Just Breathe: Wellness Workshops Address Stress

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Monday, October 4, 2021
By Carola Grebitus
Photo by iStock/skynesher
Yoga and meditation help Arizona State University faculty and students prepare for the challenges of returning to campus.

There’s no question that university employees are feeling the compounding effects of more than a year and a half of increased stress, uncertainty, and overwork. In a recent article, The Chronicle of Higher Education presents the results of an October 2020 survey of more than 1,200 faculty. Seventy-five percent of respondents said their workload had increased, and a majority said work-life balance had deteriorated. Conditions have not materially changed since then.

It was with this reality in mind that I explored creating a wellness-focused series for my colleagues at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business as we returned to full-time in-person classes this fall. In 2020, I had started leading yoga and meditation sessions on ASU’s Polytechnic campus in Mesa, where I primarily teach, so I knew that these classes could contribute to positive environments. I took my idea to Dan Gruber, associate dean of teaching and learning innovation at W.P. Carey, to explore the possibility of creating similar programs on the business school’s campus in Tempe.

I was thrilled to learn about a new W.P. Carey initiative called Teaching and Learning Innovation Mini-Grants. These grants, ranging from 500 USD to 2,500 USD, enable faculty to launch new ideas for teaching their classes or attend training programs that contribute to a culture of teaching and learning innovation. Crucially, any learning that faculty members acquire through these opportunities needs to be shared broadly with their colleagues as part of a collaborative effort to develop faculty and advance teaching and learning within the business school community.

With the support of a mini-grant and the input of the teaching leads from each unit at the school, I developed Summer Refreshers, a series of four sessions designed to help faculty, staff, and doctoral students navigate the stress of returning to the classroom.

Workshops of Wellness

The four workshops featured experienced yoga and meditation teachers who guided attendees through practices they could use to calm themselves and create environments conducive to learning. The guest speakers were all local small-business owners who were happy to share their expertise with a broader audience. The workshops included:

Teaching With Purpose. Heath and Nicole Reed, co-founders of Living Metta, focused on creating learning environments where students and instructors feel safe to ask questions, display curiosity and compassion, and engage with more intention.

Managing Emotions as You Teach. Deb Althoff, owner of My Yoga Friend Deb, explained how emotions are held in the body, how to release them, and how to utilize breathing techniques and simple stretches. She also prepared educators to understand students who might be grieving. “The emotions connected to grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, isolation, guilt, regret, and resentment—are heavy,” she told the class. “The weight of all of those emotions can make us feel stuck and unsure of how to move forward. Using yoga as a means to create a shift can be extremely empowering.”

One guest speaker focused on creating learning environments where students and instructors feel safe to ask questions, display curiosity and compassion, and engage with more intention.

Tools to Calm and Center the Mind for Teaching. Donna DiNunzio Martens, co-director and co-founder of the Healing Emphasis Yoga (HEY) Therapy Program, reminded faculty that they are best able to set the tone for their classrooms when they can apply relaxation and meditation techniques for themselves.

Inspiring Yourself and Others Through Teaching and Learning. Jeff Martens, co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga, brought the workshops full circle by talking faculty through a discussion of what it means to feel inspired and how that transfers to our students. “It isn’t that all students will care about what you care about,” he explained. “Rather, showing passion in the classroom will give students the permission to find what it is that inspires them.”

Words of Wisdom

Facilitators shared a great deal of practical advice with participants, including these six takeaways:

Lead with appreciation. This can change your entire mindset.

Breathing is key. To calm down in stressful situations, take three slow breaths. Bring the air in through the nose, hold it deep in the belly, and let it out through the nose.

Meditate regularly. This will increase your ability to focus. Try breathing in for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, then exhaling for four seconds. All the while, silently repeat “so” as you breathe in and “hum” as you breathe out. Because “so” means “I am” and “hum” means “that,” the mantra translates to “I am that.”

Bring your true self to the classroom. The best teachers are prepared, but to be inspirational, they also need to be passionate and authentic.

Let go of emotions. Holding emotions in the body will affect you negatively, leading you to be more stressed out, anxious, and nervous. Meditation and yoga poses offer release and allow you to feel more balanced again.

Transparency creates safety. This is especially true in uncertain times.

A Chance to Connect

Summer seemed like the ideal time to offer these workshops, because that’s when faculty usually recharge by attending academic conferences, working on research projects, revising classes, or visiting family. The continued uncertainty with COVID-19 meant that some of these options for reconnecting were not available, so it was great to have another way to promote faculty and staff engagement. Throughout the summer, we welcomed about 60 faculty and staff into the workshops, which were offered virtually, in-person, and as recordings on our teaching and learning Canvas site.

We were intentional about integrating the sessions into our overall teaching and learning programming, in which we try to mirror best practices from the classroom, such as active learning approaches. More recently, we have helped faculty become accustomed to a variety of teaching modalities such as hybrid and remote instruction. In fact, at AACSB’s October Associate Deans Conference, Gruber will be giving a presentation about how schools can develop strategies for teaching and learning in on-campus, online, and blended formats.

While business education rarely veers toward introspective and holistic topics, administrators will find that focusing on well-being and self-care will help their communities stay strong and resilient.

Once the Summer Refreshers concluded, participants shared feedback about how the sessions encouraged them to embrace valuable shifts in perspective. For instance, Steve Vickner, clinical professor and teaching lead for agribusiness, attended all four workshops. He said, “The Summer Refreshers series was just that—a refreshing chance for those who value teaching to catch our breath and learn new strategies to center ourselves and inspire our students.”

Other attendees said they were glad to see that their wellness was a priority for the school. Personally, I have felt the stress of recent events and was thankful to have been introduced to different tools to help me recharge before the start of classes. Knowing that my school leadership also saw this need and was willing to fund it with a mini-grant helped me regroup for the fall semester, which certainly is going to hold continued uncertainty. I was grateful for the support of Vickner, Gruber, interim dean Amy Ostrom, and Troy Schmitz, director of the Morrison School of Agribusiness.

Mindful Growth

Going forward, I hope to grow the Summer Refreshers series into a year-round wellness program that reaches faculty, staff, and students. We will continue to focus on mental well-being through tools such as yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques. I am also interested in integrating some of these tools into classroom practice.

Additionally, our teaching and learning program has a new space called The Greenhouse, where we will have increased opportunities for collaboration and experimentation. The space is accessible from a popular patio area, encouraging drop-in visitors to stop by for mini-workshops. Some sessions will cover topics such as teaching approaches and research showcases. Others will consist of open houses where students can meet faculty and learn about different research programs. And of course some sessions will offer opportunities for participants to practice yoga or meditation. This fall, I am hosting 20-minute lunchtime relaxation sessions over Zoom.

While business education rarely veers toward introspective and holistic topics, I believe any school would find it valuable to form a similar program. Whether administrators are hosting workshops for employees or offering yoga sessions for students, they will find that focusing on well-being and self-care will help their communities stay strong and resilient. And those are qualities all of us can use during these extraordinary times.

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Carola Grebitus
Associate Professor, Arizona State University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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