenfield. Each session is free for members of the YMCA and $10 for the general public.

Call 413-773-3646 or visit http://www.ymcaingreenfield.org.




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