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In a Yoga Fitness class offered at UREC, students practice stretching by rising into a half crescent pose.

A dimly lit room is engulfed with the sound of soft music and falling rain. People stand silent and still as they look toward the windows, a stark comparison to the loud music just outside the doors at UREC. While yoga may not spring to mind when one imagines exercise, the mind and body studios offer students a unique escape.

After the first couple weeks of school, semesters transition from introductions and syllabi to essays, exams and all-nighters. It may become necessary for students to look for outlets to separate themselves from the hustle and bustle of campus life. A number of Dukes turn to yoga not only to find a way to get in a good workout but to destress and improve their mental awareness.

Yoga is an age-old practice centered around the connection between the body and mind. Physically, it focuses on strength, flexibility and stamina as participants hold various poses. It also incorporates a strength component, as the more advanced stretches — tree pose, pigeon and the warrior sequences — often require power to keep stable.

Junior interdisciplinary studies major Claire Kinsey began practicing yoga in high school and has continued throughout her time at JMU. She practices while juggling classes to bond with friends and keep in shape — she wants to be at the top of her game in her Club Quidditch team. She said yoga is an ideal outlet to be active, but it’s not too overwhelming or taxing.

“I like it because it’s nice if I want to get some exercise in and do something that does require some physical activity, but maybe I don’t want to go do heavy lifting or go run on the treadmill for a given day,” Kinsey said. “It gives me something so I feel like I’ve done something to help my body without necessarily going crazy.”

One of the more specific ways Kinsey’s benefitted through yoga is through its restorative power. After injuring her ankle, she turned to yoga to rehabilitate and regain her abilities.

Besides its physical benefits, yoga is also used as a way to cleanse the mind. A large portion of yoga focuses on mental wellbeing through concentration on breathing and learning how to listen to one’s body. 

One of the clearest ways this is incorporated in yoga practice is through relaxation or Savasana. At the end of a session, participants lie down and allow all their muscles to soften. With the absence of tension in the body, all thoughts can focus on the mind and its current state.

Junior biology major Hannah Hildenbrand began practicing yoga recreationally as a way to keep active over breaks. Once she got back to school, she searched for a way to stay active and disconnect herself from academic stress. She doesn’t consider herself an expert at yoga but has been practicing a little more seriously while on campus because it lets her do both physical, spiritual and mental care at once.

“It’s very helpful with anxiety and stress, which is extremely important when you’re at school and have all this schoolwork you have to do and so many things on your mind,” Hildenbrand said. “With meditation, it really helps you calm down and relax, which is really nice.” 

Senior business management major Kaitlyn Ahrweiler has been doing yoga both in classes at UREC and individually. She said she appreciates how people from all experiences can participate in yoga and how it’s accepting of anyone who wants to give it a try. 

“I love how open it makes my body feel, so I almost feel like the stress melts out of my body as I’m stretching and doing certain poses,” Ahrweiler said. “It really relaxes my mind and takes the focus away from being a student and it shifts it to focusing on myself.”

One of the most accessible ways for students to begin their own yoga practice on campus is through the classes offered at UREC. They’re offered on a weekly basis and encompass all levels. 

UREC classes range in the types of flow and intensity of workouts, including Vinyasa Flow, Stand-Up Paddleboard Yoga and Power Yoga classes. There are also more specific classes available, such as Restorative Yoga and Trauma Sensitive Yoga, which focus on recovery in both a physical and emotional sense.

Other ways JMU and Harrisonburg offer yoga and meditative opportunities are through multiple studios located in the area. These studios — such as The Nest, Rocktown Hot Yoga, Shenandoah Yoga and The Center — offer a wider variety of classes including hot yoga and pilates in addition to more traditional practices.

Above all, yoga is an individualized practice. Whether in a class or personal setting, practicers are encouraged to only do what they’re comfortable with. It’s not so much about the difficulty of poses as much as the improvement from session to session.

“It is probably one of the most judgment-free exercise activities that you can do because people are so open to all levels,” Ahrweiler said. “[Instructors] always say that ‘this is your practice, go at your own pace, do what you feel comfortable with.’”

Contact Camryn Finn at finnce@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.