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  • Madeline Topf

Finding calm in student-led yoga

Patricia Tran is a 3rd year PhD candidate in the Freshwater and Marine Science Program. She studies what microbes do in freshwater lakes, specifically their metabolic strategies in anoxic zones and how it affects the cycling of nutrients in the lake.

Lauren Lucas is a 4th year in the Microbiology PhD program. She has two projects: one looking at bile acid metabolism by gut microbes and another looking at Bacillus subtilis cell membrane development during biofilm formation.

Why did you decide to start Microbe yoga?

LL: I started MSB Yoga because I was bummed that we had to pay for yoga classes at the gym. We already pay exorbitant amount in student fees; I can’t believe gym classes aren’t included.

What I love about the yoga is having an appointment scheduled every week, especially during this pandemic. What benefits have you gotten from yoga during the pandemic and over the time you've practiced?

PT: To be honest, the beginning of the pandemic was hard mentally and physically, and I did not do any yoga at all! It took me a while to get back to physical activity at all. I knew I enjoyed doing yoga, but it was tough to “get myself on the mat”. Having the weekly meet-up is something I look forward to, knowing that I’m doing it at the same time as other people, and just see some familiar faces.

Over the years, yoga has improved my relationship with my mind and my body. It has improved my non-judgment towards myself, my sense of awareness and presence, and I love that when I’m on the mat, no matter how I felt before that day, I appreciate that I can take a moment for myself and have the opportunity to reset or bring my “yoga calm” to other parts of my day or relationships with others.

LL: Yoga brings something to my life that I haven’t been able to find through other means of working out. Having one hour/week where I get in tune with how my body is feeling is irreplaceable. And having one hour of yoga at the start of the week makes me more mindful of how my body feels in general for the rest of the week, even when I’m doing typical things like putting my shoes on or sitting on the couch. I find myself asking things like, ‘is my spine elongated?’ ‘am I putting even pressure on my feet.’ With yoga I gain body awareness, confidence, and inner peace all at the same time as toning my muscles and hanging out with friends.

During the pandemic especially, I love the social aspect. It’s so nice to see familiar faces from week to week, and even more, I like to see new names and faces! When we were in person, I appreciated that MSB yoga brought all different types of participants; staff, postdocs, and faculty as well as students. Zoom has been less diverse, but I’m hoping we’ll gain even more traction this semester. Last Monday we had 9 participants, featuring our one and only MDTP coordinator, Terra Theim!!

Do you practice yoga outside of these sessions?

PT Yes! Yoga is probably my only consistent activity over the past years. I started it as an elective in college and I used it a lot to release stress, move my body, and be present during my exam sessions. Then, in grad school, yoga was helpful to connect with other students and community members. This also really helped when I moved to Madison.

LL: I haven’t practiced yoga outside of these sessions almost at all. Honestly, it’s so nice to have a scheduled time with other people because it helps me stay accountable. Every single time I do yoga, I think it helps with mindfulness and stress relief. In a perfect world, I’d have the discipline to practice in my own time as well.

Do you get funding from the department?

LL: Initially, I had hoped to get funding from our program for shared blocks, straps, yoga mats, and the video subscription. I mentioned that cost may be prohibitive for some students to go to the gym, that the gym schedule might be difficult for many of us to work with, and I gathered data on the benefits of yoga in the workplace because it reduces stress, breaks up the day, and is healthy for you.

Our past program coordinator agreed to take my request to the steering committee, but I was not surprised at all when I was told they could not “justify” spending $500 for wellness supplies for the people in our program. I was told I could “informally” gather students to participate in yoga sessions.

I did mention MSB yoga to my PhD committee and one faculty seemed interested in hosting a fundraiser for me. I haven’t followed up on that. I’ve been very grateful that people are both able and willing to make a $5 donation, which has raised enough money to get 6 blocks, 6 straps, and 3 years of yoga video subscriptions so far!

One thing I looked for when I was looking at grad programs was how involved students were with things other than school and lab work. I notice it is fairly uncommon for people to have an involved activity or club, do you think this is true?

PT: I would say that many graduate students I know have interests and hobbies outside of work, and lead balanced-ish life, but I’m still not sure of how representative it is or bigger “academia.”

