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Sydney Gwilliam said she strives to replace comparison with connection during her individualized yoga program for students,

A silhouette girl performing a yoga pose with the ocean and a sunset in the background.
An example of a yoga pose.

The sound of mats being rolled out, the chatter of students and background music all mingled together as the soft glow of the setting sun queued the start of the BYU–Hawaii yoga class.

Yoga instructor Sydney Gwilliam, a senior from Utah majoring in business management, said she mentally prepares for class by arriving early to set the mood. When she arrives, she said she turns off the lights, stretches and most importantly, starts the music. Gwilliam’s playlist she uses for each class is a collection of songs she received from trusted past yoga instructors, she explained.

This mental preparation, she said, helps her to be in touch with her students and provide them with respite from the daily stress of their lives through deep meditation and yoga.

Brandyn Akana, head of Seasider Sports & Student Activities, said, “Whether it is mental, physical or spiritual, Seasider Sports and Activities’ mission is to help students succeed at BYUH and improve their overall well-being.”

Gwilliam said the spiritual and mental benefits of yoga help fulfill this mission. She encouraged any student at any level of yoga experience to receive these benefits by simply trying it out, she shared. “I really love being able to create a space for people to be vulnerable with themselves and to try. I love, as an instructor, seeing people try.”

When she first started, she said students sometimes showed up 30 minutes early to get a spot in one of her two weekly classes, so she added more classes to allow more students to participate. Her classes are now Tuesday through Thursday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the dance studio in the McKay Gym.

A determined spirit

Gwilliam said she came back to BYUH after the pandemic with the determination to start a yoga program. She said this was important to her because “Yoga is more than just a workout. It is a way to cope with the challenges of life.”

Akana said his department was looking for ways to be inclusive for all students and their interests, so when Gwilliam came to him in early June of 2021 with the idea to start a yoga program, he said, “It was music to my ears.”

Gwilliam added she wanted to start a yoga program as a service to the students. “It’s truly what helps connect people to each other. It’s what helps people connect with themselves.”

Akana said yoga fits perfectly into their program as a way to reach out to all of the students and benefit their lives.

Both Gwilliam and Akana said they were surprised at how popular the yoga class became. Akana said, “Yoga has exploded for the students.”

Yoga with a purpose

Sarah Sokolowski, a sophomore from California majoring in political science, said the yoga class helps her because of Gwillian’s technique to have each person focus on their own individual goal for the practice throughout the whole class. She clarified the goal can be mental or physical.

Audrey Kent, a sophomore from California majoring in social work and peacebuilding, said yoga is what helps her feel better in her personal and academic life each week. “It helps with all of my other classes,” she added.

Akana said he ultimately agreed to help Gwilliam start the yoga class to help students achieve their academic goals.

Spreading the love

Gwilliam said a great yoga instructor affects an individual’s love of yoga. She added she started yoga because it gave her a place to belong and a way to feel better about herself.

She said she became certified at The Yoga Underground in Utah after serving her mission in Nashville, Tennessee. After becoming certified, Gwilliam said she worked as an instructor at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Utah before coming to BYUH. She added she wants to open her own studio in the future because being an instructor at BYUH has shown her she wants to continue teaching.

She said she specifically wants to teach people the skills they need to cope with any difficulties they are going through, whether it be trauma, loneliness, stress or any other trials in their life.

Focused on the individual

Gwilliam said she has incorporated techniques from an inspirational instructor she learned from in her own yoga classes. For example, she said she covers the mirror in the studio so people are not focused on how they look, but rather on how they feel.

In addition, instead of instructing at the front of the classroom, she said she walks around so students do not compare themselves to her. She wants students to know whatever level they are at is perfect as long as they are trying, she explained, adding these techniques create an atmosphere void of judgment and comparison.

She said she modifies her verbal instruction according to what her students need that day. “It’s very much a personal experience. That’s what I love about yoga.” These adjustments, she said, allow her students to focus on themselves.

Kent said Gwilliam’s yoga class has inspired her to try her best because she always invites her students to think of a change they want to see in their life during the class.

For a video of Sydney Gwilliam and the free yoga classes, click here: