Yoga might just be the unofficial official "sport" of Bastyr University. Countless students, faculty and staff practice yoga at both campuses. Students teach classes at private studios around Seattle and San Diego. A campus club brings students from diverse programs together for rejuvenating sessions between classes. And there are courses through the ayurvedic sciences program and the Office of Certificate, Community and Continuing Education.
But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about yoga? A form of exercise? A breath-work routine? Meditation? A spiritual practice?
It depends who you ask. Definitions of yoga are as varied as the forms that emerged in Indian Hindu culture several thousand years ago. That diversity lets practitioners find a style that suits them, says Jodie Murdoch, president of the student Yoga Club at Bastyr’s Kenmore campus.
"Yoga can be really challenging if you want it to be, or really restorative," says Murdoch, a third-year student in the Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine program. "I think it's a nice balance between strength and flexibility."
Murdoch was a varsity swimmer at the University of Calgary when she discovered yoga. She had been training through sickness, battling a cold for eight weeks, when a naturopathic doctor convinced her to rest. Yoga provided a new way of exercising — challenging herself when she felt energetic, choosing restful stretches when she felt tired, and learning to listen to her body's signals. She became a yoga teacher to help others manage stress.
"A lot of people are going and going with so much stress and fatigue," she says. "It's very common to see people who are burnt out and always continually pushing. Yoga can provide a space for someone to feel like they're doing good things for their body but also relaxing."
Life-Force by Many Names
Dhaval Dhru, MD, a professor in Bastyr's School of Traditional World Medicines, says most Americans first encounter yoga as a form of exercise. Its emphasis on breathing may lead them into meditation, and eventually to yoga's potential as a tool of self-transformation, says Dr. Dhru.
"It's not just a physical benefit," he says. "Yoga is a tool that transforms you physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually. It shifts your attitude about how you look at yourself and your connectivity to the world."
Dr. Dhru directs the Master of Science in Ayurvedic Sciences program, which prepares practitioners to use yoga along with herbal, dietary and lifestyle counseling with their patients. He began practicing yoga while he was an ear-nose-throat surgeon, and the practice led him to ayurveda, a traditional Indian medicine.
Traditional Sanskrit yoga rests on the concept of "prana," or life-force, which can be regulated through physical poses and controlled breathing. Prana might be considered a spiritual sibling to the vis medicatrix naturae — the healing power of nature — the underlying philosophy of naturopathic medicine. It's also cousin to qi, the notion of life-force undergirding traditional Chinese medicine. While these health traditions may bear different fruit, they draw from similar roots, Dr. Dhru says.
"They are interconnected sister sciences," he says.
Beginners Become Teachers
Natiya Guin, a naturopathic medicine student at Bastyr University California, doesn't just practice yoga, she also supports it through her freelance photography. She has taken photos for SELF and Yogi Times magazines and the cover of OM Yoga magazine. She photographed her classmate Sef Tritt in Arches National Park last year on their way to a naturopathic conference in Colorado last summer.
Guin's mother introduced her to yoga when Natiya was 13 and recovering from a serious car accident. Doctors wanted to perform surgery on her neck and spine, but her mother helped her find a course of physical therapy, acupuncture, herbal medicine and yoga that helped her recover.
"Yoga helped heal my neck to the point where I didn't have to go through surgery," she says. "It's a really important part of my life. It was one of the major pulls that brought me to Bastyr."
Kimani McDonald first tried yoga as a student at Stanford, although the Sanskrit terms were not especially meaningful to her. Then she learned about kemetic yoga, which draws on ancient Egyptian mythology.
"That class resonated with me a lot more," says McDonald, a first-year naturopathic medicine student. "It didn't feel like we were just stretching our hips. It was a little more intentional, like we're using our bodies to tell a story about our lives and discover ourselves. It became my way of centering."
She continued practicing in Jamaica, where she grew up, then trained to become an instructor, then realized that her interest in yoga dovetailed with naturopathic medicine. At Bastyr, she teaches free classes through the student club, teaching both kemetic and the more common vinyasa flow form.
Through the club, she has taught classes outdoors, in the campus movement room and in the Bastyr University Chapel. The chapel's art and soaring ceiling make it an inspiring place for sun salutations (a common opening position), Murdoch says.
Like McDonald, Murdoch says the biggest challenge to her yoga practice is making time amid the demands of school. Those demands are also the reason she returns to yoga, she says.
"It can be hard to keep perspective as a student with all these pressures," Murdoch says. "Taking care of yourself, whether that's through yoga or sleeping enough or another way, is more important than getting an A-plus on an exam, in the long run."