The types of infrastructure and incentives likely play a role in my opinion -- maybe a person likes to do things outside of school and lab work, but the PI is not receptive to that, the lab’s culture is very work or publishing-focused, or the departmental culture is toxic. Sometimes that information can be hard to find as well. I think having explicit discussions about work culture and mental health is important! I do not think there is enough focus on that for new or current graduate students.

LL: I also think that people have huge variety in what they’re interested in. Of course, there are some people who don’t participate in any clubs or activities, but off the top of my head, I can think of people in MDTP who play soccer, rock climb, run, garden, cross country ski, bike, play flag football or ultimate frisbee, play trivia or board games, etc. And there’s also people who have families, second jobs, pets, etc. So while I agree, most people don’t have an established activity or club, many people have many “extracurriculars” that they’re involved in =]

What’s one misconception you see in people about doing yoga?

PT: That yoga needs to “look” a certain way, and that you need to be flexible.

LL: I think many people think yoga is only for women. Or they think yoga is a too hokey for them (when my mom started yoga, I definitely rolled my eyes).

I want people to know that yoga is for everyone! And to give it a try, even if something is holding them back. And not to worry about feeling ashamed or embarrassed when you’re practicing. Everyone is partaking in their own practice and isn’t there to judge your progress.

Yoga is one of the safest spaces I have to step outside of my comfort zone. If the instructor says do Lion’s breath, you better believe I’m making noise, both in person or at home on zoom. If we’re doing a balance posture, you better believe I’m willing to fall on the floor practicing. And if you’re one of those people who isn’t into the “spiritual” aspect of yoga, then don’t worry about it! Just take a class and see what you can gain from it. It’s like astrology, I don’t believe that the stars and planets being in these positions actually influences behavior, but I’m perfectly happy to read my horoscope and reflect on how it might relate to my life; I take what will benefit me from the practice. You can do the same thing with yoga. Maybe you’re only in it for the workout.

What I’ve realized is that when I do really challenging yoga classes, it also makes me incredibly focused. So, you might not even realize that yoga is forcing you to be present until the class has ended. And then you’ve gained some cognitive release at the same time as a physical workout.

There are also a lot of people who have specific physical problems that make it really difficult to participate in a “typical” yoga class. For example, I have wrist issues that seem to flare up every once in a while. This makes down dog really difficult to hold and painful after some time. I either have to modify my practice by going on my knuckles or forearms when I can, or even by doing a completely different pose.

I hope we’ve created a space where people feel comfortable taking control of their own practice. I know it can be more difficult for beginners to even know what that means, so we also have a bunch of yoga videos posted in a box folder for people to view whenever they please. Those videos range in difficulty and length and are all tagged with that relevant information. But basically, I want to encourage everyone, even those with knee problems or hip problems or wrist problems to see what they can get from yoga.

What changes would you make to our program and academia at large to improve mental health among grad students?

PT: I would like for mental health information to be more widely distributed and for not everything to be hard to find (e.g. learning about something because we happened to know something). For our university specifically, The University Health Services offers free individual and group counseling to students (undergrad and grad) through the segregated fees that we pay each semester.

Many things like libraries, gardens, campus orgs hold self-care activities (either one or throughout the year). It would be cool to have a “newsletter” that focuses on mental health so we can learn about all these activities! Other things I’ve benefit is the peer-mentoring program in the Department of Integrative Biology, where first year students are paired with an upper year, and we can ask about navigating the program, classes, life, etc. I’d like to see more academic programs offer that.

LL: I’m starting to hear more people talk about work/life balance and I think that’s great! Something that I loved about MDTP when I interviewed here was that the students seemed like they were friends with each other and that they were happy. I am grateful to be a part of a program that I think started with a healthier culture than you might find at other institutions, but, of course, there’s always more to be done to support our students.

Paying for gym classes is likely prohibitive for many students; having cash to spend or having “after work” availability in your schedule are not luxuries experienced by everyone. I am not sure what else our program could do to support this type of thing. I wish we had $500 for wellness reimbursements. That could cover any gym fees or camping costs; money to support people’s connections with their bodies and nature, whatever that may be.

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