Quantum Leap

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Six weeks before their course on quantum chemistry began, Melinda Huff, Amy Jaggie, and Amy Jeffrey, juniors at Fairmont State University in West Virginia, were having serious doubts about their ability to handle the material. Knowing they needed to complete the course in order to graduate, the students decided to share their concerns with professor Erica Harvey.

After some thought and discussion, Harvey hit upon the idea of adding yoga to the curriculum. As a longtime practitioner, Harvey believed the asanas would help the students feel less stressed. But she also suspected that the principles of the practice, which she knew had much in common with the principles of quantum chemistry, might improve their grasp of the classroom material. Harvey enlisted the help of Siegfried Bleher, a physicist and an Iyengar Yoga instructor at Inner Life Yoga Studio in Morgantown, West Virginia, who created a different sequence of asanas for every week of the course, each set designed to show the parallels between yoga and the chemical principles being taught.

Lying in Savasana, for example, was similar to an electron in its lowest energy state. For Jeffrey, a vinyasa sequence was inspiring: "We started off on the ground, built up to standing poses, and ended up back on the ground. This reminded me of an electron in the ground state absorbing energy, moving to an excited state, releasing that energy, and returning to the ground state."

Even without the parallels, the yoga practice was helpful. "If I was struggling with a concept or a problem," says Jeffrey, "I could perform the yoga sequences and many times—bam!—the answers would hit me like a ton of bricks." And, Jeffrey says, she invariably felt refreshed and more ready to tackle her heavy reading load.

Harvey noticed the changes as well. "My students were more playful and creative as they developed their understanding. It was wonderful to watch their ideas develop more sophistication." Harvey is teaching the class again this year, and though Jeffrey has completed the course, she still practices yoga. She says, "The principles we learned about breathing and control I've applied to other aspects of my life—whether it's taking a test or not being able to get my car started—to help me keep my cool."