I taught yoga to my fellow students. That’s what they taught me.

June 30, 2023 0 Comments

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I completed yoga teacher training the summer before my junior year of college. I was finishing the gap and relying on my practice many last year, so it was intuitive to lean even more into yoga, and teaching is part of my family. My mom is a fitness instructor and I loved seeing the community she created around her classes. It seemed like a natural next step to use my teaching potential for a practice that meant so much to me personally.

During my studies, my weeks revolved around anatomy class, house parties, a legal internship, and my personal spiritual exploration. I didn’t fit the mold of the stereotypical yoga teacher, but that discrepancy set the stage for the next two years of teaching yoga on campus.

Teaching my peers

Shortly after I finished YTT, I started teaching vinyasa at 7:15 at my college gym. Since college students don’t really want to get out of bed until noon, the classes were mostly teachers. The professors I was used to seeing in suits behind the podium appeared on their mats, sleepy-eyed and in yoga clothes, looking at me to guide them through the practice. As someone who grew up playing college hockey, I found the head coach teaching yoga to be a bit of a culture shock.

In the midst of my trembling, I reminded myself that this is what college is all about: fake it until you make it. I repeated this mantra to myself more than once that year.

I went from doing yoga at dawn once a week to strength classes at 5:15pm twice a week. I still wanted to teach more, so I dragged my mat to various corners of campus to offer classes to clubs and organizations in conference rooms, quads, and other temporary locations.

Those times were fun and brought many experiences that most likely would not have happened in a yoga studio, such as when someone was practicing with a class from the hallway because they arrived when the doors were closed. (I get it. Sometimes you just need yoga.) Spending hours creating greatest hits playlists to make yoga more appealing to reluctant students. Ditch the university references, anecdotes and jokes to balance the sequences and periods of long silence. (Shoutout to Posey the Eagle, who looks like my alma mater’s mascot.)

Of course, I was delighted when my peers on campus recognized me as a yoga teacher (hello, external validation). But it was also nice to know that I got the chance to share a practice that meant a lot to me with people I cared about.

Outside the studio

Building my “teacher voice” for yoga eventually helped me find my voice in other areas. I began to build confidence not only in the outdated recreation center studio, but also in classrooms and relationships. I’ve often run into students at the “high schoolers only” bar, where they’ll tell me as they drink their third White Claw how the streams help ease exam jitters or breakup recovery.

I knew this practice had so much power for me, but I was surprised to learn that it resonated with others, whether they were dedicated athletes or those who were constantly holding their tail. These former yoga skeptics told me how my 60-minute class allowed them to breathe. It was a space where they were allowed to relax, sweat, and just be for an hour.

Not every lesson was filled with the awesome, life-changing moments we read about in self-help books or scrolled past on TikTok. However, each session was ultimately a practice, a set of moments where people came together in space and time as they needed to. To move your body. To be with their breath. Or just find peace and quiet.

I am currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology, and I have seen the true value of yoga for many students as a place of solace from the many stresses of the college experience. While some people came just to stretch before getting their pulses racing at 6:15 p.m., others came to deal with anxiety and depression, cope with personal loss, and be in community.

A recent study published in Gallup’s State of Higher Education 2023 report found that two out of every five undergraduate students report experiencing emotional stress in college. The college mental health crisis continues to grow, but for some students, yoga may be the thing that unites them.

Yoga is not a solution to the mental health crisis. But even at the age of 20, I saw the power of this practice in a shared space. Students may have reluctantly gone to class at the invitation of a roommate or friend, or because they were looking to stretch before spin class or after intramural basketball. But it was clear to me that many people left the practice having experienced the benefits of slowing down, breathing deeply, and moving freely and individually—but not alone.

I have always thought of yoga as my personal practice. But teaching yoga in college made me realize that it is much more than that.

Meredith Hawkins is currently in graduate school pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology. She teaches vinyasa classes at Afterglow Studio in Hartford, Connecticut.

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