As students continue to deal with challenges wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, UB Health Promotion seeks to improve student wellness through yoga.
The activity — which is done remotely, over Zoom — employs flexibility to stretch away stereotypes and create a space for students to enjoy.
UB's Health Promotion team has been forced to seek out creative ways to counter rising levels — 78% of U.S. adults have reported the pandemic being a significant cause of stress on their lives — of student stress and isolation. Many people consider yoga to be a predominantly “white” activity, but with a growing participant base and professional staff members, virtual yoga has become a popular stress-buster for UB students of all stripes.
Sharlynn Daun-Barnett, a wellness coach and the stress reduction and tobacco cessation program coordinator on UB’s Health Promotion team, says she noticed that more students have been using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism since the start of the pandemic — and that yoga is one way to deal with that.
“They seem to be using more [drugs and alcohol] at home rather than going out now,” Daun-Barnett said. “We’re looking to promote more healthy strategies to deal with stress. One way we can do that is with yoga and meditation.”
Daun-Barnett says that yoga can act as both a way to alleviate stress and help with drug and alcohol cessation.
“It’s really about the person and what they choose to do,” Daun-Barnett said. “It can be good for stress relief, getting inside your mind and giving it a break. Yoga is more of a mind and body connection. If you can just feel like that for two minutes during your day that is wonderful.”
Daun-Barnett teaches meditation and breathing exercises to students, but she is not a certified yoga instructor. So UB hired Tara Laurenzi — who has attained 500-hour instructor training — and Cory Sampson — who has attained 200-hour trauma informed yoga instructor training — to teach these diverse, inclusive classes.
Laurenzi’s class was cancelled due to low attendance.
“The classes start out with slower, longer stretches. Then the instructor goes through a sequence of poses, describing them in detail and where students should feel the stretch or strengthening,” Daun-Barnett said. “The last part of the class is called savasana and is most important. For the last five to 15 minutes of class, students are instructed to lie on their backs in corpse pose and gradually relax one body part at a time. When students do this intentionally, it helps the body to release stress and can improve their sense of physical and emotional well-being.”
Beyond just promoting yoga, UB’s Health Promotion team also says its dedicated to promoting diversity and defying stereotypes.
“It is important to us to have the students and staff that host our programs represent diverse backgrounds and create an inclusive, accessible environment for all that attend,” Daun-Barnett said. “On our internship postings for new interns that assist with yoga and other programs, our No. 1 qualification listed is ‘Students of diverse backgrounds and identities encouraged to apply.’”
Daun-Barnett says she is hoping to shatter negative stereotypes about the activity.
“The yoga movement is [a] very white, skinny, female person wearing a leotard centric [activity],” Daun-Barnett said. “What we were really looking for was to diversify people’s image of what yoga is. We want this to be accessible to all students. People of all sizes, genders, races and abilities should be able to [do] yoga.”
Somadina Orabueze, a senior nursing major, says she was thrilled to have attended a class with Sampson, who is Black. She says yoga can often seem inaccessible to people of color, so making real efforts to promote diversity are key.
“No one where I am from did yoga,” Orabueze, a Brooklyn native, said. “My general idea was that yoga was for white people. I don’t know why I had that mindset. These things weren’t available in my neighborhood.”
Orabueze says she was surprised when she saw Sampson leading the virtual yoga classes.
“I had just expected it to be yoga with Tara since I had been practicing with her for a few semesters,” Orabueze said. “But then I log on, and it’s Cory. And he looks like me. I was so happy, it was like there was this warm feeling I can’t explain. Even prior to UB’s Health and Wellness hiring Cory I was trying to find people who look like me and practice yoga.”
Azalia Primadita Muchransyah, a media studies Ph.D. candidate who is originally from Indonesia, says she began practicing yoga even before coming to UB and that Health Promotion’s courses have helped quench her thirst for the activity.
But, she says, the virtual format has been off-putting for some students.
“I don’t mind doing it virtually,” Muchransyah said. “I’ve been doing yoga for four years, so I already know the basic poses and the flow, but this semester seems especially hard for people. The amount of people showing up is getting to be less and less.”
Murchransyah says she would like to see yoga to become more inviting for everyone.
“In my country many men think that yoga classes are for women or a part of some sort of religious belief,” Murchransyah said. “But it’s not like that. It’s for everyone.”
Daun-Barnett says that students should take five minutes per day to do something for themselves, whether it be reading, listening to music or meditating. Alternatively, she says students can take advantage of deep breathing and meditation videos available on the UB Health and Wellness website.
Sign-up isn’t required for yoga classes and students can drop into Zoom meetings here.
Orabueze says yoga is the ultimate act of self-love.
“Showing up for yoga is a way to show up for yourself,” Orabueze said. “Showing up for yoga is a way to thank yourself and tell you that you love yourself.”
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