Meghan Moran, The Cavalier Daily, Virginia: Yoga offers stress relief, wellness and ‘peace’ of mind to college students.
I was driving to my first yoga class ever. Visions of peace, balance and spiritual health danced in my head.Suddenly, I heard a bang, and my vision-filled noggin snapped toward the windshield. I’d been rear-ended on Rugby.
Although I left the scene unscathed, my heart was racing and my stress level had skyrocketed. Peace and balance seemed miles away. This yoga class had its work cut out for it.
I cautiously drove the last few blocks to Body-Mind-Spirit, Center for Life Enhancement, a Charlottesville yoga studio located just off of Preston Ave.
According to my yoga teacher, Surya Lipscombe, yoga is the “best stress management technique on the planet.”
I was ready to test this ringing endorsement out for myself.
The classroom was a small, windowless space with crème walls and wine-colored carpet. I entered, laid down my towel and tried not to look like the novice that I was.
Waiting for class to begin, I glanced over at the one wall that was not bare. Its decoration consisted of a small wooden shelf holding a candle and a crystal. Above hung two framed images.
One, Lipscombe explained, was a Yantra –- a design that serves as a meditation tool and is made up of, among other things, symbols of many different religions and a six-sided star representing the male and female energy. The other image was a photo of Satchidananda, the founder of Integral yoga — the form of yoga Lipscombe teaches — which combines several techniques, including pranayama (control of breath), meditation and postures.
Four other students arrived, mats or towels in hand, sporting comfortable cotton clothes and bare feet. We arranged ourselves in two seated, parallel lines facing each other. As the last student entered, Lipscombe dimmed the lights and began class with a set of chants.
Following along with the short chants was simple enough; keeping up with the next step of the class was a little more of a challenge.
Lipscombe proceeded to lead us through a series of poses that stretched the spine, lower back, legs and even stimulated the thyroid gland. As we manipulated our muscles into the cobra pose, bow pose and fish pose, among others, he spoke of the benefits and purposes of each position.
The back is one of the many parts of the body yoga can work wonders for. Lipscombe said many of his students suffer from back pain.
“Yoga is the cheapest and I think the best way to reduce back pain,” he said.
In fact, Lipscombe said one of his fellow teachers at Body-Mind-Spirit initially discovered his love for yoga while he was searching for an alternative to going to a chiropractor twice a week. Lipscombe reports that Yoga has helped this teacher’s back pain, as well as his golf game.
As class continued, the poses became more difficult, and I found myself falling into a deeper level of concentration as I worked harder to stay balanced and in correct form.My mind was forced to drop the worries it had been mulling over.
Lipscombe is familiar with this effect.
“No matter what’s going on [in your life], it’s pretty much impossible to hang on to it for the length of the class,” he said.
Lipscombe added that a regular yoga practice helps improve focus, noting that the Pittsburgh Steelers practice yoga and meditation together to improve their awareness and focus while on the football field.
“They say the Steelers used to know intuitively where everyone was on the field,” he said.
Athletes can also utilize yoga’s physical benefits. Along with relaxing the heart, lowering blood pressure, increasing metabolism and boosting the immune system, yoga lengthens muscles and prevents athletic injury, Lipscombe said.
Non-athletes, however, need also apply. “Yoga can be for people who are overweight or stiff,” Lipscombe said. “It’s a gentle exercise … we have a more spiritual element than any other yoga technique, more than just body, body, body.”
The spiritual element Lipscombe spoke of became very obvious as the class came to a close. After having stretched, reached and breathed for about 45 minutes, we moved into the corpse position for five minutes of silent meditation.
It may sound morbid, but the corpse position is simply a term to describe the comfortable pose of lying flat on one’s back, legs flat and about three feet apart and arms resting alongside the body with palms up. Lipscombe dimmed the lights even further, and the five restful minutes began.
I loved every second. Finally, a class in which closing your eyes was the assignment, not the unfortunate side-effect.
As the silent meditation (sadly) drew to a close, we were brought back to class with a quiet chant from Lipscombe –- a sound I found much easier to wake up to than the obnoxious “BEEP…BEEP” of my alarm clock.
Class ended, and I emerged feeling refreshed and energized. I had a bounce in my step and my back thanked me for having treated it to “half spinal twists” and “bow” poses. I hadn’t necessarily forgotten about the bumper bashing earlier that afternoon or tasks that stood between me and my bed, but these were now challenges I was ready and willing to take on, not looming worries. My schedule hadn’t changed, but my perspective had.
I felt the positive effects that Susanna Nicholson, yoga instructor and therapeutic yoga specialist, said yoga could produce.
Nicholson, who runs her own yoga studio, Union Yoga Loft, near the Water Street Parking Garage and the Downtown Mall, said that a student of yoga “should feel as though, yes, they’re becoming more aware of themselves; they feel more mentally and emotionally in control, that’s the goal.”
Many of the students Nicholson teaches come to her for therapeutic yoga, or yoga that is adapted to special conditions, she said. These conditions include anything from breast cancer to colds.
“I’m very careful to say that this is not a form of purely medical practice,” Nicholson said. “There’s always a spiritual aspect … we can’t say that it’s as simple as taking a pill.”
Still, Nicholson has had personal experiences with yoga as a path to improved physical health. In the mid-80s, she became severely ill with Lime and Epstein-Bar disease. She tried traditional western medicine to cure her illness, and doesn’t regret it, she said, but became panicked after a year-and-a-half of much pill-popping and missed work.
“I thought I’ve got to try something else,” she said. “Finally I did a combo of Chi Gung and Yoga, and I’m telling you that’s what got me well…I’d always loved yoga, and I’d always dug it but I never thought it would heal me on that level.”
Although Nicholson does use therapeutic yoga to deal with some serious illnesses, she said yoga practices are just as effective on students dealing with stress. She’s worked with University undergrads, and even Darden students who were in need of stress-reduction.
“We can deliver anything from better sleep, better digestion, to ‘I need to get more work done in a shorter amount of time’,” she said.
Before students head to a yoga studio, however, Nicholson has one piece of advice.
“The one thing I would say to a college student is…please do not try to turn these poses into competitive goals, because you’re losing the depth and the quality of your own experience in the pose,” she said.
An additional word for those seeking Jennifer Aniston-like litheness from yoga: “Try to make this an experience that’s about your heart and not about how you look.”
This advice might be tough to follow in a time where pop-culture is embracing yoga as fashionable fitness. Mainstream clothiers like J.Crew and Old Navy sell Yoga pants, and Christy Turlington has graced the covers of Vogue holding a yoga pose in couture.
Nicholson, however, sees promise in the newly established trend status of the practice she’s been doing since the age of 13.
“It’s really kind of exciting I guess.” she said, “To be in this situation where you trip over yoga teachers is sort of cool.”
But there’s still the worry that yoga as a fad will lead to fizzle, not a true public appreciation of the practice.
“I guess we’re all hoping, being the cunning old things that we are,” Nicholson said, speaking for herself and fellow yogis.”We’re concerned that in this marriage of yoga to fashion, that it doesn’t just become a fad, that we let yoga seep into our hearts and our minds.”