It is hard to find time to truly relax when you could be writing a paper or watching Netflix. But when it comes to mental health, centering your mind on something other than binging your favorite TV show is the best way to step away from hectic daily life and calm your nerves. That is why the Library Quiet Room offers classes that are open to faculty and students alike to step back from the workload.
Some people who take a more physical approach to relieving stress may want to take visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Saangeeta Biagi’s Yoga–Contemplative Listening and the Sound-body class. Biagi has offered the class that meets on Mondays since 2011.
The class is a mix of physical hatha yoga and sound yoga. “It incorporates 15-20 min of hatha yoga at the beginning and then it transitions into sound-related yogic practices, such as humming, chanting the pranava mantra OM, chanting other mantras (prayers in Sanskrit),” Biagi explained in an email. “It ends with a relaxation and sharing.”
In contrast, Lecturer of Physical Education, James McCowan, coordinates a meeting for the Vassar Buddhist Sangha Thursdays at 8:30 p.m., where students sit in silent meditation for half an hour.
“It’s not a class per se, and I’m not really a teacher – it’s more an offering,” McCowan said in an emailed statement. The term “Sangha,” he explained, is the Buddhist word for the community of practitioners, and is one of the three treasures of Buddhism.
He went on to say, “We set the room up as a zendo, complete with sitting cushions and altar, offer some beginning instructions in sitting zazen, and sit together for 30 minutes. The period ends with a short liturgy, and we re-enter social interaction by sharing any thoughts, experiences or questions.” Occasionally, the Vassar Buddhist Sangha will offer recordings of Buddhist teachers, or readings to help stimulate engagement and connection with the practice.
Jonah Strand ’18 was a regular attender of McCowan’s Vassar Buddhist Sangha gatherings. “I decided to participate in the Buddhist meditation because I thought it might be a nice way to relax in the middle of a stressful week,” he explained. Not all students have necessarily had previous experience with Buddhist meditation. “Sure, lots of students find sitting in meditation for a half hour hard,” McCowan commented. “Some maybe don’t.”
As the Head Coach of Track and Cross-Country, and an athlete himself, being able to get into a certain mindset is very important. “While completing a masters thesis in sport philosophy which covered existentialism and zen in sport, I realized I had a limited and academic understanding of Buddhism and wanted to deepen my practice and understanding.” McCowan said. “I’ve been a student at Zen Mountain Monastery since 2007, and shortly thereafter asked RSL Director Sam Speers if there was a student group on campus I could join to build that connection with.” After spending a few years sitting with the group, Speers asked him to take up an advisory role, which he has held since.
Biagi also wanted to find a practice that would help her get in touch with her inner self. “I was looking for a practice that would integrate awareness of body, mind and emotions. Yoga offers many physical techniques, breathing exercises and philosophical concepts that help one achieve a state of balance,” She explained.
Both classes play an important role for the Vassar community. “My mental health has definitely benefited from meditation,” Strand said. “I get serious anxiety and it helps me control and understand many aspects of those feelings.” During the dark days around exam time, McCowan added, attendance does tend to dip. “Participation probably drops off then a bit, though the difficult times are some of the most important times to come back to a still point,” he said.
Biagi offers two different times for yoga, one for teachers and faculty, and one for students and anyone else who would like to come. Separating the two groups, Biagi explained, allows her to better connect with the participants, and to allow them to be more open.
“Some faculty and staff members prefer not to have class with their students for a variety of reasons that are personal,” Biagi explained.
Biagi and McCowan understand that college is not the easiest time of students’ lives. “I would like to provide the community with an opportunity to feel, stretch, breathe, relax.” Biagi said. “Stress is not conducive to learning or teaching so it is helpful to know how to bring it down to a reasonable and healthy level.”
McCowan added that sangha sometimes can be a difficult practice, but it is not meant to be just another assignment. “So sometimes sitting is physically painful, or mentally agitating, or calming, or any number of sensations,” He said. “The practice is always the same though: put all your awareness on the breath, if you become distracted, see the thought clearly, let it go and go back to giving your breath your full awareness.”
“Meditation is an amazing way to ‘get off campus’ without actually leaving,” Strand added. “I think it really helps add new perspective to your daily life and it offers a surprisingly unique reprieve from the stress and hectic lifestyle of being a college student.”