Need to Take a Deep Breath?
Just days after Tufts’ campuses emptied out and the realities of living amid the Covid-19 crisis began, a group of dental students gathered to sit together in quiet—and virtual—meditation. Scattered in bedrooms and living rooms around the country, they spent a half hour with Christina Pastan, D91, DG94, director of Mind-Body Wellness at the School of Dental Medicine.
Usually, Pastan leads weekly meditation and yoga sessions at the dental tower at One Kneeland Street for students, faculty, and staff. As the coronavirus emergency began to unfold, “I realized I could not skip a beat,” Pastan said. She created meeting times through the remote conferencing app Zoom, emailed out a link, and led two groups through mindfulness meditation and yoga from her home.
“These practices are so grounding for me,” she said. And while she’s never led sessions quite like these before, she hopes they can be calming for others as well.
Pastan is opening up her mind-body sessions to the entire Tufts community. And starting the week of March 30, the university’s department of Health Promotion and Prevention (HPP) will also be hosting online drop-in meditation sessions for the university community, including targeted sessions for student-athletes.
For students, the abrupt lifestyle changes brought on by the pandemic are obviously stressful and disorienting—and for those approaching graduation, there is a tremendous sense of loss and uncertainty, said Ian Wong, Tufts’ director of HPP.
Even if being back home is familiar, the landscape is radically changed—for one, “their whole social life is now within their house,” Wong said. “Mindfulness meditation can help bring that stress level down a little bit, so they can focus again.” It also can help keep students from using alcohol or other substances to deal with the stress, he said.
Research over almost four decades has shown that mindfulness meditation—a mental training practice that involves breathing, mental imagery, and mind-body awareness—provides psychological, cognitive, and physiological benefits, including lowering blood pressure and alleviating chronic pain.
As for online interventions, some studies indicate they can be beneficial for mental health, although more long-term research is needed, according to the American Psychological Association.
The world’s sudden experiment in social distancing will offer a large-scale chance to explore the effects of cyber-meditation. “We are trying to take what we do in person and translate it directly to the virtual, but we’re also trying to find out how to keep that sense of community and connection,” Wong said. To create its online program, HPP will be partnering with mindfulness app Headspace; the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Cambridge Health Alliance; psychologist Christopher Willard; and consultants Jennifer Earls, A08, and Ashley Norwood.
Pastan said that after guiding a meditation session at the dental school, “there is a complete shift of energy in the space. There is such calmness to the room, and a sense of connection.” What will the experience be like for those who are meditating for the first time as an online activity, she wondered? For meditation novices who are hesitant, Pastan emphasized, “there is no right or wrong way to come to this practice.”
“Some people do meditation on a day that they are struggling, and the meditation mirrors that,” she said. “The practice is to come back tomorrow, with a fresh mind, and do it again”—which isn’t always easy.
Even in the best of times, Wong said, “Tufts students can often think, ‘everyone has it together but me.’ ” In a time of crisis, finding help is even more important. “This is new for everybody—faculty, staff, administration, and students,” he said. “We all need to lean on each other and find support to get through this. We need to bring down the anxiety of the unknown.”
Christina Pastan will lead virtual drop-in meditation on Thursdays at 12:30 p.m. through May 28. She will lead virtual yoga Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m. through April 28. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the elist.
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.