While it's not often discussed, life as a college student is truly physically demanding. We lug heavy laptops and books down the quarter mile, we spend most of the day sitting in lectures or doing homework and we are constantly hunched over computers, phones and textbooks. We all could use a bit more of the philosophy and practice of yoga in our lives.

"When we learn new things in any area of life, it’s common to hold our breath."

The Origins of Yoga

Yoga is an ancient practice from India that originates from Hinduism, although it has been systematically secularized since its introduction to the west. Yoga combines "asanas," or physical postures, "pranayama," breathing techniques and meditation. A typical yoga sequence, or “flow,” involves moving through a series of poses while paying close attention to your breathing and your body.

Denise Wellin, a yoga instructor at RIT, sees the foundation of yoga as a relationship between breathing and movement.

"When you’re moving, are you still breathing? When we learn new things in any area of life, it’s common to hold our breath," Wellin said. "When you go back to stillness, are you really still? Are you breathing? Even when you hold a pose, there’s probably some micro-movements that are happening.” 

Concentrating on exactly what is happening in the body while holding a yoga pose is a form of mindfulness, a meditative state that has been scientifically shown to have a great deal of mental health benefits. By combining mindfulness and physical exercise, the practice of yoga has been found to improve mental health by way of decreasing stress and to improve physical health by increasing flexibility, coordination, strength and endurance.

Physical Benefits

Flexibility is an often-overlooked aspect of physical fitness, but flexible muscles are stronger and less prone to injury. Yoga poses involve a great deal of stretching, but you don’t have to be able to contort yourself into a human pretzel to enjoy the benefits of yoga. In fact, yoga can help increase the flexibility of even the most inflexible person, particularly because many yoga classes are set up to accommodate people of all skill levels.

By increasing body awareness and strengthening the muscles used for balance, yoga can also help increase coordination. The skills gained in yoga can translate to better agility in other physical activities and sports, as well as less klutziness in regular day-to-day life.

Although yoga is not as effective at building strength as more traditional methods of strength training, it can certainly help build strength and muscle definition to some extent, and unlike certain weight-lifting regimens, does so without neglecting flexibility. This, in addition to yoga’s capacity to improve lung function via breathing exercises, helps increase stamina and endurance.

Mental Health Benefits

Research has shown that yoga can have a positive effect on mental health as well as physical health. Through mindfulness, deep breathing and relaxation, yoga has been shown to reduce stress (stress release is something we all sorely need) and feelings of depression and anxiety to improve concentration, which can be helpful for people with attention deficit disorder (ADD). Although yoga can help improve mental health, keep in mind that it’s not a sufficient substitute for receiving treatment from a health professional.

“There are so many stressors that influence one’s life that it’s odd to feel relaxed and have the mind cleansed of all these thoughts,” said Joseph Weiss, another yoga instructor at RIT.

Weiss recommends using yoga to help quiet the “monkey mind,” or the state of having a constant stream of scattered thoughts, particularly negative or self-critical thoughts. Through the practice of mindfulness, yoga can not only boost your mood and general well-being, but can also prevent or alleviate the physical effects of stress, including pain, tension, trouble sleeping and gastrointestinal problems.

Beginners and experienced yogis alike should remember that, as with any physical exercise, yoga comes with an inherent risk for injury. Wellin recommends electing for a smaller-sized class to receive more personal attention from the instructor, letting the instructor know about any injuries or special needs you may have and following your own practice instead of sticking verbatim to the instructor’s direction.

"I’m your guide, but I’m not the drill sergeant."

“You don’t have to hold [each pose] for as long as I say,” said Wellin. “I’m gonna throw lots of instruction at you, and whatever sticks and resonates with you, great. If it doesn’t, just let it wash away ... Really, it’s okay. Come down to child’s pose, come down to an easy seat. It’s your practice. I’m your guide, but I’m not the drill sergeant.”

Getting Started

There are so many benefits — both physical and mental — that can be provided by regularly practicing yoga. Enroll in a yoga wellness course at RIT, check out one of the many Rochester-area yoga studios such as TRU Yoga or Yoga Vibe Rochester or follow along with yoga videos online on websites such as DoYogaWithMe or Yoga with Adriene’s YouTube channel. Establish a regular yoga practice, and you'll help undo the damage that college-life stress is doing to your body.