Yoga Makes Headway in Business Schools
Walk through the halls of the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business during the school year, and along with students cramming facts for macroeconomics and operating strategy you may encounter some students stretching their bodies and doing something really unusual for business school students: relaxing.
They're members of Chicago's yoga club, a student group founded earlier this year by two GSB students and which last term attracted 15 to 35 regular attendees to classes in the school's Harper Center. The classes are "time to shut your brain off," says Jody Kirchner, one of the group's founders.
The Chicago GSB yoga classes reflect a growing popularity of yoga in the U.S., with about 16 million Americans engaging in the practice, according to statistics released by Yoga Journal. The publication said $5.7 billion is spent annually on yoga classes and products, nearly twice as much as four years ago.
During a school-sponsored trip to India last year, Kirchner and fellow student Doug Neal bonded over a mutual interest in yoga. Kirchner and Neal, who both had been practicing yoga for years before they met, eventually decided to start a group dedicated to the practice on campus—after Kirchner noticed that other business schools had yoga groups, but Chicago didn't.
In midyear, Neal, a 2008 MBA graduate, and Kirchner, a rising second-year student and co-chair of the club, conducted an interest survey for the group. Of the 1,100 students attending the school, about 200 expressed interest.
Kirchner said she was surprised at the large response the survey garnered, finding that a sizable portion of the student population already practiced yoga, at least to some extent. "People I know outside of school say the same thing," she said. "After a stressful day, it's time they can do something easily to take their mind off their stress."
Neal says yoga isn't just for stress relief. "Yoga is very multifaceted, and the benefits of yoga are different for each person," he said. "Some use it for exercise, for meditation poses, some for relaxation, some for injuries."
Interlude at MIT
Yoga is also on the radar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, where Matthew McGarvey, a rising second-year student, wants to start a yoga class during Sloan's Innovation Period, a week in the middle of each semester that allows students to explore outside interests. Taught by an outside yoga instructor, the session would be open to 20 to 25 Sloan students. (MIT already offers yoga classes to the overall school community through its health center.)
Like many other practitioners of yoga, McGarvey says the discipline helps him achieve inner focus. He began practicing yoga while starting a social enterprise in Tibet as a way to find relief from his work-related stress. In business school, McGarvey says yoga helped him stay centered. "I found that during my first semester I was having to reexamine a lot of my life goals and priorities," he says. "Having a yoga practice helped sort through the white noise."
Susanna Barry, a health educator at MIT Medical who specializes in anxiety and stress management, teaches some of the yoga courses on campus, including "Yoga for Stress Management."
Several MBAs have enrolled in the course, Barry says, which serves as a respite from the otherwise-busy life of MBA students. "They tend to be extremely self-driven and highly competitive," Barry says. "To have an hour [that's] not about self-improvement prevents burnout to get through the hectic part of the semester"
At Harvard Business School, restorative yoga, a form of yoga designed to promote relaxation and stress relief, has become more popular among MBA students, according to Carolyn Gould, the program manager for Shad Hall, the gym for HBS students and faculty. "We live such fast-paced lives," Gould says. "It's something everyone wants and needs everywhere. It's not specific to Harvard."
At Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, rising second-year MBA student Priti Mody is the president of the Yoga at Kellogg, which has more than 200 subscribers on its listserv.
Mody, who spent two weeks studying yoga in India while doing nonprofit research before starting B-school, plans to draw upon her experience to lead the club, now in its third year on campus.
Currently, the group offers yoga classes once a week. Next year, Yoga at Kellogg plans to cater to students with varying yoga skill levels and set up sessions lasting an hour and a half, among other activities.
Mody says yoga provides her an outlet to unwind from the challenges of B-school. "Business school is a unique experience. There are so many things you juggle at the same time. You're surrounded by highly motivated people and want to do everything, [so] you learn to find balance in schedule to be happy," she says. "Yoga is something consistent that lets me calm down."