Nikki Freeman led puppy and kitten yoga sessions during summer camp at Wayside Waifs animal shelter in Kansas City.

At her core, Nikki Freeman is an educator. Fusing her traditional teaching role with her fitness instructor side has helped her bring everything into balance.

Freeman is an associate professor in the Communications Department at the University of Central Missouri, focusing on organizational communications, overseeing the speech side of the UCM speech and debate team and working with speech and theater education students, among other duties. She also is a group fitness instructor at Total Fitness Gym.

“Exercise and fitness has always been a part of my life, but I don’t think I actually understood how all-encompassing it was until just a few years ago,” she said.

She joined Total Fitness after moving to Sedalia from northern Iowa and began attending group fitness sessions, snagging spots in the back row so she could blend in. As she got more comfortable, her passion for fitness grew and some of the instructors approached her about leading classes. She taught Zumba and other cardio-based classes but noticed that the gym offered “high-intensity classes but not a lot in the middle.” Freemen decided to study and lead sessions in PiYo, a pilates-yoga fusion class, which led her to pursue yoga.

“That has really been a special journey for me,” she said. “Yoga has been the thing that has brought it all together in my mind. Right now, there is an increase in stress levels, in anxiety levels, in mental health (issues) and I see it in my students.”

As Freeman was pursuing her doctorate, she realized the mental rigor, intensity, and emotional toll it all was taking on her. That was while she pursued yoga and PiYo.

“That is when it all started to click for me: Exercise is not just about the physical movement of the body. Exercise is about holistic wellness,” she said. “I started to see the connection between the mind and the body, and how much exercise can impact the mind and your mental state. That is one of the things I really love about yoga is it really does focus on that mind-body connection.”

Seeing how frequently her peers and students seemed overwhelmed, Freeman introduced yoga breathing exercises in her college classes. She starts class sessions with deep, intentional breathing, slowing students’ minds down so they can focus on what they are about to discuss.

“It has completely changed the dimension of some of my classes and it has been awesome to see that because I didn’t know if they would enjoy that,” she said. Now, students ask if they can start class with the exercises and many have said they employ the techniques outside of class to help them focus.

While Freeman has given her students tools to help manage stress, one of them gave her an opportunity to enhance her passion for advocacy. The student worked at Wayside Waifs, a Kansas City no-kill shelter and pet adoption service. Wayside also offers a summer day camp that focuses on “animal welfare topics, animal-related careers, and … the importance of practicing compassion, self-control, and responsibility with animals and people,” according to its website (waysidewaifs.org). When the student said Wayside wanted to add yoga involving puppies and kittens, Freeman jumped at the chance to “encourage people to engage in wellness in a subtle way.”

The campers would sit on their mats and begin intentional breathing, creating a quieter environment, then the puppies and kittens were turned loose to explore the room.

“The most challenging part was when there are adorable puppies and kittens running around, you would rather focus on that than the yoga poses. But we had so much fun with it,” Freeman said.

While the sessions included many yoga poses with animal-related names, it also featured some warrior-themed poses. Freeman said it was a way to think of “warrior” in a different context, like “being a warrior for compassion, being a warrior for others, being a warrior for justice.”

“It was a nice little lesson in advocacy and wellness with adorable animals running around,” she added. “It was a way to subtly work in good components to live by: ‘Let’s take care of each other, let’s help each other out, let’s be compassionate to those around us.’ We were weaving in life lessons in an active and engaging environment.”

Freeman stresses how grateful she is for everyone at Total Fitness who encouraged her to step up and how the gym frequently takes part in community outreach.

“This has opened a lot of doors and given me opportunities to fuse wellness together with education and civic advocacy,” she said. “Before, there was a professional job side of Nikki and a fitness instructor side. Now they are blending, and it has been awesome to see how they really go hand-in-hand.”

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