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Students Learn Yoga, Mindfulness to Manage Stress

December 13, 2019

As students file into the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. School of Education’s Technology Classroom, no one opens their laptops. The smart board is off. Instead of neat rows of desks, the furniture is against the wall. Students unroll yoga mats and settle in for their evening class, Yoga and Mindfulness for Educators.

At the beginning of class, students write reflections about their thoughts and emotions.

Taught by Joan Nichols, an adjunct professor and trauma-informed yoga instructor, the course focuses on how students can use yoga and mindfulness for their own self-care, and how as future teachers, they can help their students be focused and engaged in the classroom. The class has been offered since fall 2017, and continues to grow in popularity.

Nichols brings decades of yoga practice to the course; she is a certified instructor who teaches all ages. Several years ago, she closed her studio in Penfield to launch a program at the Wilson Foundation in the Rochester City School District, using the practice to help students relax and focus toward academic success. Through that work, she had the idea of equipping the next generation of teachers with mindfulness and yoga techniques. She approached Dr. Jeff Liles, associate professor in the School of Education, about creating a course that would teach students to use it for themselves and pedagogically in their future classrooms.

“What I really talk to the college students about is identifying what stress is and how to observe it. When we are stressed, the shoulders crunch toward the ears, we clench the jaw, our fists ball up. These are all different ways our bodies are telling us that we’re stressed,” Nichols explained. “But the body is extremely intelligent, and when we work with it instead of against it, the benefits are there emotionally, physically, and mentally. This intelligence and the art of yoga gives us a way of dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, keeping the mind and body healthier.”

Observation and reflection are a large part of the classroom experience. With each lesson, Nichols will ask the students to check-in with their feelings – are they anxious? Feeling as though they have energy to expend? Feeling like they want to relax? With soft music playing and the scent of peppermint essential oil in the air, Nichols gives them the quiet space to be more reflective and more empowered. 

Students perform yoga during the course, Yoga and Mindfulness for Educators.

Then, the yoga begins. Nichols leads the students through different poses and shares techniques they can draw on later to relieve stress.

While the class was designed for students in the School of Education, others have found its lessons equally beneficial.

Samantha Wilmier is a sophomore majoring in biology/pre-med. She enrolled in the course on the recommendation of her academic advisor. With a full course load heavily focused on the sciences, she felt the class might help her manage her stress better.

“It has taught me simple breathing techniques that you can do; just sitting in your chair and recognizing the space that you’re in and taking a few breaths to calm down,” she said, adding that she often does yoga after tackling homework assignments at night and will draw on mindfulness breathing before taking a test or heading to a particularly challenging course. “I’m grateful for what the class has taught me, and I am applying it to everyday life.”