Beat exam stress with yoga

Downward Facing Dog

Downward Facing Dog

There I was, on all fours, hands and feet pressed into the mat. I had come to yoga to relax. But all I did for the first half of the Yoga Basics class, that I did at the AC on Monday, was panic.

Did I leave my USB key in the computer at Robarts and lose my Powerpoint? Did my partner remember to book the projector? Was it even Monday? Had I missed the presentation altogether?!

My mind was racing, not “getting into the zone,” or “letting go of the stresses of my busy life” as the instructor encouraged. This downward dog position would certainly downgrade my mark. Or so I thought. I had a big presentation to give for my sociology class that night and did not feel prepared. To make matters worse,  my shoulders, neck and back muscles were tense from hours spent hunched over my computer. I was also getting more and more annoyed with my friend on the mat next to me who had dragged me away from precious study time to go to the class with her.

You don't have to be Gumby to benefit from Yoga!

You don't have to be Gumby to benefit from Yoga!

By now, we were doing a modified lunge with a twist to stretch our backs. My not-so-flexible hip joints and tight hamstrings were screaming. “Are you crazy? Do you think you are Gumby? You are not supposed to bend that way,” my inner skeptic uttered. Again, this position was not relaxing, but painful, not in the “I’m injuring myself” way, but it felt like my muscles being pushed past their limits. I was relieved as the instructor’s calm voice led us through a sequence of more gentle exercises like child’s pose, where you sit on your heels and stretch your upper body over your thighs to release the tension in your lower back.

At the end of the class, I was surprised to realize that I had stopped stressing about my presentation. I actually felt quite energized and my muscles weren’t the knots of tension they had been before the class, but felt really loose. When I got back to Robarts, I was able to focus on my work right away and was not as overwhelmed by my work load, as I had been earlier.

My presentation ended up going really well and I was interested in learning if it had anything to do with the yoga class. I searched online and learned that yoga has been shown to have many physical benefits,like increasing your flexibility and improving your muscle tone and core body strength.

It also has been shown to improve mental health. In a 2007 study, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine discovered that yoga increases levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter, GABA, in the brain. Since GABA is involved in processes that reduce anxiety, increase alertness, and reduce nervousness, the yoga class I took may have had a chemical effect on my brain, which helped me stay more focused on my presentation reduce my stress.

After learning the health benefits of yoga, I decided to check out other yoga opportunities on campus, and went to a yoga class at the Multi-Faith Centre which is run by the Centre for Health and Well-being Programs and Services at U of T. This class focused on breathing, stretching, and relaxation.The instructor emphasized the importance of doing daily spinal stretches to release stress.  Afterward, I felt like any tension I had in my lower back had disappeared.

A great lower back stretch!

A great lower back stretch!

My experience at yoga taught me the importance of taking time away from the stressful exam crunch to give my mind and body a break. Even if I can’t make it to a class, it reminded me that it’s important to take time to stretch, go for a walk, a swim, a skate, anything to keep my sanity and make my study time more effective.

Tae Kwon Do Update: Last class for the term is this week. We are sparring- putting the skills we’ve learned to fighting situations. I’m interested in seeing how I do in a fight!

-Shannon