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Yoga Stretches 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 Religious Life.

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, says Abuza.

"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

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