At a little before eight in the morning, the multipurpose room in the Elmen Center slowly filled with students. They were bleary eyed, bundled up and most had just rolled out of bed. A few looked at their phones, scrolling blankly through feeds and stories.
The door slammed shut. The students, lying on their backs, jerked up and faced the wide windows. Phones disappeared. Sweatshirts were discarded—with the wrestlers cranking the heat in the multipurpose room to help cut weight, it only took one class to figure out sun salutations are best done when you dress in layers.
Nancy Dickinson stood at the front of the room, smiling. With no warning, she started quoting a Lewis Carroll poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” to the class.
A couple brows creased, and a few gazes extended for miles. Moments later, Dickinson laughed, admonishing the students for not knowing their Alice in Wonderland. She then ushered them up onto their feet into tadasana, the mountain pose.
“Today,” she said, “is power yoga.”
Dickinson is the type of person that is unabashedly, boldly herself. She’s a force, especially at 8 a.m. She’s got a pixie cut with a few stray hairs reaching towards the heavens, and what seems to be a permanent grin on her face. On the occasion that she isn’t smiling, laugh lines take over. She’s dressed practically and looks identical to every other woman in the room: leggings, t-shirt, and painted toenails. Her toes are a dark red, and when she stands on her teal mat, they’re a pop of unexpected color.
Dickinson taught at Augustana for over 35 years and has been teaching yoga for recreational services since the 1980s. In 2000, physical education classes at Augustana were moving away from team sports and Dickinson, already a certified yoga instructor, threw her hat in the ring.
Since getting the okay from the administration in early 2001, Dickinson has been teaching hatha yoga for credit every semester and J-term. Despite the early start time, it has been consistently filled ever since.
Dickinson remains humble about the popularity of her class.
“It’s a nice break from three or four credit classes or some lab thing,” she said.
Junior Cheyenne Chontos was a yoga student of Dickinson’s, and feels like more than anything, Dickinson is to be credited with how well the course is doing.
“I actually practice yoga often and I seek out classes, which I never would have done [before] because I would have been outside my comfort zone,” Chontos said. “I feel more self-assured, not only in yoga, but in my physical being.”
“I can see why this is such a popular class and why she is so popular,” Chontos continued. “I get it. I have recommended it to literally everyone I know.”
The self-assuredness and confidence that Dickinson instills in her students is intentional. She tries her best to make yoga sessions enjoyable. This usually involves, especially in the morning, a healthy dose of humor.
Senior Haley Plucheck appreciates the giggles that Dickinson fits in between downward dogs.
“My favorite thing about Nancy is that during our sessions she always does the Eight Silken Brocades, and every time she does it she knows that some of us feel very uncomfortable doing it—basically you just punch the air and let out pent up frustrations—and she does it really loudly so we don’t feel so intimidated, and then she giggles about it, which makes us all feel better,” Plucheck said.
As integral to Dickinson’s philosophy as humor, and one of the eight principles of movement for hatha yoga is the idea of ‘no new pain.’ It is a phrase that Dickinson repeats multiple times per class, and she offers alterations of moves to enable her students to practice pain free.
Dr. Janet Blank-Libra, a former colleague in the English department and friend of Dickinson, understands the importance of this concept.
“When I first tried yoga, I tried it on my own,” Blank-Libra said. “I was trying to achieve a stronger sense of well-being and peacefulness, a way to calm the mind during stressful times. I turned to yoga both as a way to work my body physically, but also as a way to create a meditative experience. And so, when I first tried yoga, I went to Yoga in the Park at McKennan Park.”
After an hour-long yoga session in the park, Blank-Libra returned home to realize she was in pain.
“I called Nancy and said, ‘I’m in a lot of pain,’ and she said she needed to see what I had done, and so I showed her the moves that we were supposed to do, and she showed me the corrections. Of course, I had overextended, and I’d done things wrong, and Nancy showed me how to do the moves right,” Blank-Libra said.
