Every week, Western’s AS Outdoor Center offers free yoga classes to all students. This provides an alternative to other yoga memberships in Bellingham, which can cost as much as $100 a month.
The Outdoor Center aims to increase accessibility to an activity that can be incredibly beneficial for one’s physical and mental health. Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 4 p.m. and every Wednesday at 9 a.m., a Western student instructor holds a yoga class in Viking Union 464.
Alana Smutz, a yoga instructor for the Outdoor Center, said the classes are perfect for people wanting to get into yoga, but who can’t commit to the investment it requires. She said she loves seeing students who have never experienced the practice come back week after week, improving and growing with the community they’ve created.
Smutz began yoga in high school in an effort to take her mental health into her own hands, and that decision has been life changing. She first experienced yoga with a teacher who sought to take the commodification out of yoga, ignoring the aesthetics and purely focusing on the physical sensation.
“Yoga has been twisted into this superficial way of projecting wealth, beauty and aesthetic,” Smutz said. “In training, I was taught that aesthetics aren’t yoga. It’s all about what your body is feeling. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it matters how you personally feel in that moment.”
In Smutz’s classes, which are primarily exercise-based, she aims not only to get students to work up a sweat, but also encourages them to push themselves and not put a limit on their physical abilities. Simultaneously, the class remains accessible to all levels.
“I want them to have the freedom to try something new because that in itself gives people confidence,” Smutz said.
Similarly, Anna Horejsi, another one of the three yoga instructors at the Outdoor Center, said yoga fostered an improvement in self-love and acceptance — acceptance for not only herself but the world around her.
It’s very common for people to experience improved mental health when regularly practicing yoga. A study by the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences observed 54 people between the ages of 20 to 25. Half of the people began a yoga practice while the other half remained a control group.
“The yoga group showed less anxiety and depression at various stages and control group showed this reduction only after the second half of the training period,” according to the report. “So, the yogic practices helped the subjects to reduce the anxiety and depression.”
When asked why yoga has such a significant effect on those who practice it, Smutz said that there are few activities people participate in on a regular basis that allow them to be fully present and aware of their bodies and minds.
Horejsi also highlighted her emphasis on mindfulness within her practice and methods of teaching.
“The physical poses are only a small fraction of what yoga is,” Horejsi said. “It’s an umbrella term that means many things to many different people. It’s a way of living.”
Someone who embodies this way of living is Matt Deskin, Western graduate and former Hindu monk. Horejsi and Deskin can both agree that a key aspect of yoga is the principle of “Ahimsa,” meaning, non-violence.
“You can translate the concept of Ahimsa to mean to do as little harm as possible, and that starts with the self,” Deskin said. “You can’t expect there to be peace in the world if that’s not reflected internally.”
Taking even just an hour out of your day to be mindful and move your body is an act of self-love, Smutz said. The Outdoor Center’s method of separating yoga from commodification is extremely conducive to an experience that focuses solely on the mind and health of the body, Horejsi said.
“It really is for anyone and everyone who wants to try it,” Horejsi said. “Accessibility is one of our main goals here and everyone at all levels are welcome to come play and explore with us.”