Mason Students Cope with Stress by Embracing Yoga

Posted: July 8, 2014 at 5:03 am, Last Updated: July 9, 2014 at 8:01 am

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By Jamie Rogers

A George Mason University professor is working with other instructors in helping students maintain healthful bodies and minds by studying and practicing yoga.

Marja Calhoun

Marja Calhoun

New Century College professor and George Mason alumna Marjorie “Marja” Calhoun has done extensive research on the cognitive benefits of yoga. Since 2008, she has taught several yoga courses at the university offered through the College of Education and Human Development and the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.

“I’ve assessed the challenges students face in school, i.e., tension and stress, demanding schedules, lack of exercise and sleep,” she says. “Students are finding out what it means to be mindful, and more importantly, how to be mindful … Mason students are lining up for one of the most popular subjects in the field of mindfulness—yoga.”

The university offers courses such as introductory yoga, intermediate yoga, theory and practice of yoga, and meditation, but free yoga practice sessions are also available during the week.

“Mason recognizes that the life of a university student is a very demanding and often a stressful one,” says Calhoun, who has a BS in health science and a master’s degree in health promotion from Mason. “They face a number of challenges when juggling school, work and a social life, and it’s no wonder that unhealthy eating habits, less sleep and a lack of exercise can follow.”

These things work against optimum cognitive functioning and can make a student feel like getting an education is nearly impossible, she says. “The good news is that yoga is the best way to stay fit and manage academic pressures.”

Coping with stressors begins with inner awareness, Calhoun says. She guides her students through a three-prong approach addressing the body, breath and mind.

“Developing skills in body awareness and mental focus are two points essential to the college experience, but are usually the first things to get hijacked as a freshman,” she says. Awareness of one’s own breath and thoughts as they arise during meditation is another skill that enhances attention and promotes inner calm.

The Center for the Advancement of Well-Being hosts a free yoga workshop  at the Fairfax Campus to raise funds for Child Protection Brigade Volunteer, an all-volunteer organization that provides basic education, medical, and social services for Filipino children. Photo by Alexis Glenn/Creative Services/George Mason University

The Center for the Advancement of Well-Being hosted a free yoga workshop at the Fairfax Campus to raise funds for Child Protection Brigade Volunteer. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Clinical findings reveal that meditation produces demonstrable positive changes that can be detected in baseline cerebral function, Calhoun says.

Yoga is not competitive and is taught in a relaxed social setting, so all students can tap into their potential at their own pace, she says. The classes are also accessible to all fitness levels; there are ways to adjust [yoga] postures to suit everyone. “On any given day, a student can intensify their practice or take it easy.”

Senior Angelita Nunus, who recently transferred to Mason from a school in Brazil, participated in the free yoga session offered each Thursday from noon to 1 p.m. in the Johnson Center Dance Studio on Mason’s Fairfax Campus. This was the first time she ever tried a yoga class, and she appreciated the fact that it was free.

Mason Hillel director Ross Diamond, who also participates in the noon session, says he has been coming for more than a year. “It’s convenient and I get more focused for the rest of the day,” Diamond says. “It’s good to take a yoga class at a time that is most convenient for [students].”

The summer noon yoga sessions continue until Aug. 14.

From Aug. 25 to Dec. 11, the noon yoga classes will be held each Monday and Thursday in the same studio. Tai chi will be offered every Tuesday from Aug. 26 to Dec. 16.The Center for the Advancement of Well-Being staff is working to finalize the fall class schedule.

Mason has set a goal to be a model well-being university, so it isn’t a surprise that courses that increase mindfulness are offered in abundance, Calhoun says.

Write to Jamie Rogers at jroger20@gmu.edu

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