Campus Recreation yoga program helps to fight negative effects of mental illness

photo courtesy UNO communications

Kamrin Baker
Online Reporter

Room 239 in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s rec center, HPER (Health, Physical Education and Recreation) building, is spotless. As soon as the clock strikes noon on Tuesday, students wander in, removing their socks and splaying out their yoga mats on the hardwood studio floor, completing the scene with bolsters, blocks and blankets and glancing at the mirror for reassurance.

One of those students is a graduate student in exercise science, Rebecca Cuthbert, who turned to yoga three years ago to find a time-out during her busy schedule.

“Mentally, yoga helps to calm me down when I’m extremely stressed,” Cuthbert said. “I was really nervous to come back to school, and this was a way for me to handle that. My stress and anxiety doesn’t go away, but I am better equipped to handle it. It also works as a different avenue for strength training, from both an exercise standpoint and an emotional one.”

Students in the U.S. have turned to yoga as a tool to help with stress management, and UNO’s Campus Recreation hopes to be a notable service where these students will build the foundations of a lifetime of self-care.

Lindsay D’Amour is the assistant director of aquatics and wellness at HPER and one of many yoga instructors who teach under the Campus Recreation yoga program. This division of the rec center offers daily classes ranging in styles to benefit various facets of student health. D’Amour focuses on mental wellbeing.

She said many students are confused about how yoga classes operate at UNO, since some are credited classes that fall under a semester schedule, while Campus Recreation opens its doors to all students for $24 a semester in group exercise formats.

Despite an ideal price tag, the Campus Recreation sector at UNO still lacks in membership. The numbers have increased this school year, nearing 90 annual yoga passes, but D’Amour said the community has the capacity to grow even larger.

And these classes are offered for a reason. Yoga has become increasingly popular across the globe, but the practice itself has been one of tradition and healing.

Yoga is proven to reduce inflammation and stress in the body through deep breathing, according to National Geographic. The practice has been used to help cancer survivors, people in poverty, sexual and domestic abuse survivors and those who struggle with mental illnesses.

For example, the nonprofit Exhale to Inhale works with domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors as a channel to address trauma. Yoga provides the tools for women the organization serves to feel safe and comfortable in their bodies so they can help end the cycle of abuse in their homes and communities, according to the Exhale to Inhale website.

D’Amour acknowledged yoga offers different experiences for everyone, depending on instructors and styles, like power yoga, spiritual yoga and the format of her usual class, healing practices.

“I started practicing yoga when I was an undergraduate student as a workout,” D’Amour said. “I have had anxiety my whole life and didn’t realize that this kind of movement would help me. Without intention, it benefitted my whole life, and I found that it was a space to be intentional, to connect my mind with my body.”

D’Amour got a RYT-200 certification (Registered Yoga Teacher with 200 hours of intensive training) in Costa Rica, learning anatomy and health, tradition and history and the sequencing of yoga as an art form and an exercise. She now teaches across Omaha, with monthly classes at spaces like the Lauritzen Gardens and Omaha Integrative Care, a mind and body wellness center.

“I have seen my yoga classes benefit people in so many ways,” D’Amour said. “Whether people are improving their balance and flexibility or working on focus and breathing, I notice all the little improvements in their wellbeing.”

D’Amour said she has seen Cuthbert improve her concentration and breathing from class to class, which comes down to a physiological improvement in the parasympathetic nervous system.

In layman’s terms, that means the “fight or flight” aspect of the nervous system slows down through breath-work and intentional movement. Aside from biology, D’Amour cites the yoga studio as a place for people to dedicate time to their self-care, when they would otherwise spend those 60 minutes of the day “on autopilot.”

“Yoga forces me to center,” Cuthbert said. “Since my undergraduate degree was in physical education, it was required for me to engage in group exercise classes like this, but it changed me into someone who pauses instead of reacting. I have found a balance.”

This newfound relaxation is not a placebo effect, either. Practicing yoga affects cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone behind most mental illnesses. Aligning the body and mind intelligences also enhances resilience and teaches people to adjust their behaviors based on the feelings they experience physically, according to the American Psychological Association.

Still, while yoga has become more mainstream in America, its popularity ebbs and flows at HPER.

“People usually come at the beginning of the semester because they want to start off on a good note,” D’Amour said. “Then they start to taper off. The people who come as often as they can and ask questions during class are the people I know are invested. Students usually return around finals when they’re stressed out, which is definitely a good thing, but I’d love to see a more active community.”

Cuthbert is a classic example of a new student turned semester regular. She said she instantly “vibed” with D’Amour’s teaching style and from there, felt comfortable enough to keep trying.

“I feel like people will try yoga and not have a good experience because of an instructor or a class style,” Cuthbert said. “You just have to keep trying new things to find what works. It isn’t based on gender or personality type, either. I wish more men understood that yoga is a great form of exercise. If this was a girly activity, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

With competitive yoga studios in the area charging upwards of $20 per class, D’Amour is proud of the asking price at UNO, hoping to see students branch out with a minimal charge each semester.

She suggested that people who are afraid to jump into a yoga class should start with YouTube videos in the privacy of their own homes, and then ease into a group setting by bringing a friend.

“The classes here are not competitive or cutthroat,” D’Amour said. “We teach to all body types and ability levels. As long as people come in open-minded, wearing comfortable clothes and ready to try, I’m sure it will be worth it.”

The overcast Tuesday neared 1 p.m. as Cuthbert batted her eyelashes open and added a silent wave of a soft smile and relaxed breathing to the room.

“Thank you for this wonderful rainy day practice,” D’Amour said. “Namaste.”

With a hushed echo, seven voices answered the call, Cuthbert’s the loudest among them: “Namaste.”