Exercising the Self: Yoga, Meditation and Mindfulness

by Maria Harrast | 10/25/17 2:35am

We are in the midst of week seven, and by now, students are all too familiar with a certain buzzword on campus.

“I’m so stressed about that exam on Thursday.”

“The first problem on that midterm seriously stressed me out.”

“I have a lab on Monday, an essay due Tuesday and an exam on Wednesday. I’m so stressed, I don’t even know where to start.”

“Stress.” We join clubs, compete in sports and maintain relationships, all while trying to succeed academically, find time for sleep and hold everything together. Stress is engrained in our daily lives, yet few of us take the necessary actions to combat its detrimental effects.

Wellness program coordinator Laura Beth White said that mindfulness — a mental state achieved by accepting one’s thoughts and feelings and focusing awareness on the present moment — provides both physical and mental benefits, including reducing stress and anxiety and promoting feelings of well-being and health. White said that studies show mindfulness reduces blood pressure and stress-related diseases, and mentally, it teaches us to be more accepting of our emotions and thoughts.

“Mindfulness teaches us to relate to our internal environment,” White said. “It teaches us to be aware of our emotions and feelings and hold them in space without judging them, without that inner critic saying, ‘I shouldn’t feel this way’ or denying that it’s even present. Mindfulness teaches us to keep pushing forward and really turn inward, to be aware of what’s there with a really kind and friendly attitude, like your best friend checking in on yourself.”

Meditation similarly reduces stress, although the practice differs in a few ways. According to White, mindfulness is a way of being, in which people are aware of their present moment experience, while meditation is more of a formal practice. During meditation, people are either in a seated or reclined posture, and they choose to pay attention to an anchor, their breath, a mantra or body sensations.

White believes that anyone can meditate or be mindful, although someone who has recently experienced extreme trauma may want to wait until they reach a more stable mental place.

“I think everyone’s experience with it can be very different,” White said. “I often hear a lot of folks saying they’re too anxious to meditate or they’re too stressed out or they don’t have time, but one benefit is that these practices strengthen your ability to sit with the uncomfortable. Mindfulness and meditation strengthen your ability to be present when it gets tough, and they add this richness to life.”

A more physical practice of well-being is yoga. Alissa Trepman, yoga instructor and curriculum specialist at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, teaches her students a practice called Forrest Yoga. Forrest Yoga focuses on breath, strength, integrity and spirit, and it challenges students to cleanse their emotional and mental limitations.

While meditation and mindfulness are not directly incorporated into Trepman’s class, breath work, or pranayama, is. Before each class, Trepman leads her students through breathing exercises and continues to call attention to the breath during and after class.

“I am constantly cueing students to find the breath in each pose,” Trepman said. “Many people before me have said this, but if there’s no breath, there’s no yoga. I would say that this practice can become very meditative if one manages to breathe throughout it, but it can be very challenging.”

Student yoga practitioner Alma Wang ’18 believes that meditation can be incorporated into yoga, but the two practices are distinct. Wang began yoga in high school and continues to practice yoga about three times per week at Mighty Yoga in Hanover.

“There is a part at the end of every yoga class where you take five to 10 minutes and lay there, and you’re forced to think or just relax and come back in contact with your body,” Wang said. “Those few moments are always where my mind traverses to things I don’t think about for a while or something that’s been in the back of my mind. In that sense, there’s this element of meditation, but I’d say meditation is more focused on the wandering mind than yoga is. Yoga’s a lot more focused on your body.”

Students might practice yoga to destress, and they reap the physical and mental benefits. Wang said she has become more conscious of her body, more flexible and less likely to get injured less when practicing yoga. The classes boost her mood and keep her calm as well.

Trepman believes that anyone who practices yoga should gain these benefits, so she tries to address the specific needs of her students during class. Whether a student is working with natural body positions or injuries, Trepman said she enjoys catering to different bodies and must stay knowledgeable about modifications that certain students need. She uses hands-on assistance and goes at a slow pace to ensure that no one is left behind.

“I really do believe that yoga is for everybody, and even more specifically for every body,” Trepman said. “There is a version of yoga that everybody can find, whether you have lost something in your physical body or you have had physical trauma or whatever physical limitations you have — there is always a pose you can find or a version of it.”

Flexibility is a key benefit of yoga, and Trepman said the strength gained from this flexibility is especially advantageous.

“In my personal experience, I’ve become a lot stronger and stronger within flexibility as well, and I think there’s a certain amount of integrity in the body when you’re not just flexible but when there’s strength within that flexibility,” Trepman said.

Similar to mindfulness or meditation, yoga helps people gain a greater sense of self. Wang said yoga makes her feel more comfortable with discomfort.

“You kind of look disgusting when you do Mighty Yoga, and it’s really hot and sweaty, but at the same time, everyone’s in that state where you’re very exposed and open but comfortable with that sense of discomfort,” Wang said. “This kind of practice makes me more comfortable with my ability to achieve things, and in that sense, it helps build my sense of self.”

Similarly, Trepman said yoga is more than a physical practice. Yoga gives her the opportunity for emotional breakthroughs and trains her mind to deal with any situation.

“Emotional trauma is stored in the body, and we hold the poses for a long time to help release emotional trauma from the body,” Trepman said. “I would say that ever since I found Forrest Yoga, I’ve experienced this release, and it’s been amazing; it’s something I haven’t found with other yoga practices. I would say that there’s definitely strength building on physical, mental and emotional sides of yoga, and it’s not just exercise.”