On and Off the Mat: Practicing Mindfulness at aUM Yoga Studio
A rapidly growing number of students can be spotted toting yoga mats around campus en route to one of the many studios that subsist in Ann Arbor. The city has more than 37 Ashtanga Vinyasa (a variety of yoga that synchronizes breath and movement through a set series of poses based on the Ashtanga series) studios alone, which represent a small sliver of the mecca that the state of Michigan serves as for those that practice yoga. aUM Yoga is among the newest — and some might say more unconventional — of these studios, but has grown immensely since its opening in 2013.
It was in September of 2013 that owner Jessie Lipkowitz, a University of Michigan alum, heard herself say the words “I want to open up a yoga studio” aloud, before opening what she called “baby aUM” in an 800-square-foot basement to just six customers. Since then, aUM — a play on the Sanskrit word “om” and the studio’s location — has moved into a 7,000-square-foot space on South University Avenue with more than 60 regular clients, most of whom are students.
When I first walked into aUM Yoga Studio, I became immediately aware that I was entering a unique space. A sign in the doorway asks clients to take off their shoes, physically inoculating the space against the outside world. That was back in January, when upon returning from Winter Break, I turned to aUM Yoga in an effort to manage the stress that I had felt building inside me for months.
My initial experience, however, wasn’t the meditative austerity I’d expected. It was far more casual. The bright tones and weathered wooden decor of the interior buzzed with a similar energy to that of students filing into class. Though students are reminded to maintain a “sacred silence” prior to and during class, gentle murmurs permeated the cozy room before the instructor greeted everyone warmly.
LSA senior Samantha Lincoln, a student of aUM Yoga’s Demystify Yoga Teacher Training program, described aUM as “different from a lot of other yoga studios” that she’s been to. “It’s a really great (environment),” Lincoln said. “Everyone is so friendly and welcoming.”
Before being thrust into a series of flows and positions I could barely maintain, I felt at ease — all while being reminded to consider my breathing (something I had abandoned early on in my efforts to contort my body). I was surprised by the challenge, and I left the class with a feeling like nothing I’d experienced before.
“You feel lighter,” Lincoln said, who, in her third month of training, is becoming increasingly familiar with the physical and mental benefits of the practice.
Yoga teaches non-reactivity, a principle that aUM Yoga emphasizes in its teacher training program and regular classes.
“When you’re doing this physical practice, the whole idea is that you need to be able to take it off the mat … whatever life throws at you, you want to be calm and rational in the face of it,” Lincoln explained.
Lipkowitz also described non-reactivity. “It’s being able to have an event happen and have completely no emotions towards that event until you can actually analyze it and immediately not react to it," Lipkowitz said. "I think that’s a huge part of taking yoga off the mat and just being a calmer, less reactive person.”
She also added that this concept translates to greater mindfulness and self-awareness, in turn allowing students to be kinder and more compassionate to themselves and to others. These mechanisms for coping with the pressures of life — whether trivial or major — on a regular basis are part of what makes the practice so unique. Though Lipkowitz also added that she’s experienced similar benefits from other forms of physical exercise, like running.
“I think yoga relies on the assumption that the human condition is that of suffering,” Lipkowitz said. “Everyone is suffering and we all walk these different paths where there’s trifles and adversity … we all as human beings have to cope with a lot, and all of our coping mechanisms are different.”
But she believes that non-reactivity is part of what helps students cope with adversities, be it mental or otherwise. Every semester, aUM Yoga offers two scholarships for student packages. More than 100 students submit applications, detailing their individual motivations for attending classes aUM. Many cite anxiety, depression and stress as their primary reasons for practicing yoga.
Lipkowitz trained at Center for Yoga and previously RussaYog (now permanently closed), which helped her envision the kind of studio where she would build her practice.
“Thinking back to my experience as an undergraduate — what would have gotten me to go to yoga — the first answer that came to mind was something that was a little bit less intimidating and a little more fun … but then the second thing that came to mind was community,” Lipkowitz said.
Lipkowitz was interested in targeting people who didn’t already practice yoga. At aUM Yoga, classes aren’t separated by level of intensity. Talking about her early experiences in yoga, Lipkowitz said, “I think it’s really easy in yoga, and in any fitness studio that you go to, to feel like an outsider … I think aUM was really successful in creating a market for new people to explore and try yoga.”
However, it isn’t always easy to get people to try yoga for the first time, or to even stick with the practice once they try it.
“Talking about bodies or doing weird things with bodies is taboo,” Lipkowitz said. “Even getting people to come in and trying to get them to connect with the breath is really difficult. I think a lot of people who come in here don’t really get this yoga thing starting out, but they still connect with it because it’s a physical practice.”
For some, like Lipkowitz, the mind-body connection doesn’t come right away.
“It took me years to find that connection,” she said. “But once you find that connection between breath and movement, I think that that’s really the power in yoga.”
Lincoln echoed this sentiment:
“You get this connection doing things that are physical and mental," said Lincoln. "I think at aUM they keep it very centered on mindfulness.”
Achieving mindfulness can become difficult when entering college, especially at a highly competitive school like the University of Michigan.
“I think it’s very much the culture here to do as much as possible, to be as successful as possible, to compete with everyone,” Lincoln said. “And at its core, yoga is a very non-competitive thing.”
Though finding this connection is challenging for most, Lincoln and Lipkowitz stated that the hour of time spent dedicated to self-care is a boon to mental and physical health in an environment where it isn’t always prioritized. Lipkowitz recalled that her time spent on fitness was edged out by her academic priorities when she was a student at the University. Similarly, Lincoln reflected on her time as a student, stating that she felt like there are never days off.
“It’s very much just about your body and what you can do,” Lincoln said of her experiences at UM. “The classes are a very noncompetitive environment. And you’re just taking time to take care of yourself and to just focus in on your thoughts.”
What aUM Yoga teaches students to take off the mat can’t be taught in an academic classroom, Lincoln stated.
“It’s not something you learn in school,” she remarked. “Even beyond what I could do to be successful or well liked, do I like myself? Am I doing things that are making the world a better place? Am I at peace with who I am?”
While it may take years for some to find the answers to these questions, and while it may not necessarily be through practicing yoga, aUM Yoga offers a sanctuary for students to go to and ruminate on their own personal well-being.
As Lipkowitz previously stated, yoga offers methods of coping with some issues, though it’s a personal path, and one that may be limited in what it offers to some more than others.
“I’m not going to say yoga cured any of my mental health issues,” Lincoln said. “I think it does help with body image a lot. There are kind of two sides to that. You start to be proud of what your body can do, rather than what it looks like. Also, you learn to forgive it for things.”
Lincoln continued: “It’s not like you do one yoga class and go, ‘Oh that cured my depression.’ I think if you’re doing it enough and focusing enough on your breathing and bringing that to other situations it kind of seeps out into the rest of your life.”
There is often a taboo associated with mental health. Lipkowitz acknowledged this stigma.
“You generally don’t talk about those things, (but that at aUM Yoga,) people are much more open and honest about how they’re feeling and just their general human experience more so than other fitness places or other businesses or other communities,” Lipkowitz said.
Lipkowitz stressed that it’s the culture at aUM Yoga that she hopes will continue to empower people to be compassionate by connecting not only their bodies and minds, but also with others.