Yoga in Universities

Promoting a Holistic Approach to Student Well-being

Having spent twenty years in Higher Education, both studying and lecturing in the UK and France, I have gradually gained an in-depth understanding of the student experience. Often this is overwhelmingly positive, providing young adults with a wealth of personal, and ultimately professional, opportunities. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge the many challenges posed by university life [n.a. 2013]. These are not only academic (taking greater responsibility for one’s own learning, managing one’s workload independently, coping with pressure to succeed), but also social (establishing new friendships, adapting to a new lifestyle) and personal (finding accommodation, dealing with new financial demands). Many universities, particularly in the UK, have excellent support structures in place and, with a little help, students often adjust to their new environment after the initial few weeks, going on to have a happy and productive time. For others, however, some challenges prove to be too great and they struggle to cope. In the last academic year, for instance, one British university received considerable media coverage as five of its students committed suicide in relatively close succession (Weale 2017). These recent tragedies have clearly increased awareness of the growing need for mental health and well-being support in universities. Happily, spending on mental health services in the UK Higher Education system is consequently on the increase (ibid.).

As the stigma attached to mental health issues is decreasing, the number seeking counselling at university has risen sharply in recent years (Yeung et al. 2016). Some students arrive at university with a previous history of mental illness; others struggle for some time and wait until they have reached a crisis situation before they seek help. In both such cases, certain conventional forms of counselling and psychotherapy are undoubtedly very appropriate means of helping them to cope and to recover; these are therefore a priority area for investment. However, in parallel, it would arguably be wise to invest equally in ‘preventive’ health initiatives, in order to help students who are currently well to avoid experiencing difficulties.

In this vein, some approaches in the fields of counselling and psychology adopt, and advocate, such strategies. The work of Carl Rogers, whose name is synonymous with the person-centred approach to counselling, which focuses on individual clients’ experiences and needs, is a case in point. Specifically, Rogers’ concept of ‘self-actualisation’ (1951/2015: 489) refers to the urge which humans have to grow, develop and reach their maximum potential. According to Rogers, this is present from birth and does not solely concern academic or professional achievement. Rather, it recognises human beings’ need to develop holistically, that is, physically, emotionally and spiritually. If this tendency is encouraged and fostered, individuals will be more likely to live happy, fulfilled lives and avoid reaching crises which can stem from both a lack of self-knowledge and an inability to cope with stressful situations.

This holistic approach to therapy shares indisputable similarities with the ancient practice of Yoga[1] , whose numerous health benefits are now broadly documented (Rodriguez 2015). As Fraser (2002: 8) aptly writes: ‘Yoga techniques begin with the physical health of the body as a route to improving the state of mental, emotional and ultimately spiritual well-being’. Indeed, the regular practice of Yoga -which combines physical postures, breathing techniques and meditation training – helps individuals to release physical tension, achieve a peaceful mind, improve their concentration and, over time, gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their surroundings, beyond everyday reality.[2]  In short, then, Yoga can help the practitioner to feel integrated, harmonious and complete and thereby deal with life’s challenges more serenely. As Brown (2009: 8) acknowledges: ‘As you learn about your centre in a Yoga pose, you practise finding your centre in other areas of your life. In fact, dealing with a posture can train you to deal better with life events’. Within a university context, increased investment in, and promotion of, Yoga as part of a holistic, and indeed preventive, well-being programme would invariably help our students to avoid distress, enjoy their time at university in a balanced way and, ultimately, develop into well-rounded, resilient adults.

[1] If biologists (Lipton 2008: 111) and positive psychologists (Joseph 2016: 18) now broadly recognise the intrinsic connection between the mind and body, Yogis have emphasised this for thousands of years.

[2] Yoga, along with other spiritual practices such as meditation and Reiki, is underpinned by the belief that we are not separate beings, but part of one universal cosmic consciousness (Hall 2003: 11; Steine 2014: 10).


Brown, Christina. 2009. The Yoga Bible: The definitive guide to yoga postures. London: Octopus.

Fraser, Tara. 2002. Yoga: exercises and inspirations for well-being. London: Duncan Baird.

Hall, Jean. 2003. Yoga: A practical, step-by-step guide to yoga postures. Leicester: Abbeydale Press.

Joseph, Stephen. 2016. Authentic: How to be yourself and why it matters. London: Piatkus.

Lipton, Bruce. 2008. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. London: Hay House.

n.a. [no author] 2013. ‘Top 10 problems faced by university students’ Available at: [Accessed 10th July 2017].

Rodriguez, Tori. 2015. ‘Yoga Can Improve Symptoms of Mental Illness’ Available at: [Accessed 12th July 2017].

Rogers, Carl. 1951/2015. Client-Centred Therapy. London: Robinson.

Steine, Frans. 2014. The Inner Heart of Reiki: Rediscovering Your True Self. Winchester: Ayni Books.

Weale, Sally. 2017. ‘Fifth Bristol University student takes own life this academic year’ Available at: [Accessed 10th July 2017].

Yeung, Peter, Weale, Sally, Perraudin, Frances. 2016. ‘University mental health services face strain as demand rises 50%’ Available at: [Accessed 14th July 2017].