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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mind and body health through the eyes of Davis yoga teacher, Tamara Vodovoz

Yoga can improve both your physical and mental health

 

By YASMEEN O’BRIEN — features@theaggie.org

 

An atmosphere of calm surrounds each student scattered across the padded yoga studio. Some sit still with their eyes closed, others are already beginning their stretches. Tamara Vodovoz, a yoga teacher of 14 years, stands in the front of the room setting up her blanket and yoga bricks. She begins by instructing the class to find a comfortable seating position, her voice soft and low. 

Vodovoz leads the group in what is called “relaxed mindful movement,” which combines yoga, mindfulness meditation and restorative stretching. 

“I never used to think of yoga as exercise, I thought it was basically just meditation,” fourth-year environmental science major Lindsey Gaul said. “But every day I see how yoga has improved my flexibility, made me stronger and helped lower my stress.”

It’s true — practices like these have been shown to have numerous health benefits including the improvement of diastolic blood pressure, upper body and trunk muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, perceived stress and health perception. 

Yoga gives us permission to feel. It gives us permission to connect with all parts of our body. It wakes us up,” Vodovoz said. She explains that yoga is not about being able to put your leg over your head — it’s about the way your mindset is altered. 

Her connection to the mental benefits of yoga goes back to her early experiences with the practice.

At the age of 17, she was introduced to yoga by her mother, who took Vodovoz to her first yoga class. She was immediately fascinated by it. They attended the class every week and started practicing at home as well. Vodovoz was also interested in meditation as a teenager as “kind of a personal exploration.” 

Vodovoz became a yoga teacher in the late 2000s as part of an expat women’s group in the West African country of Senegal. The group expressed their desire for yoga classes but had no one to teach. As someone who had been practicing yoga for years, she volunteered her services and started guiding yoga practices for the group. When Vodovoz returned to Davis in 2009, she signed up for her first yoga teacher training.

She lays on her side, propping her head up with her wrist, and fidgets with blades of grass. Her warm, brown eyes beam at me as she says, “Yoga has always been something I’ve been drawn to.”

Vodovoz was a graduate student at UC Davis, where she obtained a master’s degree and Ph.D. in veterinary medicine, but this career path quickly burned her out. In 2012, she decided that as soon as she finished her Ph.D. she was going to do what she had always wanted to do: travel the world, take yoga and massage courses, complete her teacher training and more.

“Every day, we think that we have to be better, we have to work harder. We have to strive to become this ideal that our parents or our society expect us to be. You can stay in that rat race until the day you die and never ever be happy with who you are, what you have or the relationships you have in your life,” Vodooz said. “Yoga really teaches us to love and accept everything exactly as it is right now. Happiness is available right now. And that anxiety of the rat race is a f***ing lie.”

She went on to share that her practice has really helped her with this mindset.

Not to mention, yoga has been proven to help you manage your stress. Yoga practices downregulate the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Essentially, this means that yoga reduces the cellular response to a molecule because of a decrease in the number of receptors on the cell surface, which suppresses our response to a stimulus.

For example, when presented with a stressful situation, consistent yoga practice tells our brains to limit our response to stress chemicals, like adrenaline or cortisol, being released, which would reduce feelings of stress and other bodily stress responses. Vodovoz embodies this result.

“After I take one of [Vodovoz’s] classes I can feel my stress and anxiety about school melt away,” said fourth-year ecology student Simone Haggerty. “Yoga helps me keep my peace.”

Vodovoz is no stranger to struggle. Her paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Romania who immigrated to Colombia when her father was three years old. Her mother is Indigenous Colombian — which also includes Spanish and West African heritage. 

Her parents moved to the United States where her father attended graduate school, and the pair went on to get married. Vodovoz was born in the U.S., but moved to Colombia as a young child and grew up there. She attended veterinary school out of high school before coming back to the U.S. for graduate school. She has lived in Davis since 2005 and visits her parents in Colombia frequently. 

“I’m an oddball,” she laughed. “I’ve never been married. I’ve never had children. Probably won’t do any of those things.”

She shares that her life has been fulfilling in other ways, yoga being one of the most important. The mental peace it gives her is unparalleled.

“I don’t have a particular mantra,” Vodovoz said, “But I’ve had times where I do. Nowadays, honestly, it’s just ‘get up and do my best.’”

When she returned from her year of traveling after her Ph.D., she applied to lab and veterinary medicine jobs, but each interview left her feeling empty, inadequate and dreading the day she’d have to work there. 

One day after talking with an old professor, she walked by the ARC and decided to ask about a yoga teaching job. Within a couple of weeks, she was doing just that.

“We can sit here and imagine what could have, should have been. But I think that we have to make smart choices to take care of ourselves first,” Vodovoz said. “Yoga was the way I knew how to take care of myself.”

 

Written by: Yasmeen O’Brien — features@theaggie.org