Free Furlough Yoga

March 26, 2010

Inner peace is a little harder to come by than usual these days, given the economic collapse and all. That's true even in California, where the state's political and budget troubles have compelled major cutbacks at public colleges and universities and turned up the stress levels on campuses in what is arguably the country's most Zen state.

But for at least an hour every Wednesday, one classroom on the campus of the Northridge campus of California State University is a haven from the class reductions, halted constructions and staff furloughs that have come to be the new way of life there.

Welcome to Free Furlough Yoga, a small part of the university's efforts to soften the psychological and emotional toll of the State Budget Closure Program.

Brittny McCarthy, Northridge's director of government relations, got the brainstorm after listening to the university's president, Jolene Koester, tell a group of faculty and staff members about the administration's approach to cutting its budget. Koester explained all the facts about how the furloughs would work and how much tuition would rise. But what struck McCarthy most, she says, was Koester's emphasis on the human side of the situation.

"She reminded us all that we needed not only to be professional with one another, but to find ways to be kind to one another, because all of us are in the same tough situation," McCarthy says. "I thought to myself, 'What could I do, outside of my regular work, that would be kind in that way?' "

McCarthy -- who, though a relatively recent arrival in California, fits right in -- teaches yoga on the side, and proposed that she lead a class, free, for faculty and staff members. Debra Rozanski, who coordinates the Employee Assistance Program for Northridge's human resources department, saw the idea as a complement to some of the other things the program was doing to blunt the impact of the economic crisis on employees' lives.

The program, which as part of its normal operations offers support groups and wellness programs, has added a series of workshops on such topics as managing debt, the ethics of philanthropy in hard times, and talking to one's kids about money troubles.

Northridge officials aren't under any illusion that providing a bunch of support services to employees will make up for the fact that the university has taken from them some very tangible things -- notably, pay, as the 20-24 days of furloughs take a major bite out of employees' checks. But "if we can’t do a lot for the budget situation, we can help people get through it," says Bob Foldesi, the associate vice president for human resources.

Rozanski says that when McCarthy suggested adding a free yoga class to the employee assistance program's offerings, "she was very, very genuine in her desire to step up to the plate at a time when the university was asking all of its employees for a lot."

"We decided to go ahead and try a couple of classes, and there was such a tremendous response that we've continued it," Rozanski says.

Though the class is dubbed "Free Furlough Yoga," it takes place not on the heavy furlough days of Monday and Friday, but on Wednesdays, when most people are on the campus -- getting people in traffic-heavy L.A. to travel on a day they don't otherwise have to made no sense.

So for an hour over the lunch hour, several dozen faculty and staff members -- in workout clothes, devoid of potential indicators of rank and status -- practice pranayama (yogic breathing), asanas (the basic postures and poses), and various stretching exercises. Some are yoga regulars, others first-timers. During savasana, the final, five-minute relaxation pose, it's not uncommon for participants to doze off, relaxed in a way that they rarely are at work -- let alone at work during an economic downturn of this magnitude.

Sheena Malhotra, associate professor and chair of the gender and women's studies department, has been a regular participant in McCarthy's class, and says it is among the highlights of her week. "I don't think anybody would say that one makes up for the other" -- that offering a free yoga class offsets the furloughs and other cutbacks.

"But it was a small gesture of caring," she says, that probably redounds to Northridge's benefit indirectly, reinforcing the view -- seemingly shared by many on the campus -- that the university has managed the financial difficulties better than many of its peers.

"You leave the room with this pretty nice feeling -- peaceful, stretched, pretty well oxygenated," Malhotra says. "You have this feel-good sense around you when you're leaving, and because you're doing it in that setting and it's sponsored by the university, you could almost say that by extension the feeling does create a sense of well-being and community.

"There's an intangible there."

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