If a student goes to the gym and decides to lift weights while having never done so before, it is likely that their workout may feel slightly uncomfortable at first. Similarly, if a student begins to participate in a certain mindfulness practice for the first time, that practice may not come easily to them.
According to Rebecca Block, Director of the Mindful University Project and Health Promotion Specialist for Student Well-Being, students should have an open mind and test out different practices to see what works best for them. “It takes time to build muscle just like it takes time to build mindfulness skills,” Block said.
The Mindful University Project (Mindful U) is a campus-wide initiative aiming to create a culture of mindfulness among UR undergraduate students. Created in 2018 by the Health Promotion Office, Mindful U is currently pushing journaling, mindful eating, mindful walking, breath awareness practices, sound baths, silent meditation retreats, yoga, and more. Mindful U currently has ten mindfulness teachers (two of which are undergraduates and one of which is a graduate student) under Block’s supervision to teach mindfulness classes.
According to Professor Emeritus Michael Krasner, mindfulness is being aware in the present moment without judgment. Krasner developed interest in his career path in part due to his own experience with burnout in his early 30s. He said that mindfulness involves “turning on aspects of ourselves that are already there. We have to get in touch with these aspects, and don’t necessarily have to learn anything new.”
Krasner added that it is easy to strive for perfection in these high levels of academia, but this can suppress student well-being. “Mindfulness helps us so that perfectionism and stress do not interfere with our success,” he said. Mindful U is a support resource for students who are at all stressed; however, it is important to make the distinction clear between using mindfulness to manage stress versus managing a mental health condition.
“You would not participate in a mindfulness program to treat a mental health condition — you would need to see a mental health professional for that condition,” Krasner said. “But you would use mindfulness to build and cultivate personal skills, that are actually already there in each of us, that will help you manage just the normal stresses. It is a preventative measure.”
Mindful U 101: the inception of the program and an overview
Krasner began teaching an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course through the Center of Community Health in response to stress among his peers. The goal of the course, according to Krasner, is for students to “be more awake and aware in [their lives].” He first taught the course to medical students and medical professionals, and later received funding to begin a study with a group of physician participants. The study demonstrated how the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course improved physician burnout as well as empathy with patients.
Since 2010, thousands of people have been trained in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course and the course is now taught in many countries around the world.
One specific mindfulness class that has been newly launched by Mindful U is the Calming U, a four-week course focused on self-compassion, emotional intelligence, and keeping a growth mindset. According to Block, Calming U hopes to teach students how to “see their bodies as a gauge for what is going on internally and learn how to respond.”
Block added that if students attend all four classes (one each week), they will receive a free copy of the “Self-Compassion Workbook” and either a free meditation cushion or yoga mat.
The Calming U class was created based on student data and stems from the former Koru Mindfulness Class. After teaching the Koru Mindfulness Class for five to six years, Block said that it was not as pertinent or tailored to the student population, and the course was therefore modified.
Mindful U also offers classes for LGBTQ+ students and is planning to launch a class for students of color in late November or early December.
Block added that students who are considering participating in mindfulness practices through Mindful U should have what is called a “beginner’s mind” (based in Zen meditation and Zen Buddhism), meaning they should have an open mind and know that there are many different ways to practice.
“Mindful U offers students a variety of different practices that they can add to their toolbox,” Block said. “Some of them might not work at first, but students will not be able to build a habit of being mindful unless they try out different practices that work for them.”
Mindfulness is very honest and grounded in reality, according to Krasner. Rather than using mindfulness to learn a skill that will transcend one’s problems, an individual should use mindfulness to turn their attention closely to the problematic aspects of their lives and realize that there is space to deal with them. “Everything is workable. Mindfulness is the opposite of transcendence,” Krasner said.
Inside UHS and Mindful U’s programming
While many students visit UHS, it is mainly unknown what goes on behind the scenes with the healthcare workers and staff members. According to Block, every day looks very different. On a general day, however, she participates in a number of meetings and collaborates with every department on campus. “I am always working on many projects at a time,” said Block, “including projects regarding nourishment and body image, sleep, pet therapy, event planning, et cetera.”
When it comes to Block’s own work with UHS, she runs the Mindful Professor Training Program and the Student Mindfulness Facilitator Training through Mindful U. The Mindful Professor Training Program teaches faculty members to learn to enhance their teaching effectiveness through practices of mindfulness, calmness, and self awareness.
The Student Mindfulness Facilitator Training, according to Block, is “offered to students who wish to deepen their own mindfulness practices and/or teach these practices to other students.”
In addition to the trainings and mindfulness programs, Mindful U is currently pushing yoga offerings the most. In fact, Mindful U is partnered with Shine Bright, a local, women-owned yoga business in College Town. Students have the opportunity to have unlimited access to all Shine Bright classes.
Block added that in order to access these classes, students must simply stop by the front desk in the Goergen Athletic Center, say that they are a student and are interested in going to Shine Bright, and obtain a sticker on their student ID card. Students then must visit Shine Bright, show the sticker on their ID card, and provide their email to gain access to Shine Bright’s online scheduling system. Once signed up for classes online, students are free to participate in yoga in-person for as often as they desire.
Krasner added that for students who are curious, Mindful U is an opportunity to develop some skills for stress management. “It is a way of inoculating yourself against the negative effects of stress. Stress itself is not a bad thing,” he said. “If we turn normal stress into a chronic stress response on our body, that can have very negative, detrimental effects on our health and well-being.”