Dickinson works to make yoga accessible to everyone. In her classes, the lessons she spends the most time on are breathing and relaxing in the sponge position. The sponge position is important because it allows a vulnerability and detached consciousness, according to Dickinson. Breathing is important because it enables anyone to practice yoga.
“I think that the breathing, and coordinating the breathing with calming yourself is just as important as how deep you can go in a posture. I’m constantly reminding people of my own limitations, and it doesn’t matter—I can still do yoga,” Dickinson said.
Dickinson began practicing yoga in the 70s. She would watch Lilias Folan’s 30 minute sessions on public television.
Folan, Dickinson remembered, was iconic in the 70s.
“She had long, long hair, and she had it back in a braid down her back and a black leotard,” Dickinson said. “This was really cutting-edge stuff for public TV in the 70s.”
In the late 1970s, Dickinson began teaching English at Augustana. She hated the molded plastic chairs that still grace the Humanities, and would make sure students received a reprieve from them.
“I would be teaching composition class and everybody would be sliding down in those chairs. So, I’d stop class and we’d do stretching and breathing exercises and things like ‘separating heaven from earth,’ and I was just incorporating that kind of thing into my English classes,” she said.
“People started to expect it, actually,” Dickinson continued. “‘Aren’t we going to stretch today?’ Of course, that’ll waste seven minutes that we don’t have to be up at the board diagramming a sentence or something.”
Dickinson’s passion for teaching and compassion for students is evident in the way she talked about her experiences. She chuckled as she remembered her grammar classes from her earlier career. Before she taught at Augustana, Dickinson taught secondary education in Wisconsin.
“In my very first years of teaching, I taught middle school and junior high, and so you put little stars and stickers on the tests. So in grammar class [at Augustana], if you had an A, I’d put a star on the paper,” Dickinson said.
“I had a girl in grammar class, and she couldn’t get anything above a 70 to save her soul, and she’d come in all the time, and I’d be doing private tutoring with her,” she continued. “One day, she got a star on her grammar quiz, and she stood up, and I’m handing back quizzes, and she stood up and showed the whole class, ‘Look, I got a star on my quiz.’”
Katie Foutz, an Augustana alum with a degree in English and journalism, remembered taking the aforementioned grammar class at 8 a.m., and acknowledged that it was Dickinson’s approach to the class that made it enjoyable.
“She had a real sense of humor and a lot of energy,” Foutz said.
That energy, however, didn’t stop Dickinson from being strict when necessary. Dr. Daniel Gerling, who eventually took over Dickinson’s job as director of the Augustana Writing Center, had an office next door to her. During his first couple years at Augustana, he would listen in on the conferences she had with students.
“These troubled students would come in and she would say, ‘You missed this meeting with the tutor, why did you miss this meeting?’” Gerling said. “The student would be like, ‘Uh, I just forgot about it,’ and she’d be like, ‘Why did you forget about it? Where’s your planner?’ The student would be like ‘I don’t have a planner,’ and she would be like, ‘Why don’t you have a planner?’ And then she’d usually give them a planner and would make sure that they were equipped.”
“She’s the sweetest person in the world, and has such a positive and radiant energy,” Gerling said. “When she was working with a troubled student, I think she knew that that energy didn’t go very far, and that she needed to be stern and she needed to be strict, and she needed to come down on these students and show them exactly what they needed to do. And it worked. I think she went a long way towards saving a lot of students’ careers here.”
Gerling also credits her for making the Writing Center what it is today: a revered, respected institution that, thanks to Dickinson’s hard work, could hire students from all disciplines, not only the English department.
Whether Dickinson is teaching prepositional phrases or sun salutations, the impact she has on people is the same. She has a passion for bettering the whole of a person.
“[Dickinson] has strong beliefs and she is willing to act on them. She is a person of integrity,” Blank-Libra said. “I think that her desire to help others live fulfilling lives is part of what led her to yoga. Through her teaching of yoga, she is able to help other people achieve things that they want for themselves.”
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