by Sarah Nathanson


New College, it’s halfway through the winter term. Reading Week just passed, but let me guess — you, like me, spent all week holed up in a room somewhere catching up on essays. When was the last time you took a breath? Have you checked in with your body recently? How tense are your muscles from hunching over your computer seven days a week?

We’ve all been to schoolwork spiral city — believe me, I’m there right now — but New College has a fabulous program to help with your writing AND your breathing. Every Thursday, in room 2008 in your very own Wilson Hall, there are 20—–minute meditation sessions available for free before Writing Room drop-in sessions (sponsored by the Office of Residence and Student Life and the New College Writing Centre). Thanks to Sheila Stewart (a Women and Gender Studies professor who coordinates the Writing Room at New College) and Zachary Johnson (a fourth-year Psychology specialist) every student at NEW has access to a weekly stress buster.

Two people standing and smiling in front of a chalkboard.

Pictured: Zachary Johnson and Sheila Stewart.

New College Gets Mindful

Stewart started the program in 2017, and we covered it right here on the website. As a professor and a staple at the Writing Room, Stewart knows how difficult it can be to start essays and homework. Students often seek help in a state of anxiety, which just ends up blocking the creative process. This space was her attempt to bring awareness of the body and mind to a high-pressure environment like the one we experience at U of T.

Since she incorporated mindful meditation into the Writing Room, the program has become even more cohesive and student-oriented. With shorter sessions, more coordinators and friendly faces, the meditation sessions are more accessible than ever. On top of that, the program will soon be open to faculty and staff of New College, which means that networking is an added bonus!

A Session, Deconstructed

I attended a session led by student contributor Johnson, who’s been meditating for 10 years and has a special interest in Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health (one of his minors). I was a complete beginner going into the session, but even among a few regulars, Stewart and Johnson made me feel relaxed and welcome. They received me with a smile and assurances that I would be guided through every step of the process — and reminded me that, of course, everybody in the room had been a beginner at one point. Johnson invited us all to check in with ourselves and led us through a relaxed, full-body scan.

Let me assure you — for some reason, little seems as relaxing as sitting quietly in a room and losing yourself (and your worries) in the dulcet tones of a Psych student. Afterwards, I really felt as though tension had been released from my shoulders and back. While meditating certainly didn’t solve my pile of essay problems, I did feel more equipped to tackle them myself. Even the snow didn’t feel quite so foreboding!

When we came out of a mindful state, Johnson invited us to share how the exercise felt, and if we could compare it to other exercises he had taken the group through. I was pleased to hear regulars enthusiastically describing their attempts to incorporate this type of mindfulness into their schedule (as Johnson reminded us: practicing brings us the largest benefits).

A close up of a pink lotus flower from the side.

Even if you’re feeling anxious or low, take advantage of what New College has to offer. If you’re unsure if it’s for you, take a moment after you read this to close your eyes and breathe deeply — does your body have any tension? Are you getting nervous about exams? Do you need to be productively distracted for a little while? If the answer is yes (or if you can’t answer because your calendar says that you’re just too busy) — go, and enjoy the feeling of shedding your worries for 20 minutes on a Thursday.