How Yoga Can Help You To Thrive Through University
by James Downs
Moving to a new town to start university can be both an exciting and daunting experience. Presented with new opportunities to learn, grow and meet people from a diverse range of backgrounds, expectations can be high that our university years will be the time of our lives. But navigating the opportunities and demands of university can be a tricky business.
Whilst many appear to be living their “best lives” here in Cambridge, it doesn’t take much digging to uncover that student life isn’t always that rosey. The stresses of deadlines and exams can take their toll. It can become all too easy to sacrifice sleep, self-care and even our mental and emotional wellbeing for the sake of good grades. Finding a sustainable balance between the work you need to do, and the rest, relaxation and enjoyment that your body and mind need in order to function well, is key.
This is where yoga comes in. In my experience, yoga can be a great teacher - and not just of postures with strange Sanskrit names. Coming to Cambridge to study psychology and education, I found it almost impossible to juggle all my coursework alongside the many university societies I had joined through a tendency to say “yes” to everything. In the end, this lead to a relapse in problems with eating that I had experienced since my teens. Without looking after my health, it didn’t matter how high my marks were - it wasn’t going to be sustainable.
I’d always wanted to try yoga, and had heard of CAMYOGA. I’d planned to give it a try, but that plan sat with me for around 6 months - there was always something more important to do than take time out for myself. But eventually, I made it to an open day. Setting foot through the door and stepping onto the mat marked the start of one of the most valuable learning processes I have ever undertaken. Whilst I was studying the mind and behaviour in the classroom, I was learning all kinds of new lessons about myself in the yoga studio. These have helped me to find balance, feel more comfortable in my own body and move with more ease in my day to day life - not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too.
Here are some of the things that practicing yoga has taught me:
Letting go of an “all-or-nothing” mindset is key to finding balance.
The yoga sutras talk about a balance between “effort and ease” when practicing yoga postures. But this is an invaluable lesson for life too. Trying hard and doing your best can be hugely rewarding, but it is never an all-or-nothing game. If we don’t take rest, we can get exhausted and burn out. If we think that anything less than perfection is a failure, we can get paralysed, judge ourselves harshly when we don’t meet expectations, and even stop trying. Yoga teaches acceptance, and working with where you are without the need to be perfect. This can be a great antidote to a perfectionist culture where our performance matters. In yoga, there is no performance, nor any competition - even with yourself.
Self-care has to come first. Self-conduct has a prominent position in the philosophical roots of yoga. The founders of yoga saw our personal code of conduct as intimately related to how we treat others, with principles such as non-harming applying equally to ourselves and those we encounter. The physical practice of yoga is never about getting into a posture whatever the costs - risking injury and exhaustion just to get the perfect handstand or split. The same applies to university life - getting good grades should never come at the cost of your health. Carving out a space where you can step out of the demands of study won’t cost you marks - it will give the body and mind a chance to rest, improving your focus when you need it. Self-care isn’t just an act of generosity to yourself, either. Looking after yourself gives you more resources to contribute to your friendships and share in the enjoyable parts of being at university too.
Mindfulness matters. Being as attentive as possible to the present moment, without judgement or wishing things were different, is central to yoga. When on the mat, we try to notice when our minds rehash the day we had before coming to the studio - or when thoughts rush onto whatever we have to do after class finishes. When the mind is so active, sticking with our movement and breath can be so difficult. The same is true in other areas of life. For example, when working on an essay or project for university, it helps to be able to focus on the here and now, rather than mentally rushing ahead to all the other things we need to do. Letting go of the things you can’t control - whether that’s the way your hips are shaped or the grades you were unhappy with - helps. Many of us only go to uni for a limited amount of time. Learning to appreciate the present moment can help us to fully notice that experience whilst it is here.
Whether you are new to yoga, returning to practice, or an experienced yogi moving to Cambridge, coming to classes at Camyoga might just help you as much as it helped me. Finding balance might start with wobbling your way through tree pose. But over time, yoga can also help you find a way to balance university life - with all its challenges and rewards.