In dozens of Bass Library study rooms, students hunch over their laptops with furrowed eyebrows, switching between papers and Snapchat stories, anxious that they’re missing out on something. To help students reduce anxiety, depression and stress, the Yale and the New Haven communities have worked together this semester to promote student wellness through meditation and yoga.
When people fail to find healthy coping mechanisms for stress, mental health issues often arise. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 18 percent of adults and about 25 percent of children aged 13 to 18 nationwide suffer from an anxiety disorder. New Haven organizations offer free classes at the University. This year Silliman College will continue its Wellness Initiative, which includes several weekly yoga and meditation classes.
“I came up with the idea for the Silliman Wellness Initiative as I came to realize that Yale students are way more unhappy, stressed out and worried than faculty often realize,” said Silliman Head of College Laurie Santos. “I wanted to develop some programming to help Silliman students to relax and take time to be more present.”
Meditation and yoga encourage people to focus on the present moment, their breathing and their thoughts, Santos said.
Molly Crockett, an assistant psychology professor at Yale who leads the weekly mindfulness and meditation class in Silliman, said regular meditation helps calm the unruly mind and trains people to recognize how thought patterns can lead to cycles of worry, restlessness and suffering.
“By developing an awareness of these thought patterns, we can begin to break out of harmful habits and become kinder to ourselves and others,” Crockett said, adding that her class focused specifically on breathing exercises and mindfulness.
Similarly, Being Well at Yale Health Educator Danielle Casioppo said she teaches Hatha Yoga at the Payne Whitney Gym during the academic year.
“The breath is the gateway to the mind,” said Casioppo, adding that monitoring and slowing the breath can help control one’s emotional state.
Casioppo was trained in mindful yoga therapy for trauma recovery through the Veteran’s Yoga Project, where she focused on yoga and meditation’s ability to help people struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. She noted that, for mental health conditions, meditation and yoga are often best combined with professional counseling and an actual diagnosis.
Ken Kessel, the primary teacher of the Buddhist meditation organization New Haven Zen Center and a clinical social worker in New York City, suggested that busy students could take just five minutes a day to “engage in the question of ‘what am I?’”
The Zen Center focuses on the Buddhist philosophy of “meditation in zen” and offers free meditation courses at the Buddhist Shrine near Harkness Tower.
“The purpose of zen is to understand yourself and be useful to others,” Kessel said. “To recognize that there is someway you’re grounded with everything around you. If you are able to see that and keep that in the center of your tension throughout your life, that’s already mentally health.”
But Maria Satterwhite-Porpora, director of New Haven’s Shambhala Meditation Center, had a different understanding of meditation. According to Buddhist philosophy, Satterwhite-Porpora said, there is no real goal to meditation. People meditate for many reasons — out of curiosity, to alleviate stress, to be more effective in their daily life — though whether or not meditation can actually help someone depends on the person, she added.
“I had this idea that if I learned how to meditate it would make me calmer, which has not really proven to be the case over the years,” Satterwhite-Porpora said. “It has made me more aware. It has given me a chance to pause between somebody else’s reaction and my reaction.”
She added that meditation is an underused resource in the community and that many people did not know the Shambhala Center offered meditation groups targeted at youth and the LGBTQ community, among others.
Satterwhite-Porpora said that the groups were open to people of all spiritual paths — not just Buddhists — and that Buddhism and spirituality are not necessary for meditation.
But Casioppo had a different take, arguing that meditation cannot be separated entirely from spirituality.
“Once people start practicing and start learning more about themselves and the practices, there is a natural curiosity to understand where these wonderful and deep practices have come from,” Casioppo said.
According to a report published by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health in 2015, only 8 percent of U.S. adults use meditation.
Kiddest Sinke | firstname.lastname@example.org
Clarification, Nov. 15: A previous version of this article originally misstated that Casioppo was trained through the Veteran’s Project rather than the Veteran’s Yoga Project.