Yoga. Tai chi. Meditation. In recent years, the United States has seen a surge in practices promising a calmer, more peaceful, happier you. According to a 2016 Yoga in America Study Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, the number of U.S. yoga practitioners has increased to more than 36 million, up from 20.4 million in 2012.
While yoga first came to FIU in 2000 with the vision of one student, others are now expanding their practice beyond stretching, moving outside of the gym, using yoga and meditation to manage stress and excel in academics.
NAMASTE AT FIU
In 2000, psychology and sociology alumna Marcella Roukas ’01 experienced a yoga class in her local community and immediately got to work to bring a dedicated class to FIU.
“I had to find a teacher and funding, and then to notify the students,” Roukas recalls. “It was all about trying to create a vision and turn it into a reality.”
Together with Dr. Oscar Loynaz, who oversaw the Wellness Center at the Biscayne Bay Campus (BBC) at the time, Roukas recruited Bonnie Quiceno to teach yoga. Seventeen years after Roukas handed out the first flyer, Quiceno still teaches yoga at FIU.
BALANCING MIND, BODY AND BOOKS
Studies have confirmed that yoga can help moderate stress and anxiety, improving mood and overall wellbeing. Quiceno experienced it firsthand with the students she works with at BBC.
“When they first begin taking classes, they often tell me they have anxiety attacks because they are so stressed from their workload at school,” she said of her students. “Then, very quickly, once they start to practice yoga, anxiety attacks disappear, overall stress disappears. They develop better time management and they also tend to retain their studies better. Overall, there’s more peacefulness in their lives. It’s the things they’re all looking for and they all report getting those things from their practice.”
Over time, Quiceno blended traditional yoga practices like ashtanga vinyasa, sivananda and iyengar with that of her own style, to create a way to help students study better.
“The week before finals, we have one class called yoga study hall, where they can bring books, laptops, whatever they need to study,” she said. “We put the mats down and they put the study material beside the mats. We start with asking what they want to accomplish in their study in the next hour and half and break it up with yoga and study.”
It’s now a recurring class at the Wellness and Recreation Center at BBC. While she expected the students to benefit from the practice, she said the amount of focus and concentration they got blew her away. Quiceno said all of her students report retaining information better after yoga study hall than when studying alone. It would serve as inspiration for her book, Don’t Panic!: How to Use Yoga to Survive the College Experience, which explains how students can take their practice from a mat at the gym to the library, dorm room, or anywhere else they need it.
FROM THE MAT TO MAINSTREAM
But Quiceno isn’t the only one who sees the power of meditation to help with finals. YES+, a student club, also organizes relaxation sessions at the end of the semester to help students prepare for finals week. Umer Rahman, coordinator of student programs and faculty fellow at the Honors College, serves as an advisor to YES+ and reports that more than 100 students attend the sessions.
“These sessions are conducted by international experts such as Steve Sperber,” Rahman said. “It has become a tradition of sorts to have a relaxation session as the final farewell event at the Honors College. Students talk very highly of this event.”
Vishali Sharma, senior art major, is the founder and president of YES+. She started the club in 2013 after arriving at FIU from her native India. She practices sudarshan kriya every day and wants to share the practice with others.
“I would miss breakfast, but I wouldn’t miss sudarshan kriya,” Sharma said. “There isn’t a single day since 2011 that I’ve missed it. It’s such a practical technique that brings you to the present moment.”
At first, the club was informal, with meetings on the Graham Center lawns. Now, the growing club meets each Friday with 40 members or more.
“For me, personally, I used to be a very anxious student,” Sharma said. “I’ll have too many thoughts in the mind, will think all the time, and it was like, ‘common, I need to relax, I need to meditate somehow,’ but I couldn’t. When I did the kriya, all of a sudden, all of the anxiety, it was gone. I could handle it completely. There were less thoughts in the mind. I felt I became a calmer and happier person because of it.”
Similar to Quiceno’s intention, Sharma hopes that the lessons will stretch beyond the weekly meetings to extend into student’s everyday lives.
“The technique takes 20 to 25 minutes,” she said. “You can do it every day. You don’t have to go to the gym or a special class. It’s something you have for the rest of your life to practice.”
STUDENT BECOMES TEACHER
Roukas, the student responsible for bringing yoga to FIU, is happy to learn that yoga still exists at the university. She went on to become an attorney and certified yoga instructor. The practice helped her through many difficult times, including her mom’s recovery after being hit by a drunk driver.
Roukas offered the following advice to FIU students:
“The most important thing that I want anyone to take away is the fact that if you’re a student and you really believe in something, it doesn’t matter if somebody says no. Just believe in the beauty of your dreams, visualize it and manifest it. Keep it in your heart.”