By Lara Becker
Like most college students, sophomore chemistry major Sydney Santiago leads a busy lifestyle –– she’s an active sister of Delta Phi Epsilon, studies for organic chemistry tests during the week and struggles to find time to hang out with friends on the weekend.
But when she started to face overwhelming anxiety last semester, Santiago needed a coping mechanism that would fit into her busy lifestyle while effectively reducing her stress and worries throughout the day.
That was when she discovered Campus Town’s Empower Yoga.
“I had really bad symptoms of anxiety last semester and I needed to meditate and let off a lot of steam every week,” Santiago said. “Now, I do (yoga) to get my mind off of things and reset my body.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness discusses in a country-wide study that one in four adolescents between the ages of 18 and 24 will be diagnosed with a mental illness – 11 percent of college students are diagnosed with anxiety and more than 10 percent are struggling with depression. NAMI found that 80 percent of college students reported feeling constantly overwhelmed in their environment.
Mental health awareness has been a pressing, campus-wide discussion in recent months at the College especially since the recent student deaths. The school has taken initiatives such as a Lions’ Hour on grief and loss, and has promoted on-campus resources, such as Counseling and Psychological Services, for those seeking help.
Santiago is part of the growing number of students at the College turning to yoga and meditation to improve her mental and physical health.
Eight months after her first class, Santiago now attends regular classes at Empower Yoga and has noticed a stark difference in her mood.
“It definitely lets all of your problems literally roll off your skin,” she said. “I feel extremely relaxed and calm afterwards, compared to maybe being anxious or frustrated that day.”
Santiago isn’t the only one noticing positive results. As a 2018 New Year’s resolution, junior communication studies major Christina Buz was inspired to improve both her physical and mental health by joining Empower Yoga.
She regularly attends “power hour,” a combination of core work and vinyasa flow (yoga movements). The classes have pushed and challenged her while also giving her the space to grow.
Now over a year later, Buz credits Empower Yoga’s welcoming ambiance and passionate instructors for her overall improvement.
“It has definitely given me a lot of strength,” Buz said. “Physically and mentally, I feel more confident since I’m experimenting with what my body can do.”
For Nicole Poccia, a senior music education major, yoga started as a method to control her breathing during her singing lessons and performances. Yoga classes have allowed her focus on her breathing in choral singing throughout high school and college.
“It teaches you more than just how to move your body, and how to be better,” Poccia said. “It teaches you kindness and mindfulness, being aware of yourself and really exploring your own thoughts.”
Now as a regular at Empower Yoga, she continues to practice yoga to enhance her breathing, focus and quality of life.
“It really, really, really helps me,” Poccia said. “It makes me have a more positive outlook on everything.”
These stories of physical and mental growth are what inspired Empower Yoga’s owner Keri Mandell to start her business in the first place.
Much like the students who attend her classes, Mandell discovered yoga 10 years ago when she was struggling with severe depression and feeling confined in her house. She was inspired to try yoga after a friend suggested they sign up for a class together to get Mandell out of the house and in a better head space.
After the pair took a class at their local hot power studio, Mandell was hooked and soon became a regular.
“It’s very freeing,” she said. “You leave feeling lighter, a little bit more clear headed and ready to go on to the next thing.”
Inspired by the supportive community at the hot power studio, Mandell left her job in school administration and opened Empower Yoga in Campus Town in 2017, making it the first hot power yoga studio in central New Jersey.
Offering either hot yoga (95 degrees with 40 to 50 percent humidity,) or warm yoga (85 degrees with no humidity), classes are designed to help students channel inner peace.
“One of the things that yoga teaches us is loving ourselves and appreciating ourselves,” Mandell said. “We don’t tend to do that a lot. I think we’re very hard on ourselves, students in particular, we’re very critical and quick to judge. So, taking an opportunity to find love, and find that little bit for yourself, we do a lot of that in here.”
Two years since its grand opening, Empower Yoga continues to promote mental health and wellness within the college community.
“It’s really fun with friends because you can help each other out and you can create a stronger bond with (yoga),” Santiago said. “The more full the room, the bigger the connection.”
Many students agree that the oneness of mind, body and soul that they learned in a studio can be utilized to tackle many of life’s challenges.
“You’re breathing through uncomfortability, and I think ‘well, if I can breathe through this stretch, then I can breathe through any horrible day,” Poccia said.