Farrand RAP instructor aims to make connections and inspire confidence through yoga
Skateboards thunder by on the sidewalk. Laughter and shouting resound from Farrand field. Frenetic activity abounds just outside the open windows of the sun-drenched classroom. But inside, there is serenity and calm as Michele Simpson instructs her students to breathe.
“I’d like to invite you now to become mindful,” she says with the soothing tone of a meditation. “To bring all the various parts of you into the room.”
She encourages them to concentrate on breathing despite encroaching desires to return a friend’s text message or head to the grab-n-go for dinner. Breathe in.
I make it a point to spend time with students outside of class. I love developing those relationships and yoga is one of the ways to do that.”
“All of those noises that are a part of our experience at Farrand, we acknowledge the sounds and let them pass,” she says. Breathe out.
As a senior instructor in the Farrand Residential Academic Program (RAP), which emphasizes the study of the humanities, Simpson is usually found teaching courses such as Gender, Sexuality and Pop Culture, Passport to the Humanities, and Ethical Puzzles and Moral Conflicts.
But this afternoon, the stress of the day is put on hold for an hour, for yoga. Having practiced the ancient art for more than 30 years, Simpson began teaching free yoga courses on campus over 10 years ago.
“I realized there was an appetite for it and that students were interested in the benefits yoga provides,” Simpson says, reflecting after the session. But the class serves another important purpose—connection.
“I make it a point to spend time with students outside of class,” she says. “I love developing those relationships and yoga is one of the ways to do that.”
She hopes that as students journey through their college education they are able to integrate classroom learning with tangible experience.
“You learn that when you are stressed you tighten,” Simpson says, providing an example of applying yogic principles to school. “In a test, you are reminded to let go of the tension you are holding in your jaw or your shoulders. You learn how to work out tightness from being on a computer too long.”
The class also provides an emotional outlet for students who are feeling anxious.
“I wanted to do yoga with her because I knew it would be relaxing,” says Alli Avery, a first-year student in Farrand RAP. “It’s stressful at school right now with new beginnings and hard classes.”
Avery appreciates the opportunity to spend time with her teacher outside of class. “We can get know her more as a person and it relates to how she teaches the class because she is so well-rounded,” Avery says.
In addition to the experience of getting to practice downward dog alongside faculty, the class has a unique makeup including more students of color and men than the average Boulder yoga studio.
“Typically, we have students of color here, all types of bodies and all types of experiences,” Simpson says. “I know what it’s like to be the one black person in a yoga class. I never want anyone to come in the room feeling they don’t belong here.”
Indeed, her class fliers posted around the hallways say that yoga is for every body. And every person is invited. The free class takes place at 4:30 every Tuesday and is open to all, not just Farrand residents.
Anthropology instructor Laura DeLuca, who attends Simpson’s class, says Simpson has a real sense of students’ individual needs, especially students of color. “What I think is really wonderful is having that intersection of living, learning and mindfulness right in their space.”
Simpson adds: “It’s about opening up to the idea that yoga is for all of us. It’s about going places where we don’t usually permit ourselves to go – that’s the medicine.” For that reason, the class appeals to all levels of learner with a focus on creating space within the body.
“I would not teach a class that was restrictive,” Simpson says. “I think carefully about what movements I have people doing because I want it to be available to everyone.”
Yogis use the phrase “root down to rise up” to ground the body and mind so a pose can develop from a strong foundation, much like a tree unfurls its branches. Simpson uses this philosophy in all aspects of educating her students.
“In my ethics courses, we discuss virtues, self-regulating qualities involving our interactions with others beings and the world at large,” she says, explaining that yoga is more than simply a series of poses. “What are ethics if not what we call ‘yoga off the mat’?”
Teaching yoga has made Simpson a better instructor as well as enriched the CU experience for both her and her students. “It’s not just something good to do,” she says. “It’s something I love to do.”