Wellness, Productivity, Balance for Graduate Students and Beyond

Yogasight 20/20: A #MindfulPhD Guest Post by Victoria Abboud, PhD

I walked across the stage, received my Ph.D. hood, and left the auditorium with what I imagined would be a new attitude and a feeling of calm. The calm didn’t come for years.  And it was only recently that I recognized how helpful a yoga practice would have been during graduate school.  Hindsight may be 20/20, but YogaSight changes how we see everything.

Some practice yoga and buy the fancy stretchy pants and “Om” their ways to calmness and health.  Cheers to them.  The folks I am focused on are those who don’t realize that there are key components of the eight limbs of Yoga that could support their efforts to move through graduate studies.  Further, that the physical practice of downward dogs and planks and forward folds is only 1/8 of Yoga writ large.

When I try poses that cause discomfort, the ones where my focal point (“drishti”) consists of the small droplets of sweat that are creating a puddle on my mat, the ones that make my body shake, the ones that cause my entire sympathetic nervous system to be on fire, that’s when fight, flight, or freeze kicks in and I am the furthest from my yogi self.  These are the moments of anxiety and stress because of the new thing that I am urging my body to do.  These are the moments when finding my breath (“pranayama”), allowing the discomfort, and trusting my ability to adapt become key.

The anxious moments of grad school—teaching, funding, comprehensive exams, the dissertation, the endless judgment—are these shake-inducing yoga poses.  And the shaking is just one part of the seemingly endless need to calm the self and to place one foot in front of the other or to type.  One. More. Word.  These are the times when finding a way to breathe deeply and to calm the nervous system can make or break the graduate student experience.

Finding one’s breath is not just about chanting “Om” or about reaching enlightenment; it’s far more physiological than that.  Breath can be controlled.  Breath is what allows us to become present.  Breath is the one feature of human capacity that can help us down-regulate a heightened stress response.

In those moments of self-doubt, of submitting the article to yet another journal, and of facing The Dissertation Advisor, find breath.  Find the breath that goes deep into your belly and fills every square inch of your body—not just your lungs.  Let it adhere to all the uncertainties that lurk in your cells.  Keep inhaling until you can’t take in any more air.  Pause for a second.  Or five.  When it’s time to exhale, push the fear and worry and dread out of your body.  Sigh it out with a bold sound.  Hear your breath leave your body.  Repeat that breathing until you feel calmer, more peaceful, and more settled.

With every measured, intentional inhale and every loaded exhale, you will reduce the extent of the fight, flight, or freeze response.  The more you do this, the more you’ll have the wherewithal to assess the situation, determine a way forward, and take a step towards calming those shaky muscles.  It takes practice.  It takes patience.  Most of all, it takes a person who believes in the possibility of a calmer experience and the intention to make it so.


(Caveat:  I am not suggesting that Yoga should replace any other forms of therapy, support, or medical advice.  Yoga, combined with other therapeutic modalities, may create a fulsome approach to healing.)