Healthy Living

Why Students At Elite Colleges Are Turning To Meditation

This is so necessary.
03/23/2016 03:31pm ET

Twice a week, stressed-out students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pry themselves away from the demands of school and meet in a reserved room on campus to practice yoga and meditation.

The gathering, called Art of Living, is one of the only times many club members unload their stress and find relief. It's a rare sanctuary at one of the most high-pressure colleges in the country.

"Having a regular meditative practice is like being high all the time," Blake Elias, vice president of the club, has said. "It makes you realize that you have a choice of how you feel and that you can control your own environment rather than it controlling you."

The club is part of a larger collective called Yesplus, a student-run stress management program that is working to incorporate meditation and yoga into everyday life on college campuses. The program is run by the Art of Living Foundation, an international nonprofit founded by spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Kishor Nayar, PhD student at MIT
Every week, students in MIT's Art of Living Club meet on campus to meditate together, offsetting some of the stress from overwhelming workloads.

Since its creation in 2006, Yesplus has implemented retreats and on-campus clubs on more than 40 campuses. Schools like Stanford and Johns Hopkins University are even offering Yesplus as an academic course for credit.

The programs focus on yoga and Sudarshan Kriya meditation -- a "cleansing" breathing technique that uses natural rhythms in the breath to harmonize the body, mind and emotions, according to the foundation's website.

The regular meet-ups and the five-day meditation retreats Yesplus offers don't just give students a break from overwhelming amounts of work -- many students end up finding a deeper purpose beyond their academic careers.

"The practice makes it easier for them to connect with people," Annalies Richmond, director of training for the Art of Living Foundation, told HuffPost. "It expands their capacity as a leader and makes them realize how big their potential is or how powerful they are. Somehow, one can feel very transformed in those five days."

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Wellness programs are becoming increasingly important as students today face an overwhelming amount of pressure and stress at school. And that takes a toll on mental health. Nearly one in 10 college students report experiencing symptoms of depression, according to 2014 research from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Alarming mental health statistics are why Kishor Nayar, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering, started MIT's Art of Living club while pursuing his master's degree . Citing concern over mental health issues and pointing to the stress and isolation he observed on campus, Nayar believes that meditation should be a part of college students' lives -- or at least an option in their academic curriculum.

Studies have shown that meditation not only helps the brain manage stress, it improves memory and focus and can be effective in relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression.

One study published by the American Psychological Association even found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy -- which combines meditative practices with cognitive therapy -- can prevent depression from recurring and is as effective as antidepressant medications for treating depression.

"We teach humanities in engineering," Nayar told HuffPost, but meditation "is one level deeper. It's expressing yourself as a human being or getting to know yourself. Why not have that as a core subject?"

Nayar is a prime example of how transformative meditation can be. He first signed up for a five-day Yesplus retreat in 2009, while completing his undergrad at the highly-competitive Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. He credits the program with not only helping him relax, but also making him a kinder, more compassionate person.

"The training I had to undergo to get in the best engineering schools in India had made me very analytical and very impersonal in my interactions," Nayar said. "[Meditation] helped me re-connect with my heart."

In March, after nearly seven years since his first meditation retreat with Yesplus, Nayar joined 1,000 other Yesplus student leaders at the World Culture Festival in India to participate in the world's largest meditation gathering. An estimated 3 million people from all around the world were in attendance.

Since incorporating meditation into his routine, Nayar says, life "can be best described as grapes maturing into sweet wine."

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