Students and faculty discover the benefits of yoga

Taking five minutes to practice a corpse pose may seem — aside from slightly morbid — a luxury unaffordable to time-crunched students cramming for exams or banging out the slew of papers. Those who practice yoga, however, view the exercise differently: as an effective method to increase mental and physical fitness while offering a much-needed escape from the stresses of day-to-day living. For stressed out students and their overworked professors, Swarthmore provides a variety of opportunities to explore the benefits of yoga, from classes run by the dance department to independent student-led programs.

With yoga on the rise, practitioners no longer fit the old stereotype of out-there, hippie-like chanters and ohm-ers, according to yoga instructor Mary Anne Anderson, who teaches classes for faculty and staff on campus. The demographics of participants are shifting: whereas yoga classes used to be primarily dominated by women, many husbands and fathers are now beginning to emerge on the scene, introduced by their wives and children to the cultural phenomenon. Increased marketing of the discipline, begun in the last few decades, has contributed to the influx of yoga-goers nationwide.

Dance professor Kim Arrow additionally credits the discipline’s current popularity to its noticeable effectiveness, among other factors. Arrow, who teaches both a technique course and a physical education course in yoga, found students introduced to the discipline in his classes experienced tangible outcomes. “I’ve had athletes in class who have expressed to me surprising results. For example: ‘My running time has improved’, and ‘My coach measured our heights again, I’m a half-inch taller!’” Arrow said in an email. “One person who had a bad back for several years, and tried several therapies, told me her back was virtually back on track and that she could run distances again without pain. Many Swarthmore students have described to me how they had become addicted to the stress reduction effects of the yoga.”

Arrow believes the turn to yoga has been facilitated by greater amounts of stress imposed by society, a new emphasis on sedentary computing skills and a decline in physical education and healthy dietary habits — trends which yoga can assist in combating, both through physical practice and the psychological components of the discipline. Beyond health appeals, Western attraction to Eastern culture since the rise of the Beatles and the camaraderie found within yoga groups additionally drive people to studios, according to Arrow.

Further increasing the appeal of the discipline are the many different styles of yoga, which ensure that there is a fit for everyone, both in terms of physical demands on the body and lifestyle compatibility. Anderson, who has been teaching on campus since 2002 in conjunction with the Wellness Group for Faculty and Staff, leads classes in Vinyasa, Hatha, and Yin yoga for faculty and staff. Vinyasa, Anderson’s self-proclaimed “first love,” is the most strenuous and physically demanding of the three, whereas Hatha and Yin are gentler, more restorative strains.

Anderson believes the different options are great for professors, who can choose a gentler variety in order to return to class sweat-free or a more intense version before returning home. She currently teaches five classes through the Wellness Center, and believes the benefits afforded by practice, while perhaps particularly beneficial to the typical overworked, overstressed student, can be enjoyed by all who engage in the discipline. “Yoga is an incredible option for students but also for everybody. Everybody’s lives are busy. There are a lot of working parents, a lot of stresses.”

Beyond witnessing yoga’s tangible benefits for their students, both Arrow and Anderson have found their practices greatly improve their own lives as well. “When practicing, I find my state of mind more relaxed and, at the same time, more engaged with the world. I certainly am aware that my body, now 61 years of age, is more alive and agile — and together, these results make me a happier and healthier person,” Arrow said. “Curiously, a knee ligament injury I had as a student in the ’70s that had periodically bothered me for 20 years, totally disappeared after that first month [practicing] in India, […] along with the beginning of an imminent sciatica problem.”

Anderson also notices yoga produces palpable benefits in her own life. After she began practicing, her children encouraged her to go to class even if she had been too busy to attend for a while. “My own kids recognized I was calmer and better able to deal with uncomfortable [or] stressful situations [when I was practicing],” Anderson said.

For students not enrolled in Arrow’s dance courses, independent practices led by Swarthmore students offer a viable alternative. The student-run program, begun with the help of Kelly Wilcox, former Assistant Director of Student Life, was initiated in 2009, with Julia Roseman ’11, Allison Stuewe ’12, and Travis Mattingly ’13 leading practices in coordination with the Student Health and Wellness program. Stuewe, who practices Ashtanga yoga, later became involved in spearheading the Ashtanga Yoga Club, which is still an active presence on campus.

Mattingly now serves as the yoga coordinator for weekly student-run practices; in addition to teaching his own class on Friday afternoons, he is also responsible for reserving space, scheduling classes, and managing an email list for interested participants. Participants vary from seasoned yoga-lovers to beginners, and the instructors work to ensure their practice can accommodate the range of abilities present.

Mattingly, like Arrow and Anderson, believes yoga offers both physical and emotional benefits. Its effectiveness in injury prevention functions as a result of increasing the flexibility of and relaxing the body, as well as heightening body awareness. “When I hit a hurdle and fall or fall [while skiing], I don’t get hurt, even when my side is black and blue from hitting the snow so hard. I’ve never broken a bone,” Mattingly said.

Student athletes from cross country runners to basketball players to Frisbee members have turned to yoga to supplement their training. Aside from physical benefits, the opportunity to decompress was one of the primary hooks for Mattingly. “[After my Friday class], I’m good. Things are all right,” he said.

If you would like more information on classes or to be added to the email list, contact Travis Mattingly at tmattin1@swarthmore.edu, or stop by the Wrestling Room in the Lamb-Miller Field House during one of the following times.

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