The number of participants in yoga classes at the Emerson College Fitness Center (ECFC) has increased this year from a handful of practitioners to full classes holding 15 to 18 students, according to Jenn Finn, general manager of the ECFC.
While the overall numbers for group fitness classes have gone up since the fitness center became free to all students (last year's members paid $150 per semester), class sizes usually shrink as homework piles up, Finn said. "November is couch potato month," she said. "We expect that. It's just the nature of the beast. You got projects, you got midterms, the holidays are coming up."
This year, however, is different for the fitness center's yoga classes in particular, according to Finn.
"[Attendance for yoga classes] has remained pretty steady," she said. "Yoga is more popular now than it ever has been. Classes are generally full." Students must sign up in advance, and often encounter mat-to-mat traffic in the one crowded room. "Two years ago, we wouldn't have had [that situation]," Finn said.
One reason for the class's popularity may be the focus on relaxation that characterizes yoga classes and makes them different from more demanding routines at the ECFC, such as the military-style workout offered in the Boot Camp class or the 7 a.m. intensive bike-based spin class.
The ECFC's programs include both relaxing and power yoga styles and a yoga and Pilates fusion class. Finn teaches her Wednesday class using a mixture of methods that combine cardiovascular work with balancing poses and meditation.
Finn said that when she became interested in teaching yoga, she wanted to "demystify" the practice for beginners. "In bringing [yoga] to the masses, yes, you lose something, but the benefits for everyone are so vast that it is great to bring as many people into the practice as possible," Finn said.
One of those beginners is junior writing, literature and publishing major Katie Cotugno, a resident assistant on the 6th floor of the Little Building. Finn approached her last year with an offer to do a yoga workshop in the dorm for Cotugno's residents.
"That was one of my highest attended programs," Cotugno said. "It was really easy and really inclusive. I had boys doing it too. I had people at all different skill levels." Cotugno and two friends who attended the workshop with her are now regulars in Finn's class.
Cotugno said that having a weekly routine encourages regular visits to the gym. "I am really busy, and scheduling it in is the only way it would work for me," Cotugno said. "I wouldn't normally take the time out to relax. But because I treat it like any other time commitment, it works. [Using] the elliptical [machines] . I can take it or leave it. With yoga, it's much more likely that I'll drag myself there."
Cotugno said that she normally does not attend group classes, but she enjoys Finn's take on yoga. "I never feel like I'm being talked down to or that she's somewhere else," she said. "If we're not into it, she'll change things around to cater to us."
Comparing it to other group fitness activities, Cotugno said, "[Finn] motivates you to keep going, but you never want to punch her in the face. It's not about 'Let's all clap our hands and move a little faster,' which I have zero patience for."
While other workouts rev up, yoga calms down
It seems that as the midterm frenzy has begun to overstay its welcome and the holidays rapidly approach, for many busy students the only way to get any relaxation is simply to write it into their schedules.
Cotugno said that yoga focuses on breathing, which she enjoys being "coached" on. "It's a skill I never had before," she said. "I guess we don't really think about our breathing normally. If I'm starting to have a freakout, then I just do that."
Annie Testa, a senior film production and performance major and avid yoga practitioner, attends Finn's class weekly and also attends sessions at Dahn Yoga Healing in Beacon Hill. She said that practicing yoga helps distract her at times when she feels stress building up. "I need to be doing something that moves my body enough to forget about it," she said.
During the relaxation and meditation period that follows many yoga workouts, Finn will bring in a reading to help students with their mental distractions.
"I always want to focus on the mind-body connection in my classes," Finn said. "It was originally designed to ready the body for meditation, to come to a more enlightened state," Finn said. "[Our classes] can prepare you for that deeper, more religious yoga."
Finn said that students should take that next step themselves, however, and can look to studios that specialize in advanced teachings, such as the Baptiste Power Vinyasa Institute (BPYI) studio, where Finn herself studied yoga before teaching it at the ECFC.
Testa said the spiritual aspect of yoga that first appealed to her before she began to enjoy the physical workout. "It sounds New-Agey and metaphysical," Testa said, "but [during a class] I just started to feel like 'Wow, I can feel this good without any external motivation.'"
Getting physical: yoga is a real workout
Cotugno remembered her first class this year as being difficult. "The first time I did it, I was so sore the next day, I could hardly move," she said.
Now she is seeing the results. "I can open a pickle jar now," she joked. "My balance is a little better. I can hold myself up longer. It's helped flexibility . it's the kind of thing where the more you do it, the easier it gets."
Finn said that more active kinds of yoga increase heart rate and build muscle, both factors she cited as integral to weight loss.
Yoga also brings better cardiovascular health and body image, she said, and decreased risk of injury during other athletic activities due to stretching. It may also help students to avoid "indulging in other things that you indulge in when you're stressed," she said.
Testa gives the example of hunger cravings caused by stress. "Being aware of what my body is feeling, I'll suddenly realize, 'Wow, I really don't want to eat chocolate all day!'" she said. "'I really want an apple!'"
Testa said that after practicing yoga several times a week at two studios, she was surprised to find she had lost weight. "There are no machines, no sweat," she said. "Sometimes it feels like the easy way out."
Kara Mears, a photojournalism and magazine writing double major and manager at the BPYI, said that her studio's method includes plenty of sweating: they heat their rooms to temperatures nearing 100 degrees. These sauna-like conditions loosen muscles and increase sweating and flexibility, but the center cautions any newcomers to heated room exercise that dizziness and dehydration can come with strenuous workouts in high temperatures.
Mears, a former runner and figure skater, said that this was an experience for which she was not prepared. "I hated my first class," she said. "It was hellish. All my life, I had
been working in freezing rinks, and here I was in a 95 degree room. I never thought I would get the [same] physical workout . it sort of came in through the back door."
The Mind-Body Connection
Mears said, however, that her instructors often encourage her to take life less seriously by just doing the poses, being in the moment and not thinking about the physical benefits.
"It's about being childlike," she said. "It's like when you're a little kid, you don't say to yourself, 'Okay, I'm going to run and run and run and exhaust myself and get such a good workout.' You just run to run."
Mears and Finn both said that self-acceptance, not a perfect body, is the ideal in yoga.
Finn tells her students not to look at other students or compete with them. Genetics and body shape, flexibility, skill level and even mood can make each session different for each person, Finn said.
As is common in yoga classes, for each pose Finn gives two or three "variations," meaning different levels of difficulty. If students feel they are straining themselves they are welcome to rest, kneeling or lying on the floor.
Testa also said that for her, the benefits of practicing yoga go beyond pushing oneself physically. "Instead of saying 'I have to go to the gym, I have to lose weight,' it's more of a way to get in touch with yourself," she said. "Praying, meditating, making art are other ways, and [yoga is] more like that."