At the UA, more students, faculty and employees are investigating the benefits of contemplative practices and incorporating them in programs that encourage wellness.
At the UA, more students, faculty and employees are investigating the benefits of contemplative practices and incorporating them in programs that encourage wellness.

Students Learning to Reduce Stress

A group of graduate students investigating the benefits of contemplative practices is leading in-depth workshops on contemplative practices.
Feb. 3, 2015
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Other events are planned to offer students an in-depth look at mindful practices. They include:

  • Feb. 13: "Conscious breathing for a calm and clear mind" with Michael Goldstein, a UA graduate student of clinical psychology.
  • Feb. 20: "Opening your heart through compassion, for self and others" with Deanna Kaplan, a doctoral student in the UA Department of Psychology and an instructor in Cognitively Based Compassion Training
  • Feb. 26: Jerry Gardner, an associate professor of the actor training program at the University of Utah, will speak about eastern approaches to the acting process.
  • Feb. 27: "Moving into stillness: renewing energy and well-being" with Stuart Moody, who is pursuing a certificate in the UA School of Geography and Development.
  • April 8: George Mumford, a meditation teacher and professional basketball coach, will speak.
  • April 17: The second Student Wellness Conference will be held 3-5 p.m. in the Student Recreation Center gymnasium.

Concerned about the levels of stress that students experience, along with their overall health, a University of Arizona group advancing contemplative practices in higher education has organized a series of events to help students improve life balance. 

The first in the series was the Student Wellness Conference, held at the UA on Sunday. The conference was developed by the UA's Contemplative Pedagogy Learning Community, which was established after the Office of Instruction and Assessment, in collaboration with the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, received a Center for Contemplative Mind in Society grant.

Above all, the learning community and conference organizers are working to expand research on the benefits of contemplative practices while also teaching people how to use such practices to aid in the reduction of stress and chronic pain and also to improve self-awareness and community building. 

"We are not just a brain floating in a bowl," said Dr. Charles Raison, a UA psychiatry professor and director of the new Center for Compassion Studies. "Body processes play a huge role in how we feel."

During the conference in a room located on the fourth floor of the Student Union Memorial Center, a room full of mostly graduate students — studying psychology, higher education, American Indian studies, law and other disciplines — was practicing tension-releasing stretching and alternate-nostril breathing exercises.

The scene was gentle and quiet, one that contrasted with the activity and energy of the University.

The nearly silent effort was intentional. At the guidance of conference presenters, the attendees learned subtle movements and breathing techniques that research has shown to reduce tension, improve circulation and activate cognition. The presenters also shared current research related to contemplative practices.

"There is accumulating research that contemplative practices can help us with both cognitive and emotional skills," said Dev Ashish, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology and one of the conference presenters. 

Ashish, who is studying clinical psychology with an emphasis on neuropsychology, is investigating loving-kindness meditation, or compassion meditation. He has found that the meditative practices can help reduce stress and anxiety, particularly for those who are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Students face several challenges in higher education that require both cognitive and emotional skills, including focus, creativity, social responsibilities, emotion regulations and future planning," Ashish said. "Addressing of all these challenges can help with contemplative practices that further help with managing stress and taking care of health." 

Ashish and others said it is especially important to teach students how to improve their well-being, as it has implications not only for their current studies and research but for their longevity.

Stuart Moody, a conference organizer, noted a new thought being advanced by health practitioners: "Sitting is the new smoking." Given the amount of time people spend seated, teaching them ways to incorporate movement into their lives, often without having to take a gym membership or even leaving one's place of home or study, can help improve physical capacities and also clear the mind. 

"If your mind is clouded by unnecessary things, you cannot observe as much of the world around you," said Moody, also a certified Ananda yoga instructor.

Michael Goldstein, a graduate student of clinical psychology, led the conference participants in a number of breathing exercises to help reduce tension.

"Breath is dynamic," Golstein said. "There are lots of connections with the breath and our minds and our emotions and our thinking."

Golstein investigates ways that meditation and yoga can impact a person's sleep, psychophysiology and cognitive functioning in addition to ways the deep breathing exercises can help improve mental focus and optimism. He also noted research indicating that deep breathing can enhance sensations and awareness.

"With the breath, it can be a really powerful tool, or it can complement other techniques," Goldstein said. "And simply by itself, it can be very powerful because breath is so connected to the brain and throughout the body."

While the conference presenters advocated for contemplative practices, they also offered a caution.

"The mind is a powerful thing, and anything that has positive power can have a dark side, side effects and risks," Raison said.

Raison, who moderated the conference, urged students to ensure that they have apprpriate training before adopting a contemplative practice, no matter how simple the practice may seem.

"One of the dangers, especially in the west, is this search for a simple answer, a magic pill," Raison said. "And one of the cool things is that there are a lot of groups that are forming here on campus. There is a real need for approaching these practices where you have people who have had a lot of experience with them."