Learning how to deal with stress through a Yoga and Tai Chi class offered in Kinesiology

By Dale Johnson Posted: February 14, 2018 6:00 a.m.

Instructor Andi Céline Martin says students tell her the class helps them develop new approaches to school work and relationships.
Instructor Andi Céline Martin says students tell her the class helps them develop new approaches to school work and relationships. Photo: External Relations

There’s a class offered in Kinesiology and Health Studies (KHS) where students learn about anatomy and physiology and how the mind-body connection affects their functioning. They apply the foundations of mindfulness in their lives to help deal with anxiety, school work, relationships, and other issues life throws their way.

Andi Céline Martin, an instructor of KHS 131 – The Philosophy and Practice of Yoga and Tai Chi, has taught this course more than 30 times in the past five years. This semester, a total of 120 students are taking KHS 131, and she is teaching two of the four courses.

Why do you think teaching a class in Yoga and Tai Chi is important?  

Mindfulness-based practices such as Yoga and Tai Chi are everywhere these days, utilized by professional athletes, Fortune 500 companies, and education systems, to name a few. Yet, as ubiquitous as the term “mindfulness” is, the concept is still quite misunderstood and unfamiliar to most. As such, I think it’s really important that universities inform students and the public about the evidence-based research in this field, so they may make informed, unbiased decisions. Further, I think it’s wonderful that KHS is offering this course since these and other contemplative practices are being utilized more and more as a path to wellness, optimal concentration and performance in sports, and recovery from disease/illness. Research is mushrooming in this field.

Andi Céline Martin teaches KHS 131 – The Philosophy and Practice of Yoga and Tai Chi.  Photo: U of R Photography  

How did you get interested in these areas?

I was first interested in these areas when studying psychology and stumbling across these practices and the research stemming out of the U.S.A. Shortly after, while travelling through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, I noticed how ubiquitous these practices were. I was able to experience several mindfulness-based practices, including Qigong, Meditation, Yoga, and Tai Chi. I noticed that dozens of countries were immersed in these practices in some form, yet, at the time (15 years ago), it was difficult to study them in Canada. As a result, I started studying them from an academic viewpoint 10 years ago, examining their potential effects on our physiology, anatomy, stress, performance, and health.

How wide is the range of students who take this class?

I honestly can’t think of a faculty from which students haven’t come – every semester about 80 per cent of my students come from outside of KHS. I’ve had students from business, chemistry, engineering, geology, history, math, nursing, psychology, social work – everywhere! This greatly enhances the learning environment and course material.

How does this class help students deal with such things as anxiety, school work, relationships, and other issues?

Countless students have told me various ways in which they apply the course content to their relationships, schooling or work. A couple months into the semester is when they say they start to approach their assignments and exams differently (letting go of past disappointments or future worries, less anxiety or stress) as well as how they deal with people at work or family and friends (less judgement, assumptions, criticisms). Most importantly, they tell me it changes how they view themselves, which is really the intention of mindfulness-based practices: to learn relax into whatever life brings from a place of equilibrium as opposed to continuously reacting to thoughts, feelings, and judgments and being arrested by cogitation.

What’s been the biggest surprise for you in teaching this class?

What has surprised me the most about teaching this class is how few students, prior to this class, had actually taken the time to really get to know/study themselves – what they’re passionate about, why they judge and label themselves a certain way, why they hold the assumptions or prejudices they do, what patterns of thinking they have. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by how, in this technology-based world where being distracted and on autopilot is the new normal, students actually want tools to help them disconnect from technology and be more present for the things actually happening right in front of them.

What do you hear from former students about the value of this class?

I’ve been lucky that I often see my students for several semesters after I’ve taught them and that they come up to me to discuss an aspect of the course that may have most piqued their interest, or how their personal practices have evolved since the course ended, or a workshop they’ve recently completed. But what I probably hear most is that they feel less stressed about certain aspects of their lives (school, finding a job, moving, travelling), especially things they can’t control; that they feel less anxious, have greater clarity or improved sleep. Though research is still in the early stages, several studies have reported benefits such as those mentioned by students associated with just 10 minutes of mindfulness a day.

Most students tell me, at the start of the semester, that they’re taking this class in the hopes of gaining tools for stress reduction, mental load, sleep problems, recovery from injuries/surgery, to gain a greater understanding of the mind-body connection or merely out of curiosity. So that can apply to anyone, regardless of faculty.

Being mindful and living mindfully takes practice and training; however, it is not magical – it’s mental training; exercise for the mind. So just like exercise, you have to keep training.