the Bounds of Definition
Returning to Smith College after
three days of backpacking in the White Mountains and two nights
slumbering on unforgiving ground, Emily Gardel felt stiff and
achy yet headed straight to the gym when she got to campus.
Her destination: The ever-popular drop-in yoga class at Ainsworth Gymnasium. "Before
the class, it hurt to climb stairs," notes Gardel '06. "Now
I am completely rejuvenated."
The word rejuvenate, meaning to "restore" or "renew," aptly
applies to an activity some consider to be purely physical while others see it
as spiritual. But no matter the motivation that leads students, faculty and staff
to plunk down on mats and twist their bodies into various yoga poses, they are
doing it in large numbers.
Large numbers of Smith students are signing up for yoga classes. Once they try
it, many students keep returning for more, yet they each say they get something
different from the experience. Photo by Gregory Cherin.
Last year, when the
Office of Religious Life held an open house for yoga and meditation, organizers
ran out of handouts because an unprecedented 250 students showed up. Yoga
classes taught for credit by the Department of Exercise and Sport Studies
are so popular they are restricted to senior students. Befitting the
dichotomy surrounding the way the activity is viewed, yoga classes
are coordinated between the athletics department and the Office of
During her past six years as an interfaith program coordinator at Smith, Hayat
Nancy Abuza has witnessed a steady increase in interest in yoga. Many students
such as Gardel, who took a yoga class in junior high school, arrive with some
experience. Others have been referred to yoga by a counselor or their parents,
who may have been part of the holistic health movement of the '70s and '80s,
"The wonderful thing is that [yoga] can be done as a religious practice
and also as a completely secular experience or anywhere in between," explains
Abuza, who has studied and taught yoga and meditation for 25 years, ever since
she tried it in Lawrence, Kansas, during the blossoming of the counterculture.
Earning a medical degree did not alter her belief in the stress reduction and
health benefits of yoga.
"For me, yoga and meditation have spiritual connections and often bring
deep feelings of peace," says Abuza.
For Gardel, yoga is just one form of exercise. Even if it is a "gentler" exercise
than backpacking, it still requires her to use muscular energy through various
poses, she notes.
Ana Vollmar '08 began practicing yoga, as a substitute for running, while
she was living in Peru. There she had felt uncomfortable about exercising in
public. "Yoga affords me a peace and allows me to get centered and let
go of what's going on around me," claims Vollmar. "I think
it helps me be aware of my body and how it works."
Whether yoga functions as a spiritual or physical exercise matters not, according
to Jennifer Walters, dean of religious life. By either definition, the Smith
participants are doing something that is healthy for them.
"Our students, faculty and staff are all going so fast," observes
Walters. "Yoga requires you to slow down, to act and move deliberately.
We are all trying to figure out ways to slow down because if we don't slow
down then we live in a state of anxiety -- and that anxiety takes a toll."
The reasons that people give for practicing yoga are as varied as those they
give for attending a church service, Walters points out.
At church "people are all in the same room but they are there for different
reasons. Some are spiritually seeking, others are there because they like being
part of a community," says Walters, adding "If any of our religious
groups could get this many people interested, they'd be dancing in the
streets." -- KC